Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Editor Jonathan Karp

Jofie Ferrari-Adler
From the November/December 2009 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

What do those experiences teach you as an editor?
They taught me that you're going to fail more often than you succeed. They taught me that you have to pick your shots. It's one of the reasons why we've been very careful about the fiction we're publishing at Twelve. I really want to be able to tell people, "This is rare. This is special. This is significant." I think it's much harder to get people to read fiction. We're only publishing one novel in 2010. It's called Rich Boy and it's by a creative writing teacher at the University of Michigan named Sharon Pomerantz. She's won four Hopwood Prizes. Again, she's been working on this book for ten years, and it's one of these novels where characters reveal things that, in your own life, people never say out loud. I was completely caught up in it. It's got great verisimilitude and feeling, and I just love the way secrets are revealed. I think it was Ian McEwan who said that the key to successful fiction is the way in which you reveal the information. In Rich Boy the information is revealed quite artfully.

But I think literary fiction is the toughest to publish. The other thing I will say, which I don't think people talk about enough—not to complain—is just how hard it is to be a guy publishing fiction. Because there is a gender gap. I think more than 70 percent of fiction is bought by women. It ties you up in knots, in a way, because you want to publish the books that you can identify with and relate to. I'd like to believe that I can identify with and relate to the things that women care about, but I can never be sure. [Laughter.] And, at times, I'm trepidatious, because I think, "Well, if this is a man writing about a woman, then we've got two strikes against us." If it's a woman writing about a man, which is actually the case with Rich Boy, I'm all set to go. I read it and thought, "She's writing about a lot of guys I know. I know that it's real because I feel like I know these people. And the fact that a woman can do it makes me think that other women will agree and appreciate it." But I do think it's tricky because obviously there are so many more women in publishing, and so many more really good fiction editors who are women, that you're almost immediately at a disadvantage if you're a guy who wants to publish fiction. It all comes back, I think, to my very first experience editing fiction, with Joni Evans coming through the elevator and basically picking me because I was the only guy she could find. I think about that a lot.

I also think there are a lot of complexities to fiction. The kinds of novels that many discerning editors want to publish are not easy to sell. They're not sure things. I mean, a lot of my favorite recent novels—The Corrections, Middlesex, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Emperor's Children—are not books that are immediate or natural best-sellers. So you really have to get very lucky, and you can't count on review attention to the extent that you used to. Even if you get the review attention, you can't expect the same kind of consensus that I think you get with nonfiction reviews, because, for some reason, it just seems easier to be objective about nonfiction.

Ideally I'd like to publish big social realism that is relevant to the moment but has enduring value. I wish that I could find a Garp or a contemporary analogy to something like The Jungle, a book that influenced the political debate and had lasting cultural influence. I think that Christopher Buckley, in his own way, is doing that with books like Thank You for Smoking and Boomsday. I wish I could find more writers in that vein. But I also think there's only so much the culture can absorb. I started out by telling you how much of an influence Philip Roth was on me. I loved the Zuckerman trilogy. I loved American Pastoral. But here is a confession: I can't keep up with Philip Roth. This is a guy who was a seminal influence on me, and I can't keep up with everything he's written. I've got three Roth novels on my shelf that I just haven't gotten to. So I can't help thinking that if I'm having trouble keeping up with all the really good fiction out there, a lot of other readers are, too.

I have a prediction. I predict that the new Lorrie Moore novel is going to be huge. And here's why: pent-up demand. This is a woman who has held her tongue, and I am dying to buy that Lorrie Moore book. I will buy that book the first week it comes out. I will pay the full retail price in cold American cash. And I predict big best-sellerdom. I don't know Lorrie Moore and I'm not involved with the book. It's just an opinion.

You've also edited a lot of celebrities. Any good stories?
I don't know if you would rank him as a celebrity, but when I was growing up, one of my heroes was Rupert Holmes, who is best known as the creator and singer of "The Piña Colada Song." But he's also won practically every award known to man: the Academy Award, the Grammy, the Emmy, Tonys. He wrote the book, music, lyrics, and orchestration for The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

My very first day at Random House—I was twenty-five years old—I wrote a letter to Rupert Holmes that said, "I will publish anything you want to do." Several years later, he called me up and said he'd like to write a book. So we met, and Ann Godoff and Harry Evans let me sign up Rupert Holmes without a single word on paper. He had come up with an idea for a novel about a serial killer, I think. I didn't know what it was. I didn't care. I just wanted to publish Rupert Holmes.

Seven years went by before he turned it in. But when he finally did, it was wonderful. It's really, to this day, one of my favorite novels of all time. It's called Where the Truth Lies, and it posits a theory that the real reason why a comedy team like Martin and Lewis broke up is because there was a dead girl at a casino in Vegas where they were playing. And it goes off from there. It's just this elaborately devious, rococo tour through 1970s celebrity culture, with an utterly suspenseful mystery plot that keeps you wondering who the killer is until the very end. And it got great reviews. It became an Atom Egoyan movie. And I wish more people would read it. It did respectably, but I think people would love this book. 

Rupert has said so many funny things over the course of his career. Whenever he describes a person he doesn't think much of, he says, "She has unexplored shallows." He describes life as "a rat race heading for a mousetrap." He's my favorite celebrity, and I'm still working with him.

On a new book?
On a new novel. Which I expect him to deliver some time in the next seven years.

You left Random House briefly to go work for the film producer Scott Rudin. Why did you leave, and what happened there?
I worked in the movie business for seven weeks. I left because I was bored. I'd been at Random House for twelve years, and I wanted a new challenge. I was under the impression that movies had more cultural influence than books, and since I saw myself as basically somebody who was editing storytellers, it didn't seem to matter what medium I was editing the stories in. I had worked in journalism, which was a kind of storytelling. I'd worked in publishing. I just thought, "I'd like to learn how stories are told cinematically."

Scott Rudin was the best producer in New York. I'd liked a lot of his movies. So when I heard there was an opening, I went after the job and he said, "Just come here and do what you did at Random House." When I got there I was very surprised to discover that, actually, in terms of writing, books are more culturally central. Maybe that shouldn't have come as such a surprise to me, but I learned pretty quickly that film is a director's medium and that, as an editor working with writers, I wouldn't be able to do what I did at Random House. I wouldn't be able to sign up people as easily and develop their work and really have it wind up on the page and ultimately with the public. Once I realized that, I decided to get out of there and go right back to Random House, where I still had my authors.

But I knew I would be back at Random House. At my going-away party I said, "I'll be back." I didn't expect to be back in seven weeks. [Laughter.] I thought I would be back in five years, or ten years, after doing movies. But I fully intended to come back. I was embarrassed that it didn't work out, and I was also a little bit surprised by the result of my leaving and coming back. I was worried that people would take me less seriously as an editor because I'd done this frivolous Hollywood sojourn, but, in fact, I got even better submissions once I got back. I think maybe it reminded people I was alive. Maybe they respected the fact that I'd taken a chance. But the bottom line is that it actually turned out to be a great thing for my time at Random House. And I never looked back after that. I never thought seriously about movies or Hollywood again.

The other thing about it is that I thought—because there's such public fascination with movies and Hollywood, because more people see movies than buy books, because it's easier to absorb a two-hour story visually than it is to read something for ten or fifteen hours—I thought I could have more impact. I also thought that writers would gravitate to film and that I'd be able to learn more because so many people are attracted to it. What I was surprised to learn was that it's not a curiosity driven art form, for the most part—documentaries are the exception—and because the storytelling has to appeal to a mass audience, you can't necessarily go as deep or explore your curiosity as much as you'd like to. And again, maybe that sounds naïve. But I was surprised by it.

The other thing I realized is that the creative decisions on the business end were being made with a very young demographic in mind—largely teenage boys or men in their twenties. I was in my early thirties at that point, so I was already edging out of that demographic, and I realized that the need to serve a demographic that you didn't necessarily identify with might be one of the reasons why Hollywood can seem like such an irrational, capricious place. Because people are fundamentally insecure about serving an audience that they are not a part of. When I thought about why I loved Random House so much, it was because I was publishing books for people who shared my sensibility. And I think that's what will always remain great about publishing as an endeavor. Although certain books can achieve great mass influence, most books are published by people for people with whom they identify. That's a big thing. That's what gives you the confidence and the passion to do what you do. And I have to say, the publishers who are not publishing from that interior place, I'm not sure what motivates them.

Was working for Rudin a traumatic experience?
No. Well, negotiating my exit was traumatic because I had a contract and he didn't want me to leave, and then he didn't want me to leave until a specific date. And I wanted to get back to Random House. There was one very long week where I was sitting in an empty office watching MTV. I remember thinking, "This is very strange." But in Scott Rudin's defense, I let him down, and I quit on him. But it just wasn't the right place for me.

Did you have help negotiating your exit?
Yes, I had a lawyer. It was very expensive. I remember that bill, too. That bill was traumatic. [Laughter.] 

Eventually you left Random House for good. Why?
I'd been there for sixteen years. That's like going to the same college four times, and I was ready to graduate. I had this idea for Twelve—I wanted to edit the books and publish the books—and that just wasn't going to be possible within that corporate structure. And with the benefit of distance, I think it was the right reason to leave. I'm also incredibly grateful for the sixteen years I had there. I carry the editorial values of Random House with me every day, and I'm close to many of my former colleagues. I think that Random House is the great American publishing company. Well, the great German-American publishing company. [Laughter.]

How did you come up with the idea for Twelve?
There were a number of ideas behind it. Let's start with the real impetus, which is that I want to publish the best books. And I really believe that writers want to be read. Maybe this is not that profound, but I think that sometimes we lose sight of the fact that, all things being equal, an author is going to want to be with the person who he or she thinks can sell the most books. So the goal was to attract the best talent.

I can give you several moments along the way to the idea becoming clear. When I was at Random House, an agent named Larry Weissman sent us a nonfiction proposal that we all loved. It was the book that eventually became The Billionaire's Vinegar, which is a great historical story involving wine. We thought that it was a classic Random House book. We put on the full-court press—I was the editor in chief at the time—and brought the author and Larry in for a meeting. There were eight of us in the room. We enthused. We said all the right things. We showed up at the auction and made an offer, and it was the same as Crown's. And they chose Crown. I was mystified. I called up Larry and said, "Why did you choose Crown?" He said, "They promised to make us the lead title." And I thought, "You know something? That was the right decision." And then I thought, "What if every book I published were the lead title?" And then I thought, "How many lead titles can you have?" And then I thought, "Well, the fact of the matter is, if you're thinking about how much the media can absorb, being able to say, ‘This is the one book you should read this month' has some credibility to it."

A second moment was when I was at Random House and two books I'd worked on for several years were both scheduled for release in the same month. They were books I really liked—one was called The Lady and the Panda and the other was called The Genius Factory. I believed in both of them equally and wanted to proselytize for both of them equally. I was suddenly tied up in knots—I was flummoxed—because I didn't know which book to talk about, and I didn't control the schedule. That was another example.

So I was thinking, "Okay, I want everything to be the lead title. I want to have at least a month to put it across. And I want to have the best talent. What's the best way to do that?" It's to make a promise to the author and to make the promise so explicit that it's on the spine of the book: Twelve. That's it. One a month. You get your launch and, although we can't guarantee that the book's going to be a best-seller, we can at least guarantee that you will have our full attention, focus, and commitment for a sustained period. We will talk about your book until people will not listen to us anymore.

One of the things you said in the run-up to Twelve's launch was that you wanted to bring authors and agents more into the process of publishing the books. What are you trying to do differently in that regard?
Let's start by taking a step back. I assume that a lot of writers are reading this, and I sincerely believe that literary agents are essential to the process and that authors should gladly pay the 15 percent. Here's why: Every direct interaction that an author has with his publisher is so fraught with the power dynamic—and with the fact that the author's economic livelihood is involved—that I just don't think an author can always process all the information that's coming from the publisher. So I think it's really important and helpful to triangulate with an agent. That's something I've learned over years of working really closely with authors and agents on everything from the title of the book to the editorial shape of the book to the cover of the book to the marketing and advertising of the book. I just can't imagine doing it in any other way.

When I said that I wanted to involve them more I think I just meant that, before we set a marketing plan, I say, "What would you like us to do?" For all I know, publishers are doing that already. But I really do ask them very early in the process, before any budget numbers are set, and I try my very best to make them true partners in the endeavor. But it's even things that are as simple as giving them as many galleys as they need—I'm not sure that publishers even do that all the time. 

Your Web site has twelve bullet points about the imprint, one of which is that you will publish books that matter. That's a very subjective phrase. What does it mean to you?
It means books that are relevant to the national conversation. Books that advance our understanding in some way, whether it's our understanding of events or the human condition. Books that have redeeming cultural value.

Books that are not "ooks," as Bob Giroux used to say.
Yeah. But at the same time, I don't want to be holier-than-thou about it. Look, I believe in escapism. I just think that even when you're escaping, there can be a point to it. It doesn't have to be revelatory—it just has to have, I hope, some larger truth or purpose to it. Purpose is a great word. I don't think it's a coincidence that [Rick Warren's] The Purpose Driven Life sold all those copies. I think that people gravitate to purpose. I think we seek it, and I want each book to serve a purpose. I can't understand why you would do it any other way. I really can't. Even if the purpose is to make a lot of money, that's still a purpose. [Laughter.]

What else are you trying to do differently?
I would say acquisitions. In fact, I don't think that's given enough emphasis when people talk about publishing. When I first started out in the business, Jacob Weisberg, a writer I greatly respect, wrote a very influential piece about how editors don't edit anymore—all they do is the deal. I think that implicit in that assessment is an underestimation of just how important the deal is—how important the decision to publish the book is. I think that a majority of the projects that are acquired by major houses never have a chance of breaking through. They are flawed in their conception. What I learned from Ann Godoff was to be a discerning acquisitions specialist. The most important decision that anyone makes in a publishing house is the decision to buy the book in the first place, and I'm amazed by how often that decision is made with very little sustained consideration.

How do you make those acquisition decisions? What are you looking at and thinking about and turning over in your mind?
Well, first of all, "Is it different? Is it distinctive? Is it singular?" I would've loved to have called this imprint Singular Books, but it sounded too much like a wireless phone company. Because I want the books to be like nothing else. I think exclusivity matters—if the journalist has contacts that nobody else has or if the author has stories that only he or she can tell. Something I haven't heard before. Every Sunday, Chris Matthews says on his talk show, "Tell me something I don't know." That ought to be where every editor or publisher starts. "What didn't I already know here?"

I really am amazed by how often publishers decide to do something because a similar book succeeded. That is flawed reasoning. Books catch on for any number of reasons, and it's not a mathematical formula that can be reproduced. Even more insidious is the idea that sometimes creeps into acquisition decisions in a really cynical and negative way, where people say, "Well, that nondescript work caught on, so this nondescript work could too." I just don't understand why you would want to go down that road. It makes no sense to me. I would think that you would feel as if you were going through your life just imitating other people, doing something you didn't really believe in. I'm genuinely mystified by that.

Then I look for an originality of expression. If I see a cliché, it's out. Any writer who uses clichés is telling me, "I am not original." So that's easy, and I think most editors would tell you that. But I'm surprised by how many editors seem to be willing to acquire books with clichés in them. I've never understood why. It seems to me it's the first sign of a pedestrian work.

I think a lot of the things I think about come from my journalistic background. Would you want to talk about this? Would you want to spend time with this person? There are certain things that will always get my attention: somebody who, like Jonathan Harr or Robert Caro or David Halberstam, has spent years on a work, really trying to figure it out. In an age in which nobody's held accountable for anything, and information comes and goes so fast, there is great power in the idea of a person who has concentrated and rigorously worked to make sense of things. I don't think you can place enough emphasis on that. It is the single thing publishers can provide better than anybody else: authority. So if you show me an author who has taken the time to really wrestle with a subject, in fiction or nonfiction, and figure it out and unearth the truth, and if that subject has some kind of a constituency, and I can envision enough people caring about that subject to gravitate to the book, I'm going to be very interested. I think those books are hard to come by. It's hard to expect a writer to spend years on a subject.

Once you find those things and sign up the book, what are you thinking about with regard to marketing? What are you and Cary trying to do differently than other publishers?
It's the same thing. We're trying to make each marketing campaign specific to the book. We're really trying to do each book differently. But I stand by what I was saying before: that the things publishers do, in terms of marketing, are marginal when compared to the primal aspects of the book. Those aspects are simply, "Do you care about this?"

Let me give you my negative example, which I wrote about in a piece and got into a disagreement over. I went to my local Barnes & Noble and I looked at what was out. There was a book on the shelf called The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women. I was agog that somebody would think that that book would sell and that it even needed to be a book. Now, I haven't read the book. For all I know it is the most brilliant argument ever made about the pernicious aspects of virginity. But it just seems to me that, on the surface of things, virgins aren't going to want to read a book telling them that they shouldn't hold onto their virginity, and I can't imagine why anybody who's lost their virginity would care. So I see no audience for the book at all. It's a polemic, so it could probably be five thousand words—there's no narrative there. It makes no sense.

I look at the Publishers Lunch deal memo every day, and almost every day there's some book that I can't conceive of more than a handful of people ever being interested in. I just don't understand why publishers go for this stuff. Now, I think the major publishers are a little more discerning, and I understand that there is a wonderful diversity of readers and that the whole point of certain kinds of books is that they appeal to niche audiences. But there's a niche audience and then there's, you know, fractal niche.

I still want to try to get a better sense of how you guys are approaching marketing. Everybody's trying to figure out what to do to sell books anymore.
Well, this probably isn't very interesting for readers, but we have a great director of publicity in Cary Goldstein. This guy is extraordinary. The best decision I made was hiring Cary. I mean, here's an example of why Hachette is a good company. They hired me and they gave me a full year to ramp it up. No pressure. You don't have to publish a book in five months. Take a full year, do a real launch, and hire the right person to do your publicity. So I had a full year to hire the best person. I did research. I called up the people at the New Yorker and asked them, "Who do you respect? Who do you listen to?" And Cary Goldstein's name kept coming back to me.

If you're speaking with a credible voice, and you have the right books, why shouldn't people listen to you? I mean, yes, I think we've done some good ads. The advertising department of Hachette is first-rate. I think we've done some clever online promotions. But I think that, for the most part, it has largely been publishing books on subjects that appeal to people and that people are able to find out about. And they find out about them because the publicity department is really good.

Now let me say something else. I go to my local bookstore and see books that I've never heard of. I haven't heard a thing about them. I think, about ten years ago, the idea crept into the conventional wisdom that if you simply paid for display, people would find the book. This is false. People have to know about a book in order to buy the book. Just reading the flap copy and looking at the same generic blurbs is not going to sell the book. You need endorsements from reviewers, you need people talking about the book on the radio, you need the online component. And we're just trying to do it extensively and intensively for every book. A very, very good publisher, Ivan Held, has said that there are only six things you can ever do for any book. You can name the six things: You can advertise, you can do co-op, you can do galleys, etcetera. There are a finite number of things. Our goal is to do one special, original, out-of-the-box thing for each book. But beyond that, it's simply about execution.