Publishers in the U.S. released more than 291,000 separate titles in 2006. But one imprint that got its start just last year has already had a string of hits with a philosophy of "less is more."
"Nobody has any idea what's going to hit. I think that publishing is basically a corporate form of legalized gambling," says Jonathan Karp, publisher and editor in chief of Twelve, which only releases one book a month — 12 each year.
Karp had already ushered a string of books onto best-seller lists before starting Twelve; he 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.
But reading is a subjective pastime, and that makes it hard to predict what will succeed and what will fail. Some authors become brand names, their books destined to hit the best-seller lists. 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.
"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," Karp explains.
Twelve's first book — Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley — hit the New York Times best-seller list. So did the imprint's second book, Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, which was also nominated for a National Book Award. Books on subjects ranging from microtrends to the pursuit of happiness soon followed, one a month, as promised.
Publicist Cary Goldstein says that by limiting the number of books it publishes, Twelve can give authors the kind of attention that may be lacking at other houses. At other publishing companies, Goldstein might have been working on six books at a time. At Twelve, he can focus on one book.
"We will have big flops just like every other publisher has," Karp says. "We'll have books critics hate. We'll also have books that critics love and that are big best sellers. And that is sort of the nature of the game. It really is a complete gamble. All you have to go on is your instinct, and my feeling is if you are going to gamble, you might as well gamble big."