To take up the reins at Simon & Schuster after the sudden death of Carolyn Reidy—the formidably capable, globe-straddling, long-serving leader who suffered a fatal heart attack last May—would have been a reasonably daunting prospect at any juncture. But to do so during a period of pandemic, economic crisis, political, social and racial turmoil, not to mention an intended sale to Penguin Random House instigated by corporate parent Viacom, and contested by some sectors of the industry... that’s another magnitude of daunting entirely. (Joe Biden might sympathise.) Yet 56-year-old c.e.o. Jonathan Karp pictured below right and 97-year-old Simon & Schuster appear to be flourishing, as evidenced in a long phone conversation last week, during which Karp considered opportunities as well as challenges that he and the company face at this extraordinary time.
“I agree with the ‘best and worst’ scenario,” he began, for “amid the tumult, there’s also a highly engaged audience for books, and focusing on work enabled everyone across S&S internationally to come together.” One benefit of the crisis has been the impact of Zoom as a means of “democratising the conversation. [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman was right—the world really is flat—and the ability for S&S companies in Australia, India, Canada, the UK and US to be virtually in one room together makes for a much more cohesive strategy.”
This past year has been “hard on colleagues—a lot of personal sadness has accompanied it”, he conceded, yet Karp believes they have been weathering it. His editorial roots show when he adds, “morale is like fiction: everybody has a subjective view”. Indeed, throughout the interview, Karp’s long experience as an editor informs many remarks. He spent 16 years at Random House, working his way to chief editor; five as founder/publisher/editor-in-chief of Hachette’s Twelve; 10 at S&S, first as publisher of the flagship imprint, then as president and publisher of all S&S adult trade out of New York, and he has always kept a hand in editing—even now.
The Covid test
Combating Covid fatigue is one challenge. The company is doing wellness communications, soliciting feedback on how to make employees’ working lives better, and trying to shorten the amount of time in meetings. “We never want them to take place during lunch hour,” Karp emphasised: people need time for themselves. However, staff had been feeling cut off, so he started morning “Java with Jon” sessions, where for an hour he meets virtually with 10 colleagues at a time to hear their enthusiasms, pandemic issues, and to discuss what the future will look like. He has already made the rounds of the US and Canadian staff, and is currently working through the UK and Australia employees (India has just 11 staff). Clearly, for such meetings to fit into his schedule three or four times a week requires a considerable investment of time.
Ditto town hall meetings, where employees ask him questions but also hear presentations. Pre-pandemic, one town hall was held each year; now they are once a month. January’s went through the adult list; this month it’s children’s and the company’s financial goals for the year; upcoming sessions will be devoted to the UK, Canada and Australia. There is also a monthly event where several authors speak on topical issues, and also one “S&S Reads Together” book per season. The current selection, Colombian-American Dayton Literary Peace Prize-winner Patricia Engel’s fourth book, Infinite Country (March), is a novel depicting a family of undocumented immigrants.
Another challenge exacerbated by Covid is discoverability, given that far fewer readers are browsing in stores. Nevertheless, Karp is optimistic. “The opportunity for online discovery has never been more focused. Authors are doing more, indie [bookshops] have increased their commitment to online, and we are investing a lot of time in helping them.” For each season, S&S is organising digital tours for five authors to meet booksellers, and it has also started creating author videos. Although Barnes & Noble’s struggles to remake itself under the redoubtable James Daunt are well known—staff have been let go, and stores have closed—Karp did say the good news for S&S is that its sales at the chain are up over the past year.
What he didn’t comment on was Amazon and the even greater hegemony that Covid has bestowed, or the most-favoured-nation (MFN) price-fixing suit recently brought against the Seattle behemoth in the US, litigation that also names the Big Five US publishers as “defendants”. Where lawyers are involved, reticence often—understandably—follows, but it’s impossible not to notice that this past year has seen American publishing lose its two most outspoken heads of houses: Reidy died, and Macmillan’s global c.e.o. John Sargent was ousted. Whether others across the Big Five, including Karp, will step up to that kind of role remains to be seen, but certainly S&S did act quickly—within 24 hours—after the ambitious junior senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley, conducted himself in a manner deemed by many Americans to have played a role in inciting the 6th January Capitol insurrection. S&S cancelled his book, The Tyranny of Big Tech. (It soon found a platform at Regnery.)
That doesn’t mean the house is turning its back on what has been a very lucrative field for the biggest players: books by controversial conservative authors, often handled by dedicated imprints such as S&S’ Threshold Editions. It published, for example, the most recent hardcover by Fox News host/Trump booster Sean Hannity. Right now, Fox is facing a $2bn lawsuit waged by a voting machine company over on-air claims by some of its presenters about rigged machines, and some media are loudly saying that it’s long past time for purveyors of such falsehoods to be held to account. How does this compute into publishing?
Karp took pains to emphasise that S&S is “deeply committed” to bringing out books “from all parts of the political spectrum”, and admittedly “raging political debate can benefit sales”. But he added: “I’m not so sure that all books contribute in a beneficial way.” He recognises that S&S commissioning editors “have to show more discernment and awareness. This generation of employees and readers is asking publishers to hold authors to a higher standard, and that’s perfectly reasonable.”
The point, of course, was also driven home after author Barry Lyga’s open letter “No Book Deal for Traitors”, signed by more than 500 (mostly younger) authors and industry professionals. It gained media traction after it was published in mid-January, arguing against contracts for former Trump officials. The “real challenge”, in Karp’s view, is to find “the most interesting, animated and constructive voices to make political arguments with civility and verve”.
At home and overseas
In recent years, the company has become “increasingly focused” on growing internationally. Dan Ruffino, m.d. of S&S Australia, “doubled market share” during the past five years. Ian Chapman put together a “stellar” UK team under adult m.d. Suzanne Baboneau and children’s m.d. Rachel Denwood, with a five-year plan to double growth in locally originated publishing—and it is half-way there. Karp points especially to UK strength in women’s fiction, from Philippa Gregory to Nicci French; to making John Nichol a bestselling author; and to Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet’s Supertato series. After all, who wouldn’t be excited by the prospect of the pair’s Night of the Living Veg in September?
Meanwhile, diversity, inclusion and attendant issues have become “incredibly important” across imprints and countries, whether in terms of recruitment, training or titles. In July, Karp appointed former New York Times journalist and administrator of the Pulitzer prizes Dana Canedy, an African-American woman, to a job he once occupied: publisher of S&S’ flagship imprint. In November, Canedy brought in fellow journalist Mindy Marqués, executive editor of the Miami Herald and co-chair of the Pulitzer Prize board, as vice-president and executive editor, to strengthen representation of Latinx authors. In the UK, Chapman is examining equity issues and working with the Black Writers’ Guild; S&S has formed a stakeholders’ group with the guild, which Chapman will co-chair.
During 2020, the company benefited from political books such as Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough, Bob Woodward’s Rage and John Bolton’s The Room Where it Happened “dominating” the conversation. This year’s list “is so much more expansive”, Karp stressed, and he sees “publishing all authors optimally” as the company’s top priority. He points to, among other books, Sanjay Gupta’s Keep Sharp, on brain health; Walter Isaacson’s biography of 2020 Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna, The Code Breaker; Brad Stone’s second take on “the everything store”, Amazon Unbound; and Sebastian Junger’s exploration of the tension between Americans’ desire for autonomy and community, Freedom. In fiction, Karp flags Colm Tóibín’s The Magician, based on the life of Thomas Mann; Zakiya Dalila Harris’ début The Other Black Girl; and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, his first since All the Light We Cannot See. Karp describes Doerr’s book as “an international publishing event—a great planetary novel”.
On the sale
The elephant in the room is the sale of Simon & Schuster to Bertelsmann, but Karp’s enthusiasm is palpably genuine. “I was elated when PRH emerged as winner. It’s the best possible outcome after so much uncertainty.” Since the two companies are “still competitors,” these days contact between him and PRH c.e.o. Markus Dohle is “always in the presence of lawyers. We take the regulatory process very seriously.” Not surprisingly, Karp sees getting his company “in the best possible shape to join PRH” as a priority.
“There is no question that we share the same publishing values,” he asserted, but this reporter has covered enough mergers and acquisitions to know that whatever promises are made, and however smoothly both parties want the process to go, change and economies follow suit. There are always differences in culture, and it is inevitable that the culture of the acquiring company will dominate.
The histories of S&S and Random House have been entwined from the start. Indeed, it was Richard Simon, who was leaving a first job in publishing to go into business with his Columbia University classmate Max Schuster, who told another Columbia friend, Bennett Cerf, to go after the job he was vacating. Cerf did; two years later, he bought the Modern Library; two years after that, he founded Random House with his best friend. A few years later, S&S tried (and failed) to take over the cash-cow Modern Library from their erstwhile friends. Both collegiality and fierce competition wind through the two companies’ histories in a tangled skein.
When asked what essential elements of S&S culture he hopes to preserve, Karp provided four. First, “we’re a 97-year-old start-up. We want to maintain that entrepreneurial spirit well past our 100th anniversary. Simon & Schuster had their own book ideas and found authors to write them. That spirit still exists today.” Second, “metabolism: our speed to market is among the best in the business”. Third, “our editors combine literary discernment with commercial savvy”. And fourth, “our culture is transparent and collegial. Anyone can ask a question and receive a direct answer.”
At one time, Karp was known for having a second string: musical theatre. He wrote the book and lyrics to a musical that had a brief off-Broadway run. When asked if he still keeps a thespian hand in, he expostulated, “I’ve got to give 100% of my focus to this job!” but after a moment confessed: “I certainly have ideas”. After reading a novel a couple of months back, he got in touch with its agent, feeling that he had to pass on an opinion: “It would make a good show.”