A Farewell To Bad Books Jonathan Karp, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve, explains why we're living in "the age of the disposable book" and why he believes most books will inevitably wind up in the bargain bin.

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GUY RAZ, host:

No author likes to see his book in the bargain bin or on the remainder shelf, but according to Jonathan Karp, the editor in chief of TWELVE, a New York publishing house, that's where many books end up. Or rather, that's where the lucky books end up. The rest go to the mulching machine, hauled off, ground up and thrown away or recycled. Jonathan Karp says it proves his point. There are too many books these days and too many bad books.

In a recent op-ed in the Outlook section of the Washington Post, he describes self-aggrandizing memoirs by recovering addicts, poignant portraits of heroic pets, and hyperbolic, ideological tracks by insufferable cable-TV pundits. Do you still keep the books you read? What do you hang onto? And why? Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255, our email address, talk@npr.org, and you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Jonathan Karp joins us now from our New York bureau. Thanks for your time.

Mr. JONATHAN KARP (Editor in Chief, TWELVE): My pleasure.

RAZ: What constitutes a disposable book?

Mr. KARP: Anything that's not built to last. I don't think you should distinguish so much between books that are good or bad, because, really, quality is a subjective point of view. I do think that there are a lot of books that are manufactured for the moment, and they're produced like any other product. And it's not just the publishers who bear some responsibility for that. The authors do, as well. I mean, they're trying to get their works off the conveyer belt and into the stores as quickly as possible.

RAZ: And in this article you wrote, you sort of - it's sort of a confession, in a sense. You write about some books that you've been responsible for that you are ashamed of. One is a White House - a memoir written by Dick Morris.

Mr. KARP: Yes, I wanted to learn about how presidential politics work, and so, I volunteered to work on that memoir, and it was not my greatest moment. I didn't think that the book was everything it could have been, because it was written so fast. And that's frequently the problem. It's just that books get written so fast.

RAZ: Mm-hm. You talk about an inspirational autobiography by the pop singer, Clay Aiken. It was written and published in four months.

Mr. KARP: Now, I have to say, he had a collaborator on that book who did a magnificent job, and I certainly don't think the book would have been half as good as it was without her. And I actually thought that for what it was, people really liked that book, and I did get some very angry email from the Clay Aiken fans. I believe they're called Claymates (ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KARP: And they were very upset, because I had said that - I've also worked on a book by General Manuel Noriega, and I said that Clay Aiken was actually more difficult to work with than Manuel Noriega.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KARP: But I want to say for the record that I didn't mean that so much as disrespect for Clay Aiken as praise for General Noriega.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: You work in this industry. This is your livelihood. You publish books. And yet, you are firing a shot at your own industry.

Mr. KARP: Well, I was asked by terrific editor at the Outlook section, a guy named Warren Bass, for my opinion of how things were going, and I don't think that it's necessarily all so bad. I actually think that this age of disposable books that we're living in could end very soon with the advent of digital distribution. I think that when publishers, across the board, have access to more readers online, the result could be better books, ultimately.

RAZ: Why is it that there's this explosion, proliferation? I mean, here at NPR, you go on the shelves, you pass by the shelves, and there are thousands and thousands of books sent here by publishers, I mean, more books than ever - than I have ever seen in any other place except for a library. Why are so many books, and bad books, being published?

Mr. KARP: Well, I'll quote John Mellencamp for you. I think he said a million young poets just screaming out their words in a world full of people just living to be heard. A literary agent told me that there are more people writing books than there are reading them, and this is an award - this is a literary agent who represents Nobel Award-winning authors. I think that we all want to be heard and it's - and really all that's happened is that more and more people, through desktop publishing and computer technology, they have - they have access to an audience now.

I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of books published, most of them by smaller publishers. So, I don't think it's surprising that everybody wants to tell their story. I guess what's a little bit surprising is that publishers don't seem to want to exercise the gatekeeper role, or the filtering role quite, as vigilantly as they used to. I have a theory about why that - why that's so, if you want to talk about that.

RAZ: Why is that?

Mr. KARP: Well, I think it's because publishers are basically working on a fiscal-year basis, and they have to grow, like any other business, somewhere between four to eight percent a year, generally, and it's very hard to grow in a retail market that's essentially flat. So, one way of growing is to simply publish more books.

RAZ: Mm-hm. And do you have some of these disposable books in your own collection?

Mr. KARP: In my own personal collection? Yes, I do, and...

RAZ: So, you keep them?

Mr. KARP: Some of them, yeah.

RAZ: You don't mulch them?

Mr. KARP: I have not practiced any mulching, although I suppose it might be environmentally progressive to do so. And as I suggest, you could save coastal cities by mulching books. So, it might not be a bad thing. As a publisher, I'm certainly trying very hard not to publish disposable books anymore, and one of the reasons why the imprint is called Twelve is because we are only publishing 12 books a year, only one a month.

RAZ: How many - roughly how many books published each year are actually financial successful - financially successful?

Mr. KARP: Well, you know, that's impossible for me to say, because obviously there are hundreds of thousands of books published, and some of them are self-published. I think that the major publishers, the conventional wisdom among the major publishers is that only a small fraction of the books that are published are really profitable, and they pay for everything else. You have a megahit like the "Purpose Driven Life" or "The Da Vinci Code" and that covers a multitude of sins.

RAZ: Mm-hm. Let's go to the phone lines. Suzie is on the air with us from Syracuse, New York. Suzie, welcome.

SUZIE (Caller): Hello. I was just listening to this, and I actually smiled because I hang on to anything and everything I can get. I actually just took my daughter to a secondhand bookstore and made her buy "Jaws" and "Gone with the Wind."

RAZ: Where do you keep it all?

SUZIE: Well, I'm actually blind, so a lot of it is in audio, on CDs and tapes. And I would really welcome the digital form of books, but my daughter is only 12, and she reads paper, you know, paperback books. Whatever she can lay her hands on she'll read.

RAZ: And that's interesting because, Jonathan Karp, you make this point about digital books and how that's changing the industry and it may have to force the industry, the mainstream publishing industry, to focus on quality books now that anybody can essentially distribute what they write.

Mr. KARP: I think that's going to happen. I can't prove it. My crystal ball is as foggy as anybody else's, but I do think that you could see how, as there are more and more publishers and they have access to more and more readers, it would make sense that the disposable books would - the market for disposable books would fragment even more than it already has.

So, basically, what would happen to the publishing industry is what's already happening to the music industry, and the publishers ought to, I think, hold onto the niche of the market that they have always had, which is works that are seriously researched and authoritatively written, books that can't be dashed off, that only a really, really good writer, in concert with an attentive company, can produce.

RAZ: Mm-hm. Thanks so much for the call, Suzie. And let's go to Nancy. Nancy is with us from San Francisco, California. Welcome to the show.

NANCY (Caller): Hi. I'm not driving any longer, just so you can rest assured.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NANCY: I'm a voracious reader. I love books, but I find that once I have read them, I rarely read them again. So, about two years ago, I was moving and I had a big party, and at the end of the party, I said, everybody, help yourself to however many books you'd like. And it felt great, and I circulated those books, and they are backed being read by other people. And I am a big, big, big supporter and user of my local library.

RAZ: Mm-hm. Well, thanks so much for the call, Nancy.

NANCY: All right-y.

RAZ: Jonathan, when did this start? I mean, how long has this been going on?

Mr. KARP: Well, I think that it's always been going on that publishers have been in a fight for market share. I don't think that that's new. I would just say that it's proliferated to such an extent that now you've got everybody doing a diet book, and everybody's doing a presidential biography, and you know, look, "Thin Thighs in 30 Days" is probably three decades old, but you see these books, just every month, there's a new one. And I guess, actually, the focus is now on the abs rather than the thighs.

RAZ: Mm-hm. Let's take one more caller. We've got Keith on the line from San Francisco.

Keith, are you there?

KEITH (Caller): Hello?

RAZ: Hi, Keith. Welcome. You're on the program.

KEITH: Yeah, I can't hear you very well. Can you speak up?

RAZ: Yeah. Can you hear us? Go ahead.

KEITH: Yeah. The books that I keep are usually really good, what I consider good fiction, and I like to buy hardback copy of that and history and reference books.

RAZ: Thanks so much for the call.

KEITH: Yeah. You're welcome.

RAZ: And Jonathan Karp, do you find that, you know, hardcover books, you mentioned weighty tomes, by Ron Chernow, "Titans," and Laurence Wright's "The Looming Tower," books that you were really proud of.

Mr. KARP: Yeah. I didn't edit them, but I just read them. For example, "The Looming Tower," there's a book, when I read it, it was as good a reading experience as I think I could have, and you could see that Wright had spent years of his life taking us to a place that we wouldn't otherwise have access to, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the genesis of al-Qaeda, and...

RAZ: So, quality books are still being made? They're still being printed?

Mr. KARP: Absolutely. I'm not suggesting that they aren't. What I think is that we should place more of a premium on that and that there should be more emphasis on it. That's all.

RAZ: Jonathan Karp joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. KARP: My pleasure.

RAZ: And you can find a link to his Washington Post article at our blog. That's npr.org/blogofthenation. You are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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