The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Less is More…


Poets & Writers magazine have just published the final installment of Jofie Ferrari-Adler’s series of interviews with publishing professionals.

The last interview in this excellent series is with Jonathan Karp, publisher and editor in chief of Hachette‘s remarkably successful Twelve imprint.

Formerly an editor at Random House, Karp founded Twelve with the objective of publishing no more than one book a month. Since their launch, 15 of Twelve’s first 30 books, including Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and Dave Cullen’s Columbine (pictured above — cover designed by Henry Sene Yee), have been New York Times best-sellers. It’s clearly a successful model, even if it is one that’s hard for start-ups to replicate (how many new imprints could have snapped up the rights to True Compass by Ted Kennedy for example?).

The interview is, of course, well worth reading in full. But here are a few passages about Twelve that stood out for me…

On founding Twelve:

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.

On acquisitions:

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.

On publishing fewer books:

What I do think is that the Twelve model makes a great deal of sense for unknown authors or authors who want to break out. I think that’s true. I think that this is the best way to publish a midlist author or an author who’s on the way up. Let me put it another way: I think it would behoove the major publishing houses to publish fewer books with more focus. I think that everybody would benefit from that. What I don’t know is whether the companies can meet their targets doing it. I’d have to be a CFO to know that, and it would be arrogant of me to say that a major publisher can get by without disposable books. I don’t know the answer to that. What I know is that I’m working for a company that publishes a lot less than the other major publishers with a more concentrated marketing approach and seems to be making a lot of money doing it.

On the “future of publishing”:

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.

As I say, the whole interview (the whole series in fact) really is worth your time.

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  1. Henry has an amazing post about the evolution of the Columbine cover on his blog.

  2. Thanks for the link Joseph. Henry’s cover is great — especially given the sensitivity of the subject — and his post about it fascinating. (And to be frank, it’s also the strongest cover on Twelve’s recent list by some margin!)

  3. I love the idea the books will become a stabilising influence in the new era of disposable media. I hope that happens.

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