All publishing houses are different, but Twelve Books is truly unique; they publish no more than twelve books a year. The Coffin Factory met Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Cary Goldstein and Associate Publisher Brian McLendon at Twelve’s office on Park Avenue to discuss their distinctive vision of publishing.
The Coffin Factory: We often talk about how there are too many books being published. Was Twelve started as a response to overproduction in the literary industry?
Cary Goldstein: Without question. Twelve was launched in 2006 as an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. Jonathan Karp was the founding publisher and I was a partner in launching the imprint with him. From the beginning Jonathan felt that it was believable and credible for a publisher to love twelve books a year without being promiscuous.
Before I came to work with Jonathan, I was at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which publishes one of the most exceptionally curated lists in the business. But even there, as a publicist, I’d be assigned to work on as many as eight books a season. And those books would compete for my attention, and one or another would have longer legs and I would figure out which it was and I’d have to commit my energy there. Because, at a certain point, you aren’t just competing with other houses or other publishers, you’re competing with imprints within your own publisher, often with books on your own list, and with the publicist who sits next to you. So Twelve was, in some ways, a response to over-publishing—a way to give our full attention to the writers, to the books, and devise for each of them as creative and specific a campaign as we can.
Brian McLendon: I was director of publicity in a division at Random House for almost sixteen years, and I spent my days pushing hundreds of books through the system. When this job opened up, it reminded me of my early days in the industry, where you could love what you do and focus on one book a month, and give it the justice it deserves.
The Coffin Factory: When were you able to give more attention to fewer books? When and how did things change?
Brian McLendon: I think the industry is moving much faster. I also think there has been downsizing in the industry, which has contributed to this. As a younger publicist in the early days, you were in a larger department, but you were focused on your small piece of it. As the industry consolidated, and I gained promotions, my scope became much bigger.
The Coffin Factory: What is Twelve’s perspective of the publishing industry?
Cary Goldstein: Well, it’s changing so constantly that it probably would be disingenuous to have one sentiment about where the greater publishing industry is headed. But I think that we have a fairly sound mission, which is to publish books and authors that are singular—though sometimes our mission needs slight adjustments as the business continues to change. We launched with the idea that every book would receive a certain kind of marketing well into its paperback life. That’s become a more challenging thing to promise every writer because, with the loss of Borders and with a growing digital market, paperback book publishing has changed. So that isn’t always the smartest route for us to take, for the books or for the writers or for our bottom line. But the thing that hasn’t changed for the imprint is the focus on books that approach a topic from a singular perspective, or authors who have a singular authority.
For example, this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, and already we know of many books being published on the topic. We got this proposal over a year ago, for a project called “Dallas 1963.” When the project first arrived, I kind of rolled my eyes—
Brian McLendon: I rolled mine, too.
Cary Goldstein: We communally rolled our eyes and said Kennedy assassination. But then we started to look at the proposal a little more carefully, and it had a very singular way into the event, which was to say that this was the biography of a city, as opposed to some rehash or “new view” of the conspiracies that may have taken place. And so, instead of asking what role the Cold War or the Russians or the Cubans—or the mob, for that matter—may have had in the assassination, this said: Well, hold on a second. If you look at the politics, the people, and the power that were in Dallas in the years leading up to 1960—and of course from ’60 to ’63—what you’ll find is that everybody who had any reason to want this man dead was already in the city. You had, in that one city, General Walker, fired by Kennedy for trying to brainwash troops with John Birch Society propaganda. You had a mayor in Dallas who made it illegal to fly the flag of the UN. You had Bruce Alger, the most rabidly reactionary member of Congress. The city had once housed the national headquarters of the KKK. You had all of these forces in one city at the same time, distributing pamphlets in the weeks leading up to Kennedy’s visit that quite literally said, “Wanted for Treason,” with what looked like a mugshot of him. They hated him. But this wasn’t just a week-long event. This was many years in the making—it’s why Johnson was picked by the Kennedys, just to win Texas, for this reason. And with this book, it’s forget about the tin-foil hats and the black helicopters—the vitriol was there the whole time.
Brian McLendon: This is the reason I love Twelve. We read this proposal, came in the next day, both looked at each other and were like, “We have to buy this book.” The conversation about the Kennedy assassination has been morphed over fifty years and this takes it back. It’s what Twelve does so well: redefines the conversation—or creates a conversation.
The Coffin Factory: Your mission statement says you not only aim to sell books and create conversations, but to build audiences. How do you build an audience?
Cary Goldstein: When we launched in 2006, social media did not play the same role in marketing a book that it does now. And so when you talk about creating an audience, you can’t do that without talking about social media. But at the time, it didn’t play as oversized a role. So, one of the things that we have done, and continue to do, is think about creative ways to promote our books. Publicity is king at the imprint.
I think of Christopher Hitchens’ god Is Not Great, which was our first major success at Twelve. Off the bat, one of the things we decided to do was—instead of going the traditional bookstore book tour route—we created a series of public debates, in which Christopher would take on a local man or woman of faith, in their home town, in non-traditional venues. We began here at the New York Public Library with Christopher in debate with Reverend Al Sharpton, but from there it immediately went into the South, in cities where you’d find people of committed faith. And that created a very large public conversation. We also got very lucky because Jerry Falwell happened to pass away around that time, and a month later they discovered Mother Teresa’s diaries, which revealed that she may have doubted the existence of God. So all these things came together, but the key was getting outside of traditional quaint book markets and getting into a larger public sphere.
Brian McLendon: One of my favorite moments at Twelve was fall 2011 when we published a book called Time for Outrage: Indignez-vous! by Stéphane Hessel. He was a French resistance fighter in World War II. He basically got fed up in France, and he wrote this pamphlet, calling the young people to come back to—basically back to life, and fight. It sold four million copies in France, and we published it here. We went to Columbia University because, to me, having a ninety-four-year-old man speaking to students was where you wanted to have that conversation. It was perfect because it was a packed house of three hundred students, and C-SPAN and NewsHour covered it. It also happened to be right around Occupy Wall Street. I loved bringing him down to Zuccotti Park and letting him just walk among people a little bit.
Cary Goldstein: In Spain, people literally carry the Spanish translation of Indignez-vous! with them when they march in the streets, and they call themselves the Indignados, so written into the title of the book is the movement; it’s very well linked. I went down to Zuccotti Park with a hundred copies of the book to hand out, and I was looked at like a pariah. You know, guy shows up in a sport coat, and people are wondering what the fuck I’m doing there. I’m giving out free books, and they’re looking at me like. . .you know. And these kids had, I felt, maybe understood why they were there personally, but didn’t understand the larger lineage of the tradition in which they were fighting—where it came from, and the larger ways they were connected with movements in other places, other cities, other countries. Had people of the Occupy movement understood what role Stéphane Hessel played, we could have had as large a hit as they did in France. But we didn’t, and you can’t always win.
Brian McLendon: During the Occupy movement we also did Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig’s book, Republic, Lost, and we toured him. Every city he went to, there was an Occupy movement. He insisted—and I was all for this—that we stop his media interviews for an hour every day to go and talk to the Occupy movement about what they’re fighting against, what it meant. It’s not just about getting on NPR, it’s also trying to reach that level, and we’re open to it. Our authors are partners with us. Often when they come to us with an idea, our first response is, Cool! How can we make this go further?
The Coffin Factory: With books like One World Schoolhouse, The Waxman Report, and Republic, Lost, Twelve has been able to foster public debates and gain media attention, but have these books resulted in any changes in public policy? Or do policy makers not read books?
Cary Goldstein: Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. Waxman was interesting because here you have one of the longest serving members of Congress, a Titan by any measure, whether you’re on his side of the fence or the other. The Waxman Report was published in the heat of the health care debate in 2009, and you would have thought that as it was fought out on Capitol Hill, readers would have wanted to understand exactly what was happening, but that didn’t necessarily link up. On the other hand, a book like Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s Start-up Nation has sold in something like twenty-five countries around the world. You’ve got Arab nations, Asian nations, South America, all talking about their ideas of innovation, and what role it can play in a greater national economy. So that book’s made an impact.
Another book we published called The Lizard King is about reptile smuggling. As it turns out, behind women and drugs, reptiles are the number three most smuggled product in the world. It is a multibillion-dollar international business. This is no joke. And it all comes into the United States through Miami, these rare snakes or whatever. So this brilliant writer named Bryan Christy, who writes for National Geographic and Playboy, was covering the story. Well, turns out it didn’t change very much about policy here, but laws—actual laws—were changed in Malaysia. That’s where the main kingpin of the business, a guy named Anson Wong, was based. And so it led to not only his capture and arrest, but changes in the national law. So books can have an effect.