Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp On His YouTube Series And What Makes A Catchy Book Title
Since becoming President and CEO of Simon & Schuster in May 2020, Jonathan Karp has taken his mantra of “let’s talk about books” literally, launching a YouTube series called “The Word According to Karp” in March of this year, in which he shares insider publishing information and highlights new and backlist books. So far, Karp has posted 16 videos, ranging from book recommendations from his mom to the best author names in Simon & Schuster’s history (among them Rinker Buck, Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen King and Brad Thor) to why he was so taken with Zakiya Dalila Harris’s debut novel The Other Black Girl, which garnered a seven-figure book deal with Simon & Schuster imprint Atria Books and was part of a bidding war among major publishing houses.
His latest video showcases the publisher’s most anticipated fall 2021 books. Among them are novels Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, author of Pulitzer Prize-winner All the Light We Cannot See, and thriller State of Terror by Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton (which he recommends “if you’ve ever watched Madam Secretary or you like Thelma and Louise or you’re curious about what a certain former president of the United States might have swept under the rug”), World War C by Sanjay Gupta, about lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, and memoirs Face by Sarah Ruhl, Three Girls from Bronzeville by Dawn Turner, Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci, This Bright Future by Bobby Hall (Logic) and Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds by Huma Abedin.
Asked about the inspiration for the videos, which he records in his apartment, Karp responded, “It’s natural for leaders of a company to focus on employees and management and the company’s performance—and of course I spend a lot of time on those parts of the job—but it is all in service of our principal mission to champion the books we publish, and I wanted to lead by example and send a clear signal that our books and our authors are what matter.” Karp selects the titles he’ll discuss in each video, and said viewers are welcome to suggest topics for future videos in the comments section on YouTube.
Karp also shares insights into the book publishing process, including a series about how to capture readers’ attention via a wisely chosen book title, where Karp reveals three rules, including: Make an irresistible promise (with such wide-ranging titles as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Mariah Carey’s The Meaning of Mariah Carey); be intriguing, as John Irving did with A Widow for One Year and Douglas Adams with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; and be clever (Carrie Fisher’s Postcards From the Edge and Wishful Drinking and Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking and Make Russia Great Again). In one video, Karp recounts that John Bolton’s original title suggestion for his book The Room Where It Happened was A Hard Pounding, taken from a quote by the Duke of Wellington. Bolton was able to be persuaded to change the title after being told that it could be taken in a much more risqué way.
Karp says that the decision regarding titles is a collaborative process; in his video about Donna Summer’s 2003 memoir Ordinary Girl, Karp shares that as her editor he’d wanted to call it Hot Stuff, but the singer wasn’t keen on it, so they kept her preference. “I always tell authors that we will never force a title on them if they won’t force a title on us,” said Karp. “There are infinite possibilities for book titles, so it’s mostly a matter of taking the time to make a list and then winnow the choices in a thoughtful and collaborative way.”
Book titles are the subject of multiple videos because of their impact on a book’s trajectory. According to Karp, “The title is the single most important marketing decision a publisher will make about a book,” and using the right title can have an “immense impact” on sales. This is because “it’s the first impression—and sometimes it’s the only impression” a potential customer will have. It may be a cliché, but Karp insists that “People really do judge the book by its cover!” He cited Laura Dave’s novel, The Last Thing He Told Me, which was a Reese’s Book Club selection and a #1 New York Times
Author names are also touched on in Karp’s video about T.J. Newman’s thriller Falling, which was rejected 41 times before landing a two-book, seven-figure deal with Simon & Schuster imprint Avid Reader Press, followed by a $1.5 million movie deal with Universal Pictures. Karp notes that Newman’s byline deliberately uses gender-neutral initials to appeal to male and female readers. In the video he states, “Publishers have a practice of using initials on fiction because they worry that some men won’t want to read books by women and some women won’t want to read books by men.” This practice makes sense, given that Nielsen Book Research recently found that of the top 10 bestselling female authors, only 19% of their readership was male, and 81% female, while male authors had 55% male, 45% female readers. Of the disparity in readership, Karp said, “One of our goals at Simon & Schuster is to change this inequity.”
Karp plans to continue the video series into 2022, with upcoming videos planned featuring writing tips he gleaned from Stephen King’s On Writing and exploring why Susan Orlean is one of his favorite authors.
As for how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed reading habits, Karp said, “Publishers of all kinds are reporting a surge in book sales, especially fiction. Perhaps people want escapism. More people are home. There’s only so much TV you can watch, so some of them are finally getting around to that book they planned on reading, or looking for something new. I hope the videos help lead them to those books.”