ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Walk into almost any bookstore and you could probably find something for everyone or no one. From books titled "Eat, Pray, Love" to "Toasters and Small Kitchen Appliances."
Studies may show that people aren't reading as much as they used to, but that doesn't stop publishers from turning up thousands and thousands of books every year.
One notable exception to that rule is Twelve which publishes one book a month.
As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, in its first year, Twelve has had a remarkable success in a business where there are more misses than hits.
LYNN NEARY: So how many books are published in this country every year? Well, it just so happens there's a company that tracks such numbers, R.R. Bowker. And according to Al Greco, a professor at Fordham University School of Business, Bowker's most recent numbers are pretty amazing - 291,000 new books published in 2006.
AL GRECO: So that comes out to about 33 books published every hour of the day, every day of the week, all 365 days including Christmas and New Year's.
NEARY: Staggering, says Greco. And while some of those are books only a very few will ever read - technical manuals and the like - most of them are books you'll find on your local bookstore shelf. Publishers churn them out, says Greco, even though the majority are doomed to life in the remainder bin.
GRECO: Seven out of every 10 adult trade hardcover books fail financially in the hardcover version, two break even, one becomes a hit. And it's a hit- driven business.
JONATHAN KARP: Nobody has any idea what's going to hit. I think that publishing is basically a corporate form of legalized gambling.
NEARY: Jonathan Karp is publisher and editor in chief of Twelve. A friendly and approachable man, he's so young-looking it's hard to believe he had already ushered a string of books on the best-seller list before starting Twelve. Karp began his career in 1989 as an editorial assistant at Random House and worked his way up to editor in chief. Among the hit books he worked on were "Seabiscuit" and "The Orchid Thief." Publishing, says Karp, is a business that runs best on passion.
KARP: You have to start with the impulsive, ecstatic reaction you have to a book. And if you're not excited at the outset by the prospect of publishing a book, you should not publish the book.
NEARY: But subjective nature of reading is what makes it so hard to predict what will succeed and what will fail. Some authors become brand names, their books destined to hit the best-seller list. Some famous people draw huge advances that never really pay off. And every season, some unknown author seems to come out of nowhere to make it big.
So the industry tends to publish a lot of books and then waits to see which ones will catch on. When Karp had the chance to start his own imprint within the publishing giant Hachette Book Group, he decided to buck that trend.
KARP: I think that it's possible to love twelve books a year without being promiscuous. I think you can be purely monogamous to twelve books a year. And I what I have experienced in my career - I was at Random House for about 16 years and I worked with about 200 authors in that time, and I think that all 200 authors thought they had written a best-seller that was worthy of many readers. And unfortunately, we weren't always able to put those books across.
So what I really wanted to do with this imprint was to make a promise to every writer we publish that we would do everything in our power to make his or her book a best-seller.
NEARY: Despite his success at Random House when Karp first announced his plan, there were plenty of nonbelievers in the publishing world, says Publishers Weekly editor in chief, Sara Nelson.
SARA NELSON: It seemed more gimmick than anything else. I mean, you know, how would you decide, you know, what authors would be fighting over who got to be the August book versus who got to be the February book, or would they have them be seasonally appropriate. So, I mean, it just lent itself to a little bit of snideness.
NEARY: With a list that combines some very well-known authors with complete unknowns, Karp quickly proved naysayers wrong.
Twelve's first book, "Boomsday" by Christopher Buckley, hit the New York Times best-seller list, as did the second book, Christopher Hitchens' "God is Not Great," which also was nominated for a National Book Award. Best-selling books on subjects ranging from "Microtrends" to "The Pursuit of Happiness" soon followed. And coming soon, "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles," a book about Chinese food.
CARY GOLDSTEIN: But I just really want to thank you guys, and I'm going to lift the flow off the food and everybody's (unintelligible)...
NEARY: To publicize the book, Twelve hosted a lunch at Chinese Take-Out for members of the media. As publicist Cary Goldstein served up the food, author Jennifer 8. Lee said she stumbled into the arms of Twelve and Jonathan Karp.
JENNIFER: I mean, I'll be honest, I never heard of Jon Karp, except from my agents. They're, like, Jon Karp is interested in your book. And I was, like, so? And I didn't get what it meant to do Twelve, because at that point, I had never written a book, right? So it was - it's only through basically going through the process and seeing my friends who have also had, you know, books come out around the same time - before or after me by a year or two - that I realized, wow, I'm really, really lucky.
NEARY: Lucky, because by limiting the number of books they publish, Twelve can give authors the kind of attention that may be lacking in other houses. Karp edits each book, and in the case of first-time author like Lee, helped her refine her initial idea into a final product.
And each book gets a month-long launch. Goldstein says, in other publishing companies, he might be working on six books at a time. At Twelve, he can focus on one book.
GOLDSTEIN: I think what we can do at Twelve and what we're trying to do at Twelve is to continue pushing when another publisher might walk away. And to find the right venues to make things happen.
NEARY: In the case of Christopher Hitchens' book "God in Not Great," the right venue was not necessarily the obvious one. Goldstein and Karp decided to take the polemical Hitchens to the south to defend his antireligious creed in debates with people of faith.
GOLDSTEIN: We did an event in Miami with Books & Books, hosted at Temple Judea. We had a thousand people at this event and Christopher was in debate with an Orthodox Jew, a Buddhist nun, a professor of Islamic Thought, and a born again Christian.
NEARY: And it worked?
GOLDSTEIN: It absolutely worked.
NEARY: the combination of attention to detail on both the editorial side and in publicity has proven to be a winning formula for Twelve. Six of its first nine books has hit the New York Times best-seller list.
NELSON: It's really sort of extraordinary.
NEARY: Sara Nelson says there's no other way to characterize Twelve's success so far. Jon Karp, she says, is extremely good at nonfiction which makes up most of the list. And, she says, he has a keen sense of what people care about in the culture. Whether his first year success can be duplicated, is hard to predict.
NELSON: I mean, I think his taste is genuine and his ear and his eye are pretty interesting and amazing. But, I mean, nobody is perfect. I mean, nobody ahs perfect batting average. So, you know, if next year he only has book that's on the best-seller list, you know, that's still pretty good.
NEARY: Twelve's success for the first year sets it up well for the future. With books like "God is Not Great" and "Boomsday" going into paperback, the imprint will begin the important step of creating a stable of old books that can support new ones. But Karp doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about the future.
KARP: I can promise you, we will have big flops just like every other publisher has. We'll have books critics hate. We'll also have books that critics love and that are big best-sellers. And that's sort of the nature of the game. It really is a complete gamble - every book is. And all you have to go on is your instinct, you know. And my feeling is if you are going to gamble, you might as well gamble big.
NEARY: Karp says the less is more approach is not necessarily a model for all publishing companies. There's no right or wrong way to run the business, he says. Some companies do well throwing lots of balls in the air. But for him, one book at a time, every month of the year, has proven to be a pretty magical formula.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.