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
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
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
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
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
Yes, I had a lawyer. It was very
expensive. I remember that bill, too. That bill was traumatic. [Laughter.]
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
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
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.]
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
How do you make those acquisition
decisions? What are you looking at and thinking about and turning over in your
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.
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
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.
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.
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.