Innovation & Design

"Cutting Through the Noise"


Jonathan Karp is a publisher who understands the value of innovation. In 2002, while an editor at Random House, he came up with the idea of commissioning a sequel to Mario Puzo's The Godfather epic. A national contest was held to select a writer. The winner -- Mark Winegardner, a little-known but critically acclaimed novelist -- came out with the well-received The Godfather Returns in 2004.

In his 16 years at Random House, Karp edited a string of bestsellers (including Seabiscuit, The Orchid Thief, Shadow Divers, and The Dante Club), and worked his way up to editor-in-chief of Random House and Villard. Now he says he's ready for a new challenge. In July, he moved to Warner Books, where he'll head his own imprint called Warner Twelve.

The premise of Warner Twelve is that it will publish only 12 books a year, a reduced rate that Karp says will allow him to "focus relentlessly and exclusively" on his authors' work and devote the sales and marketing resources to encourage readers to pay attention, too.

Business Week's Elizabeth Woyke recently sat down with Karp at the Warner Twelve offices to talk about the art and business of his model of publishing, Oprah's Book Club, Harry Potter, and, the Donald. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

Q: When you resigned from Random House, it was rumored you were thinking of leaving publishing. What made you decide to stay?

A: I love books. So even though I thought about alternatives, I kept coming back to my initial attraction to books and to working with authors. This was an ideal opportunity to test some long-held beliefs -- that talented authors deserve a massive amount of attention and the best way to get them attention is for a publisher to focus relentlessly and exclusively on their book for as long as possible.

I think that by promising authors and their literary agents that we will publish nothing other than their books for a full month, we're saying we believe in you and we will do everything we can to make people pay attention to you.

It isn't enough for people to buy the book and to read the book. I want people to finish the book, to love the book, and to recommend the book to other people, because that's how books become truly memorable and have an impact on lives. If the book is just sitting up there on somebody's shelf, I won't feel that we've succeeded.

Q: How will the structure of Warner Twelve be different from other book imprints?

A: I'm going to personally edit every book. I've learned that you have the most fun and you can have the most impact when you work directly with the authors. I think I'll have better publishing ideas because I'm also editing the book. I'll be close enough to the content and spirit of the book that I'll be able to communicate what's special about it to audiences with the help of the marketing machines at the Time Warner Book Group (TWX).

I was doing a lot of this already in previous jobs. What's great about this opportunity is now I really have a mandate to make things happen. This is the first time I'll be a publisher. That's why I made the move.

Q: What else will be different about Warner Twelve?

A: The other thing that's going to be different is we're going to bring the literary agents and the authors into the publication of the book. Literary agents do a lot for authors that readers don't realize. They really help position the book, they have good ideas about advertising and publicity. They're going to be a big part of this process.

Q: Do you have any books lined up already?

A: No. I'm starting anew. I'm confident that there are enough talented authors out there that I can easily find 12 whom I'm excited about publishing.

Q: As an editor, you're known for nonfiction. What types of books will Warner Twelve publish?

A: Big, meaty, ambitious, one-of-a-kind stories, true and fictional, written with authority, wit, and passion by obsessed writers with unique voices. Books in which aspects of culture, politics, history, business, and relationships converge within one dramatic tale. Books by people who illuminate and entertain and inspire readers. Maybe one day I'll be lucky enough to publish the Presidential memoirs of John McCain. That would be great.

Q: How do you think customers will react to your philosophy?

A: There are 200,000 books published every year. My guess is that most of us didn't read very many of them. The job of a publisher is to be, first of all, an advocate for worthy voices. Equally important is to be a filter in the culture.

I really want each book to matter. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to the bookstore, looked around, and just been overwhelmed by the multitude of choices. This is one way of cutting through the noise in the culture and helping readers find the most relevant, interesting stories.

Q: Have retailers been receptive to this idea?

A: The retailers are just as overwhelmed as readers are. They would all like publishers to pick their shots.

Q: Do you see possibility for synergy with other parts of Time Warner or Time Inc.?

A: Sure. I want to work with talented writers in the magazine group. I'm hoping there will be books that arise out of some of the entertainment programs and projects produced by HBO, Warner Brothers, TNT, and TBS. Authors can tell their stories in any number of mediums.

Most writers I know don't think of themselves as working in only one format. It's entirely possible that something will begin as a magazine article in Time, then become a book, then become a movie, then become a television show.

Q: You spent seven weeks working in the film industry in 2000. Are you interested in developing more of your books into movies?

A: I want to see stories told in as many mediums as possible because that's how stories accrue cultural power and significance. The fact that Seabiscuit became a movie introduced the book to millions more readers than it otherwise would have reached.

I also edited The Godfather Returns, which is a book that became a movie, and then became a book again. That's a good example of the way in which stories travel from one medium to another. I hope that some of the books I acquire will become movies or television shows, or even Broadway musicals. That would be wonderful. But first and foremost, we're a book publisher.

Q: Doesn't limiting your output to 12 books put a lot more pressure on each book to succeed?

A: That's absolutely right. The reason that publishers publish a lot of books is because it allows them to amortize their risk. The risk with publishing only 12 books a year is that at least a few of them have to hit big or it doesn't justify the investment, the cost, and the overhead. But since it's all a gamble, why not take a big gamble?

Q: You've worked on three books with Donald Trump: The Art of the Comeback, How to Get Rich. and Think Like a Billionaire. Do you have any insights or anecdotes about the Donald?

A: Editing Donald Trump is a joy. He pays attention to every comma. Negotiating with Donald Trump is an education. He personally negotiated his book contract, and I think I learned more in that negotiation than I did in a decade of negotiations previous to that. He's tough, he's fair, and he gets what he wants.

He's always worked with a co-writer, but Donald's books are authentically his -- you can hear his voice in every book. He's a lot of fun, and the reason why is he really loves business, and he loves everything he does. He brings a great deal of positive energy to all his endeavors. I saw that up close, and it's something that I find instructive.

My favorite Donald Trump story [took place] when we were editing How to Get Rich. He called me from his private plane on the way back from taping Oprah to dictate a new paragraph on the art of the hair. And I thought, "That's what I call living large."

Another story from How to Get Rich: Donald had a sign on his desk that says, "The buck starts here." I said, "That should be the title of your book: The Buck Starts Here." He said, "No, no, no, that's too clever. We should call the book: How to Get Rich. That's what people want to know: How to get rich." And he was right. Donald knows what people want.

Q: As a young editor, you worked on Random House's eBook imprint. Do you think there will be a revived interest in e-books?

A: Publishers tried e-books in the '90s, and they were ahead of where the market was. But eventually this format will reach a critical mass. It's portable, and you can adjust the type size and font so it will be easier on the eyes for some readers.

I think it's really just a matter of time and of the right device becoming available that will allow readers to download easily. And once that happens, it should be as big as iPods or the Walkman.

Q: What do you think about publishers using the Internet to publicize and market books?

A: I think that's becoming increasingly prevalent and necessary. Certain books are more likely to reach large audiences through Internet marketing because the people who would buy those books are actively looking for information on the Internet. So, business books, certain travel books, practical books with information people need right away -- all of that seems likely to be sold and publicized through Internet marketing and publishing.

I don't know whether fiction will ultimately triumph [using these methods]. I think fiction is a different realm.

Q: You're optimistic about the book industry.

A: Sure. More people are buying more books than ever before. What's happening is that, as in many industries, it's more of a winner-take-all scenario. There are a few big winners every year, and they support everything else.

That has always been the case. It's just that the big winners now are enormous. They sell millions and millions of copies. And nobody really knows which of those books will be the winners.

Q: Speaking of winners, how has Harry Potter affected publishing?

A: Harry Potter's a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. It has had a tremendously beneficial impact on the culture of reading, and I'm sure that of the children who rush out to the bookstores for each installment, many of them will continue to read for the rest of their lives.

It's truly a story told with originality and power. It can reach tens of millions of people and can compete with any other entertainment medium. That's what Harry Potter proves -- books still have an important place in popular culture.

Q: Now that Oprah chooses only classics for her book club, is there anyone or anything that can equal her influence in creating bestsellers?

A: Oprah's also a singular phenomenon. There's no one else like her. Nor is there likely to be in her ability to promote books to a mass audience. The lesson of Oprah is that one enthusiastic reader, given the right forum, can create tremendous word of mouth. It doesn't take Oprah Winfrey.

Anna Quindlen endorsing The Lovely Bones on the Today show was certainly crucial to that book's success. Chris Matthews endorsing Franklin and Winston, by Jon Meacham, put that book on the bestseller list. And I could think of dozens of other examples of notable personalities in the culture enthusing about books in a heartfelt way that made readers go to the bookstore and begin reading.

Q: What do you think about author blogs?

A: Writers have to be promoters if they believe in their work. Blogs are a way for authors to communicate directly with readers and establish a personal connection. It's a way to reach readers who may not attend bookstore events, and it's more convenient for authors, too. I haven't met too many writers who were eager to fly to Houston for a day -- though I'm sure Houston is lovely this time of year.

Q: Are there any authors you've worked with that you'd like to recommend to our readers?

A: I think Po Bronson's next book is wonderful. It's called Why Do I Love These People?, and it's a nonfiction exploration of how families overcome personal struggles and find harmony in their lives. It's coming out in November, and it's the perfect book to read before you go home for Thanksgiving.

The other book that I'm excited about is John McCain's next book, Character is Destiny, which he wrote with Mark Salter. This is McCain's book of virtues. It's comprised of 12 bios of great individuals in history and in American culture, and each person represents an important virtue that we should all hold onto in our lives. It's just quintessential McCain -- it makes you want to be a better person.

There's also Alan Alda's memoir. It's called Never Have Your Dog Stuffed -- and Other Things I've Learned. It's in the vein of Growing Up, by Russell Baker, or This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff -- a poignant, amusing memoir.

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