Jonathan Karp is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve, an imprint within the Hachette Book Group. Twelve is an interesting imprint experiment because it acquires and publishes only one book a month. And it has an assigned publicist working on just that one book each month. (See this February 2008 NPR article for more on their individual approach.) Most editors I know handle several titles per month, some of them inherited from editors who have moved on to other houses or other careers. It really makes you think about what kind of attention each book gets. And how incredibly competitive it must be to get on Karp’s list.
In any case, Karp says in the article, Turning the Page on the Disposable Book (Washington Post)
“Like most publishers, I want multitudes of readers to buy our books. Moreover, authors prefer publishers who believe in the broad appeal of their work and are committed to selling as many copies as possible. Most authors want their work to be accessible to a typical educated reader, so the question really isn’t whether the work is highbrow or lowbrow or appeals to the masses or the elites; the question is whether the book is expedient or built to last. Are we going for the quick score or enduring value? Too often, we (publishers and authors) are driven by the same concerns as any commercial enterprise: We are manufacturing products for the moment.”
The article goes on to discuss the options available to publishers to meet the bottom line, and show a profit, which, as a business, they must necessarily do. But the outlook isn’t always pretty because it can result in books driven by consumption rather than by the artistic endeavor. That’s not to say that some books don’t satisfy both. But it can become a struggle to balance quality with expediency, as authors who are pushed to produce at least one book per year know. The compromises can be unsatsifying, particularly when each author generates their best work at varying rates of speed and levels of revision.
This art vs. commerce question is also a quandary I face myself when considering books to represent. When faced with the oft-asked question: “What are you looking for?”, I feel I must reply: “Something I love…. and something I can sell.” Because without the latter, neither I nor the author can pay the mortgage, no matter how much of a fangirl I am. Nevertheless, here I sit, reading books looking for the love, and hoping that the sale won’t be far behind. And, yes, there is currently a book on my list that I took on for the love and knew that it would be a challenge to sell. Luckily, I currently have the option to work on it, whether it takes me three months or three years, but not everyone is afforded that luxury.