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

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

Considering the fragility you just mentioned, do you ever pull your punches when you're editing? What's your philosophy on that?
I believe in complete honesty, and, as I learned from Kate Medina, there is a good way to deliver any news. The way to do it is usually through an appreciation of what works followed by a very clinical deconstruction of what doesn't. And it needs to be done in writing so the author has time to absorb it, curse you, go through the fifteen stages of mourning, and then address it. I remember a few times when I was starting out as an editor, I gave the criticism verbally, and the writers simply didn't hear it. It wasn't that they didn't understand it. They just didn't hear it. They were so overwhelmed by the sensory experience of receiving feedback on something that they cared so much about, from somebody who would be so instrumental in determining the future of the work, that they were not equipped to process the information I was giving them. It has to be in writing.

What do agents do that frustrates you?
The auctions are frequently frustrating, and I think some agents could learn a thing from Bob Barnett, who is not an agent but a lawyer. Bob is a joy to work with because he sends you the material, or has the meeting, and tells you when the auction is going to be. There's no running around and there are never any preempts. Then he has the auction. It's always in rounds and it's very clear what's going on. And when it's done you feel as if everything made sense. I wish more things worked that way. I wish that agents had enough confidence in the work they're representing to just say, "This is the date. These are the terms. Go at it." The problem is that every submission is different and that, in reality, you have to handle every situation differently. But I wish that literary agents were less eager to try to sell the book within five minutes. Give people time to think about it. I mean, the reason that some of them probably don't give people time to think about it is because they have a responsibility to get the best deal and there is a legitimate reason to be concerned that the deal could go away. So I'm not blaming them. I just wish that the auctions could be conducted in a more orderly, thoughtful, and deliberative way.

Another thing that frustrates me is when they submit widely and ask us to spend a lot of time reading when the odds of its winding up with us are slim. I wish the submission lists were smaller. I don't see any point in submitting to four people within the same company and making all four of them run around and talk to one another. I think you should know the editors you're submitting to well enough to have a sense of whether they might want it. I would just rather avoid this pack mentality of having a lot of people chasing the same thing. I think it's bad for the soul. [Laughter.] And I'm not even sure it's good business for the agents. I think they would be taken more seriously—and would get faster reactions—if the editors to whom they were submitting felt that the project was really special and they were coming to them for a reason.

Another editor I interviewed thought that it was their way of generating excitement because everything has gotten so difficult with acquisitions by committee. Which you're not subject to anymore.
But I get less excited when I know ten people have had it. It's actually gotten to the point now where I want other people within the company to read the submission first. If they want it, they can have it. It's only after they've rejected it that I may read it and make my own determination.

It can also make things easier for editors who are not as autonomous as you to acquire something.
Sure. But if that's the case I would say that the publishers those editors are working for are behaving in a craven and irrational manner. They should think for themselves and make their own decision about whether or not a book is worthy and not be looking over their shoulder at what Publishers B and C are doing. Because Publishers B and C might be even kookier than Publisher A. There are enough really smart people in the publishing industry that we can all afford to think for ourselves. 

You are not known as somebody who overpays wildly. I'm curious about the decision to go as high as you did for the Ted Kennedy book. Eight million dollars is a lot of money.
I can neither confirm nor deny the size of the advance. It was a story that nobody else could ever tell. It's by a central figure in the last fifty years of American political history with a unique vantage point into one of the most storied families in American history. It was simply irresistible. On top of that, when you look at the eventfulness of the man's life, the enormity of his life, the unbelievably compelling aspects of his personal story, combined with the impact he's had on the country through the years, it's simply a book like no other. I've never, in my twenty years, encountered a story like this.

But it's a lot to pay.
Well, by the time this interview comes out, we'll know whether we got it right.

Did you worry about spending as much as you did?
Look, I worry about ten thousand dollar advances. I worry about everything. There is no limit to the things that I will worry about. It's my favorite form of exercise. If I were ever to write an advice book I'd call it Sweat the Small Stuff. I even wrote a song called "I Worry": When I hear about the rain forests, I worry. It just isn't smart to turn the jungle into Wal-Mart. I worry. I'm recycling everything. I'm even listening to Sting. I worry.

You do a lot of political books. Do you evaluate them the same way you evaluate any other book, or are there different things you think about?
If it's a book by a politician, I think the politician has to transcend the moment and be an individual of real substance and character. I'm very proud to have worked with two of the great senators, John McCain and Edward Kennedy. I also approached Henry Waxman to write this book on how Congress really works. I'd wanted to do a book on Congress for years, and the more I read about Henry Waxman, the more I thought he was the person who could really take me inside the chamber and show me how it gets done. He has a thirty-year record, and his legislation has made a difference in basic aspects of our lives, from food labeling to smoking laws, and now health care. So I felt like he was the right person to approach.

In terms of issue books, I try very hard to imagine that the book could actually move the needle—in terms of public debate—and that there isn't anything else like it. 

Are there any recent political books that you wish you could have published? Or editors you're admiring for their taste in political books?
I think that Sara Bershtel and the people at Metropolitan Books are doing extraordinarily good work. A number of their books have made an important contribution to the debate and are books I wish I had published. I'm thinking of The Limits of Power by Andrew Bacevich, Chalmers Johnson's trilogy—especially The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis—and Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. Several of those books grew out of this American Empire Project that two editors named Steve Fraser and Tom Engelhardt started. Their books are also significant because they're expanding the parameters of debate in this country. I'm personally frustrated by how one-dimensional the conversation is with regard to America's involvement in the world and our foreign policy—what Chalmers Johnson refers to as the cost of empire. I feel like these books are shining a light on America's use of power and questioning what our national priorities should be. You hear very few politicians questioning our military spending, and these writers are doing that. So those are all books I wish I'd published.

I had a shot at publishing Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and I didn't offer enough. I deeply regret that. I knew Eric. I'd taken him out. I saw him a mile away and knew he was doing important work. But I just wasn't sure we could sell enough copies of a book about fast food. 

I also acquired, with Peter Bernstein, Samantha Power's Pulitzer Prize–winning book on genocide. When I left Random House for my seven weeks in the movie business, she got reassigned. Then I really didn't do the right thing, and I wish I had gotten her back.

How about mistakes you've made in a broader sense?
In several instances I have acquired books where I thought I had a particular insight into the subject that I was going to bestow upon the author. In every one of those instances, it didn't make the book any better. If I had it to do it over again, I would not have acquired those books. Because I think it's a mistake for an editor or publisher to think that he knows more than the author or has something to teach the author. Jason Epstein, the great editor, said that, at best, an editor is a valet, bringing the work into the world and taking the dust off of the garment. The work is truly done in the margins, and, from this point on, I will only acquire books by writers whose writing doesn't need my help. Because even under the best of circumstances, a writer is going to need editorial feedback. But if you enter into the relationship knowing they need your help, I think you've probably already made a fatal mistake.

But you're also in a position where the best writers come to you.
But you know something? If you don't hold out for great stuff, you won't get great stuff. I'm not saying that everything I've done is great. I've made plenty of mistakes, and sometimes my judgment is wrong, just like everybody else's. But I really am trying. I've never, in recent years, signed up somebody who I thought I was going to have to drag across the finish line. 

What are the hardest decisions you make as an editor and publisher?
The acquisitions. I'm only publishing twelve books a year, so I really anguish over these manuscripts and proposals. I really do. I read them all. I take the submissions very seriously. I take the agents I deal with very seriously. If they think something is good, I think there's usually a reason for that. I try to have very good reasons both for doing books and for not doing them. There have been a lot of projects that I would have done if I were publishing more than twelve books a year—projects that interested me and were worthy. 

What disqualifies them most often?
It's usually that I just don't feel a strong enough connection with the work. That's often code for "I don't see enough relevance here" or "I don't think it's special enough" or "It didn't really intrigue me."

Why do you think you've been more successful with nonfiction than with fiction?
I think it's because I'm a guy. It may have something to do with neuroscience and the logical part of my brain. It may have to do with my journalistic background and my nose for a story. I guess I just love it when things are true. I think the truth is so powerful. Some people even say it sets you free. [Laughter.]

Does it bother you?
Yeah. I don't think any of us like to be put into a box. At least half of the books that made me want to get into the publishing business were novels. I would love to make a greater contribution to the culture by publishing some more great novelists.

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
The thing I care the most about is getting the word out about the books, so I wish we had more avenues for publicizing our works to the readers who care most about them. I think this could be done in a number of ways. The most intriguing to me right now would be working with independent booksellers and book-specific media in major cities to create new forums for local discussion of books and authors. The reason why most publishers are not touring authors to the extent that they used to is because there's less local media to talk about books. I don't think that all media has to come through the Internet. I still think that people experience books in their local environment and that publishers should find new ways to create media locally. Maybe that needs to come through investment, either through the American Booksellers Association or through some kind of new consortium of publishers who create a fund to spread the seed of book coverage. I don't think that enough people know about books. It's as simple as that. There aren't enough ways to let people know about really interesting books. I have published many books that I think a lot of people would have benefited from, enjoyed, and been better for having read, but they just never knew about them. I think that's a tragedy.

Do you worry about the future of publishing?
I don't. I don't worry about it at all. I have an idealistic hope that as more and more media becomes disposable, books will be increasingly regarded as the permanent expression of thought and feeling and wisdom. So publishers who can offer definitive material will thrive. Now, as I say, that's idealistic. Plenty of publishers are going to continue to do well publishing derivative material that they don't really believe in. But I think it's going to be harder for them. It's going to be harder for them to survive. I think there will be some displacement—some houses will shrink and other houses will grow. I could see some pure play digital publishers who aren't encumbered by the weight of overhead and the history of their business relationships becoming influential factors in the publishing world. So I think it's a transitional time and a transformative time. But it's always been that way. I don't think anything should be regarded as permanent. All we ultimately have is our belief in the particular books. And as long as you have that, you're fine.

Tell me a little more about where your head is at with the electronic stuff. I saw a Times piece about the $9.99 price point for the Kindle where you were quoted as saying, "Let's just take a breath and see how long this lasts."
There's more heat than light at this point, but there are going to be changes. Publishers are going to have to rethink price points and distribution and all aspects of the publishing process. But that's always been the case. There was the same kind of hysteria when the big-box retailers became a force in the business. I just don't think it's wise to be fearful about it. I think we should embrace a new mode of distribution—it's simply a new way of getting books to readers. I find it funny that e-book buyers are demanding instant gratification when, only a few years ago, their needs were perfectly well met by traditional books.

With the Kennedy book you made the decision to not release the electronic version simultaneously with the hardcover. Do you want to talk about why?
Not really. [Laughter.] The thing I would emphasize is that this is about distribution, and just as indoor plumbing was a wonderful advance in society, so is the digital delivery of reading material. But we're still just talking about distribution. It's the content that matters. Now, if you want to talk about the ways in which content is changed by the distribution, that's a different conversation, and perhaps a more interesting one. But I remember when, back in the 1980s, people were writing about hypertext and how computers were going to change the way stories were told. I don't really think that happened very much. I do think that as attention spans continue to become shorter, and we're stimulated so much more by the constant influx of information, we must certainly be reading differently and experiencing information, on a cognitive level, in a different way. But I still think it ultimately comes down to one writer telling a story to one person. I don't think that's going to radically change.

But the thing people seem to be worried about is that it could have huge business implications on the industry.
Yes, but I remember when Random House and William Morris were at loggerheads over CD-ROM rights in the 1990s, and that obviously never happened. [Laughter.] So, yes, this is important. This is significant. This is transformative. But I think that putting too much focus on it is misleading because it's ultimately still about the authors. I just keep coming back to that, and unfortunately that's not a story that you can keep writing in the newspapers every day—nobody would read it. But the publishers who thrive will be the ones who have the best authors. It's as simple as that.

Who do you admire in the industry, and what makes you admire them?
I admire a lot of people. I admire the editors at Norton. I think they have very high standards and are very focused and publish a lot of interesting books. They've given us Michael Lewis and Mary Roach and Fareed Zakaria. Obviously I think Knopf is the gold standard. What more can you say? They have the ability to publish across the spectrum, from literary fiction to high-quality nonfiction. Penguin Press, of course. I'm really impressed by Algonquin and Workman. I think the Workman books are so unique and cleverly designed. My daughter loves that Gallop! book of theirs with the Scanimation effect they seem to have created. I already mentioned the people at Metropolitan. I think they're doing really important publishing and giving the left a voice it has lacked in the culture. Paul Golob at Times Books is also doing really smart, interesting books.

There are too many people at Hachette to name, but I owe everything to Jamie Raab for bringing me here and being such an incredibly supportive colleague. I think Michael Pietsch and Geoff Shandler have done an incredible job with Little, Brown, and I am in awe of what Megan Tingley has accomplished with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

How about agents?
There are a lot of agents that I admire—too many to name. It's funny. I really enjoy working with literary agents, but I'm not socially friendly with any of them. I kind of feel like it's a business relationship. But I enjoy their companionship at lunch and I love talking to them about their projects. Even when I pass on their projects, I genuinely enjoy talking to them, the give and take. There are literary agents who I've known for fifteen years who I'm just finally doing books with. Molly Friedrich was one who I'd wanted to work with forever and finally found a novel we both loved. I've known Stuart Krichevsky since I was in my late twenties, and he's trusted me with Sebastian Junger, for which I am eternally grateful. Rob Weisbach is incredibly creative and he's going to do great things. I could talk to Tina Bennett and Heather Schroder forever. There really are a lot.

What makes you admire these people?
To bring it down to one word, it's conviction. Simple as that. Every single person I mentioned believes in what he or she is doing, and they are engaged by it.

Are there any younger or less established agents who you've been impressed by lately?
There are a number of them. Larry Weissman. Eric Lupfer at William Morris. Jennifer Joel at ICM. Gillian MacKenzie. Everything they send me is fascinating, and I think that's the mark of a good literary agent.


What are the most rewarding experiences in your life as a publisher?
I think the most satisfying has been working with Po Bronson. From the beginning, when we were both twenty-eight-year-old guys, I felt like his work was speaking for me and for our generation. Over numerous books, we've grown together and pushed each other and learned from each other. And he keeps surprising me. He never writes the same book twice, which sometimes makes them a little harder to publish, but I respect the creative impulse there. [Laughter.] It's really satisfying to see the way he has built a readership, and to see that his life has been improved through our working together. I've published a lot of first novelists and a lot of new nonfiction writers, and to be able to give those people a chance, and to help them realize their dreams, is incredibly gratifying.

How about the most exciting experience?
I would probably say having dinner in Hyannis Port, at the table where John Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy and the rest of the family sat, and talking about American history and politics with Senator Kennedy. Listening to his stories. I don't think it can get much more exciting than that. If I were a journalist or an academic, it would have been the opportunity of a lifetime. As a publisher, it was just a great evening. And it was one of many. I'd tell you more but I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. [Laughter.]

What are your darkest moments as an editor and publisher?
It's when a book doesn't catch on. I die a death along with that book. The single worst moment may have been a bad review by Michiko Kakutani of a novel that I truly believed was a classic. I read the review and I was sick to my stomach. The only time I've ever felt worse was when I found out that Ann Godoff was leaving Random House. Those are probably the two darkest moments.

But more broadly it's whenever a book is perceived as being flawed or just doesn't catch on. I'm still terribly depressed by that—terribly, profoundly, irrevocably depressed. And I'm not saying that I think that's a good thing. My happiness and self-esteem should not be wrapped up in the commercial and critical reception that a book receives. So I'm not proud of that. I think I should be able to transcend it by now. But I also think that maybe the fact that I care is one of the reasons why authors still want to work with me. If I ever do start to transcend it, I might find writers leaving me in droves. 

You've thought about leaving the industry and trying other things, and you even have left briefly. What is it that keeps you coming back and makes it something you can't get away from?
Look, I'm forty-five years old. This is my twentieth year in the business. If I keep at it and manage not to get hit by a bus, presumably I'm at the halfway point. For the first twenty years, what's kept me coming back is simply having good books to look forward to. I'm so excited to be publishing Sebastian Junger and Senator Kennedy and Po Bronson. I'm looking forward to those books and all the others. I just signed up this superb journalist, Evan Osnos, who's the China correspondent for the New Yorker. He's only getting started on his book now, so it may not come in for a couple of years, but I can't wait to publish Evan Osnos and introduce him to book readers. Because his journalism is outstanding.

So, unfortunately, my answer to your question is microscopic and quotidian, and it's one of the reasons why I wanted to publish one book a month: to always have something to look forward to the next month. I get a little bit antsy when I don't have a really good book to look forward to. So that's what's kept me going so far, and I will only keep doing it for as long as I'm challenged and growing and nourished by it. I hope that continues. I don't, at this moment, have a Plan B.

But I have always felt that you should never feel trapped in a job. I've heard other good publishers say that they were ready to do the next thing, if they had to. If you start making decisions out of fear or insecurity that you might lose your job, or that there's nothing better out there, I think you make bad decisions. I am incredibly happy and grateful to be here, and I hope it lasts forever. And if it doesn't, I hope there's something else even better.

Jofie Ferrari-Adler is an editor at Grove/Atlantic.