Jonathan Karp Writes a Not Boring Essay on the Future of Publishing in The Washington Post

karp063008 Jonathan Karp Writes a Not Boring Essay on the Future of Publishing in The Washington PostWriting in The Washington Post this weekend, Twelve publisher Jonathan Karp levels a precise, sober critique of the publishing industry in which he predicts that "quality" books built on years of work will eventually regain their value in the marketplace. Karp’s piece, an articulation of what has been the implicit philosophy behind the 12-books-a-year business model of his imprint, argues that as much as high-minded traditionalists in the business like to invoke it, the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow is an obsolete one. He draws instead a line between books that are conceived with expedience in mind to those which are "built to last."

Karp writes that whole genres of books—"hyperbolic ideological tracts by insufferable cable TV pundits; guides to staying wrinkle- and toxin-free; manifestos for fixing America in 12 easy steps"—are essentially ephemeral, created not to last on the shelf but to disappear, or get "mulched," as soon as whatever brief tickle in the culture they happen to be responding to fades. He goes on:

Book publishers might be able to compete with news media, but we’re foolish to try. Newspapers, magazines and electronic media can fulfill the needs of the moment far more effectively than a publishing company ever can or will. Journalism has long been regarded as the first rough draft of history; lately, however, books have too easily been thought of as the second rough draft, rather than the final word.

Karp predicts that certain genres, such as those in the realm of "practical non-fiction," "will be subsumed by digital media" the same way reference publishing has been, not only because it’s cheaper but because the information in these books would simply function better in a form that allows user participation and dynamic updating.

The end result of this process, Karp hopes, is that publishers will refocus their energies on books with more longevity, and usher in a new era of "quality."

All told a smart, programmatic essay that goes further in explaining what happened to publishing (and what’s about to) than any of the vague hand-wringing that book people tend to engage in these days with such hopeless enthusiasm.