Friday, January 25, 2008

A Perfect TWELVE

The Complete Book of Aunts seemed like an odd title when it was first presented to me last year. Who would buy such a thing? After all, aunts are usually mothers, daughters, wives and sisters before they are aunts. I'm an uncle, but it certainly isn't a defining characteristic of my personality. I wouldn't even be remotely tempted to buy a book about uncles. I stared at the page and tried to imagine where in the store we would even shelve such a book. I was about to say "skip", when my Hachette rep mentioned that this book was being published by Jonathan Karp's imprint TWELVE.

That changed everything for me. I refocused on the catalog page, noticing that the dog on the book's cover was an alligator. I began to think that perhaps a strange book detailing aunts in history from Aunt Jemima to John Lennon's Aunt Mimi might have campy appeal. I decided to order ten copies and put it on our recommended reading section during the holiday season. Why such a drastic turnaround based on the publisher? Karp, the former editor-in-chief of Random House, is attempting to do something that is completely counter to much of publishing today. He's actually showing tremendous restraint in the number of books he's publishing, he's giving them all personal attention by editing them himself and he's going full bore on the publicity and marketing for his books. Hallelujah. If you are a bookseller, or a reader for that matter, it's like watching a true craftsman at work.

TWELVE, which released its first title a year ago, only publishes 12 books a year, neatly timed to one a month. Karp, who receives hundreds of solid manuscripts from established writers, saw something in Rupert Christiansen's book on aunts to warrant a full month of his company's time. I knew that TWELVE wouldn't let The Complete Book of Aunts die an anonymous death. There would be a heavy ad campaign and clever marketing to back it up. Karp's investment of time and money in a quirky title was enough for me to take a leap of faith and give the title front-of-store positioning. My gamble paid off, with the title garnering over 25 sales during the holiday season.

One of the most unusual aspects of TWELVE is the eclectic selection of titles. When the imprint was first introduced, I imagined a tightly focused house that would excel in one type of book. That simply isn't true. Karp has published fiction from established authors, like Christopher Buckley, and from unknowns like Matt Richtel. TWELVE's nonfiction has ranged from current affairs to histories to memoirs to philosophy and featured authors from John McCain to Christopher Hitchens. It's all held together by a vision of what makes a great book.

"We want to publish singular books -- stories, perspectives, and voices readers aren't likely to get elsewhere with the same kind of authority," Karp wrote during in an email interview. "Works of high quality and broad appeal. Books that influence the national conversation, entertain, and illuminate.... It's possible to fall in love twelve times a year without being promiscuous in your taste."

TWELVE led the national conversation for a while last year with the release of Hitchens' God is not Great. The title seemed to ignite a societal debate on atheism that had been simmering for years. Hitchens' work reached the top of the New York Times' bestseller list and was featured in countless newspaper articles, magazine pieces and radio shows. Hitchens always generates great publicity: you can't attack Mother Theresa and fly under the media radar. But the avalanche of attention that God is not Great received far outpaced his other recent books.

Karp has said in other interviews, when he was first founding TWELVE, that he believes "talented authors deserve a massive amount of attention." So far, he has delivered on that belief. Each book is promoted nationally. There won't be any authors crying because the publicity has been pulled from their titles.

"I suspect our spending per title is greater than the industry average, but that may be true for all Hachette books," Karp said. "Generally, this company (Hachette) has always published fewer titles than its competitors and marketed them more aggressively. That marketing philosophy was one of the reasons I wanted to publish books here. Authors appreciate that kind of attention, and we want to attract the very best writers."

Karp will have to attract the best writers if TWELVE has a chance to flourish in the future. That's going to be a tough task. TWELVE is operating in an industry where publishing more titles always seems to be the way to grow. The pressure to show sales gains, despite falling readership, from the corporate parents of book publishers is immense. Karp doesn't shy away from the challenge.

"Our goal is to keep raising the bar -- to publish progressively better books, by the finest writers, and to help them reach more and more readers. As a business, we won't grow by publishing more titles -- our promise to publish only twelve new books a year is inherent in the name of the imprint -- so the only way to grow is to sell more copies of the books we do publish, in hardcover and ultimately in paperback," Karp said.

I wondered if perhaps Karp was trying to start a trend in publishing. I must admit I'm a bit fascinated with trends after reading another TWELVE book, Microtrends: The Small Voices Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes by Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne. Penn, an advisor to Hillary Clinton, discusses dozens of trends that are bubbling under the surface of our culture. My favorite one is that a discernible number of young people are aspiring to become snipers. Those inclined toward military work used to want to fly air force jets, drive a tank, or blow things up, but now the glamour job is the secret marksman. However, Karp eschewed the notion of being a publishing trendsetter.

"This model works best for TWELVE. Larger companies have different goals and different objectives. We want each book to have the potential to be a bestseller. A larger company may not have that objective for every book it acquires, but by acquiring more books, those companies are giving a lot of talented writers a chance to begin to find a readership," Karp wrote. "Personally, I've come to believe the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson: The publisher who publishes best, publishes least. (Not his exact words, but I'm sure it was his intention.)"

In my research for this article, I couldn't find the Thomas Jefferson quote that Karp mentioned. However, we should all remember what Jefferson said about reading on numerous occasions: "I cannot live without books." Somehow, I think Jefferson could live without a lot of the books being published today, but he just might perish without his monthly title from TWELVE.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting that when a NYC commercial house celebrity publishes 12 books a year, it's a big deal and noteworthy.

What a novel concept! Meanwhile, there are hundreds of amazing indie presses (with national distribution) that annually publish the same quantity as Twelve, with each worthy title getting the publisher/editor's care and attention, yet without a celebrity like Jonathan Karp and a Hachette rep pushing them, bookstores just don't care.

And one wonders why there's no room for anything but NY commercial house produced books on the shelves of supposedly "indie" bookstores ... sigh. Twelve books a year, how radical.