A top book editor on what it takes
The new publishing terrain, Jonathan Karp says, should encourage talented writers
Published: July 12, 2012
While a high school student in New Jersey in the early 1980s, Jonathan Karp wrote a newspaper column titled “The World According to Karp.” The title was an obvious reference to The World According to Garp, John Irving’s bestselling novel in 1978.
Today, 34 years later, Karp happens to be Irving’s editor.
Karp, the top editor of Simon & Schuster, one of fewer than a dozen dominant U.S. trade-book publishers, believes Irving is truly great—but that’s not an adjective he thinks should be applied to editors. There are talented and less talented editors, to be sure, but he believes “great” should be reserved for the writer of a novel, nonfiction book or magazine feature. An editor can be excellent, in his view, but not great.
After 42 years of writing for eight book editors plus hundreds of magazine and newspaper editors, I respectfully disagree. I have experienced great editors, whose very excellence makes them great. And while Karp has never edited my writing, other writers I respect have mentioned him as a great editor.
Unlike most book editors, Karp worked as a newspaper reporter first, at the Providence Journal and The Miami Herald, after graduating from Brown University, where he served as editor in chief of the student newspaper. He made himself known in the book world first at Random House, which, like Simon & Schuster, is a giant in trade publishing. Karp spent 16 years there, climbing the ladder on his talent and becoming the top editor at its flagship imprint.
In 1999, at my request, Karp, the rising Random House star, took time from his overwhelming schedule to offer advice gratis in a magazine I edited, for members of the journalism group Investigative Reporters and Editors. One practical point he made I have never violated as an author: “Make sure you draft an outline and show it to your editor before you begin churning out the first draft. That way, you’ll be certain you and your editor envision the same book.”
In 2005, Karp made a daring move at age 41, jumping to the Hachette Book Group to start Twelve, so named because it put out just one book a month—one quality book, as Karp says, which would get nearly undivided attention.
At the time, Steven Zeitchik reported in Publishers Weekly that Karp sometimes has the tendency to “leap before he looks.” His commentary said almost nothing negative about Karp, though, noting he had “shot through the profession as though in a pneumatic tube.” He seemed to attract attention whatever he said or did, according to Zeitchik: “People still talk about an ill-fated hair-coloring experiment as if [Karp] were Brad Pitt.” And why not, Zeitchik asked. “The Jon Karp story has been fascinating, a chance to watch a remarkable career unfold before our eyes. In the storytelling business, he has offered the ultimate narrative—a complex character and the sharpest plot twists.”
By any measure—literary quality and sales among them—Twelve succeeded, and Karp left it reluctantly in 2010 for the unusually appealing offer from Simon & Schuster. Its top editing job, he said, “is one of the best and most interesting in the industry. Only two people have held it in the past 25 years. The range of authors and the depth of editorial talent is extraordinary.”
Furthermore, Karp wanted to find out if the Twelve model “could work on a larger scale. I wanted a chance to lead, to build a team, and to see whether a traditional publishing imprint could run in a different, better way.”
He created teams within S&S—editors, publicists and marketers pulling together on specific books from the moment of acquisition. “If an editor wants to acquire a book, the only thing I do is approve the money being spent,” Karp said. “Every author is here because someone deeply believes in the project.”
Listening to Karp talk about Irving’s 13 novels underscores what he hopes to find in any writer of fiction or nonfiction, famous or not. Naturally, Karp believes Irving is extremely talented, and talent is hard to account for totally. But he harbors no doubt that talent derives partly from dedication to the craft.
“In my 20 years as an editor,” he says of Irving, “I’ve never worked with a novelist ... so disciplined in his approach to work and so true to his own creative vision. ... Having witnessed just how much time and thought and ardor he puts into every aspect of his writing, I have a much better understanding of why his books are great, and why his greatness eludes most writers.” Beyond Irving’s dedication, Karp notes, he, like the small percentage of other great writers, has “something to say, and a story to tell.”
When first evaluating the work of a writer unknown to him, Karp looks for “glimmers of greatness—a careful and specific attention to language; a perspective I haven’t previously considered quite that way; a story that seems different and fresh. In just about all cases, I also look for wit, because I’d rather not spend hours and hours in the company of a writer who doesn’t find some kind or humor or irony in life.”
To Karp, an excellent editor manages “to quibble and inspire at the same time. ... You have to believe in the writer’s work, be curious about the issues being explored, and help the writer focus on the best means of realizing whatever seems most essential. Then, after the work is done, [the editor has] to be able to articulate why it matters, why a bunch of preoccupied strangers ought to stop whatever they are doing to focus on this book. So, editors are effective through a combination of discernment and conviction and persuasiveness.”
The author Karp is working most closely with right now is Doron Weber, author of the 2012 memoir Immortal Bird, which focuses on Weber’s son Damon, born with a severe heart defect. Karp was recommended by Weber’s agent and others. “And he made a very swift and decisive show of interest in my book,” Weber recalls. “Once we met to discuss his interest, he impressed me both with his emotional candor about the book—he told me he’d cried, and he looked like he meant it—and with his business savvy about marketing it.
“And perhaps best of all, he told me he liked my title, Immortal Bird. ... My children were very attached to my original title and would not hear of another title, so I was greatly relieved that Jon responded to it. In that sense, he ‘got’ the book from the beginning and was in tune with my sensibility and artistic intention from the get-go.
“Jon still has the look of a boy wonder, but he is a man of genuine accomplishment and real depth of feeling. Those bright, wide eyes of his take in a lot and vibrate in wide but not indiscriminate sympathy with the world—and especially with the written word.”
After Karp began line editing, Weber noted, he “was more sensitive on the page than I’d expected and really worked from inside the text; my book is deeply emotional, so you can’t phone it in. His edits were almost all about cutting, and he managed to do this with great sensitivity and respect for my work.”
Professional writers should feel confident in their use of language. “I write in musical or rhythmic fashion,” Weber says, “and even one innocent-seeming word can throw the whole rhythm or meter off and create a jarring sound.” Karp seemed attuned to Weber’s way of thinking about his writing.
“Even when I didn’t agree with an edit, his suggestions were always thoughtful. ... Assuming I wanted to keep something, his cut told me I needed to express it better,” Weber says. “He made it clear the final call was mine.”
Karp offers an optimistic takeaway. Authors with talent, he says, have “good reasons to be optimistic. Digital distribution guarantees that works will be accessible easily and quickly. Readers will no longer have to endure a scavenger hunt to find you. So, with the knowledge that you can be omnipresent in an instant, it behooves you to make sure the work is everything you want it to be.
“Obviously, only a few voices are going to stand out and command national attention at any given time, but I’m regularly amazed by how easy it is to be heard when you have something to say. That’s one of the benefits of living in a democracy. We all want to be heard, and a lot of us want to listen and learn, especially if the story is a good one.”
A few tips for writers from Jonathan Karp
• Before you start the first draft of a book, make an outline and show it to your editor to make sure both of you have the same vision.
• Dedication to craft is a big difference-maker. So are attention to language, a new perspective, a fresh story, and some wit.
• The digital revolution means your writing will be more accessible than ever—and that means it had better be your best work.
Steve Weinberg, a biographer, is a contributing editor for The Writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.