Twelve-Stepper: How Cary Goldstein Went From Publicist to Publisher

cary goldstein gina levay Twelve Stepper: How Cary Goldstein Went From Publicist to PublisherLast November, the boutique imprint Twelve had a party at La Fonda del Sol restaurant. The venue is just above Grand Central Station and down the street from Grand Central Publishing, the Hachette division that oversees Twelve. There was an open bar. Platters of tapas circulated. More than 100 people were in attendance: many of the city’s top agents, Hachette’s leadership and some of the imprint’s biggest writers, all there to meet Twelve’s new publisher, Susan Lehman.

Through the toasts and introductions, some jokes were cracked, more than one with a slightly acerbic edge, about how the three-month search for the successor to Twelve’s founding publisher, Jonathan Karp, had dragged on. Some of those gathered remarked how widely it had ranged; how many people had been approached; and ultimately how, er, unexpected the winning candidate was.

Few choices could have been more unexpected than Ms. Lehman. When Twelve hired her in September 2010 from a position as a communications strategist at N.Y.U. law school, she was a relative outsider to book publishing, with less than two years of experience as a book editor at Riverhead. Her other editorial experience came from stints at Talk and Salon (in addition to being a former Observer reporter). The press consistently referred to her with the euphemism “unorthodox.” But at the party that night, and to the media, Grand Central’s executive vice president and publicist, Jamie Raab, had introduced her with confidence.

“The people who don’t know anything about her could be scratching their heads and saying, ‘I think that’s an odd choice,’” Ms. Raab told The New York Times last September. “The proof is going to be in the pudding.”

The proof did end up being in the pudding: a little more than a month after her coming-out party, Ms. Lehman was unceremoniously canned. Her time at Twelve lasted a total of 12 weeks. One New York editor called it “one of the dumbest, fastest failures I can think of.” 

Twelve was started in 2005 as a home for one man: Jonathan Karp. At the time, Mr. Karp had recently left Random House and was casting about for a new job. Ms. Raab approached him, and he pitched her the business model behind Twelve: fewer books each year, with a month of attention lavished upon each one. He hired as his director of publicity Cary Goldstein, who had previously been associate director of publicity at FSG.

Mr. Karp is a man known for his ambition, however. Some say that it was this very ambition that resulted in his departure from Random House. Last June, when Simon & Schuster came calling for a new publisher, Mr. Karp decided that the fledgling imprint could survive without him. “It’s not an eponymous imprint,” said Mr. Goldstein.

He should know. In late 2010, with Twelve leaderless again, Ms. Raab apparently could not bear the sight of another résumé. In January, Ms. Raab announced the internal promotion of 36 year-old Twelve director of publicity and acquiring editor Cary Goldstein.

Treating Ms. Lehman like a glitch in the matrix (“I’m not going to talk about Susan,” she tersely stated in a phone interview with The Observer), Ms. Raab launched into an effusive litany of all the reasons why Mr. Goldstein was Mr. Karp’s natural successor.

“It was the smoothest transition you could imagine,” she gushed, glossing over the Grand Canyon of a fault line that was Ms. Lehman’s tenure at Twelve. “All the agents said, ‘Of course!’”

So was he a candidate the first time around? “At that point, no,” Ms. Raab conceded. “And then, the second time around, months had passed, and then he was the only one I wanted.”

“He learned how to become a publisher and not just a publicist,” said Deb Futter, editor in chief at Grand Central, “especially when there was no one there.”

It seems, however, that Mr. Goldstein played what Ms. Raab called “a bigger and bigger role” even when someone was there. By the time the job came open again, as Ms. Raab put it, “he was in the saddle.”

Mr. Goldstein declined to discuss the conditions of his hiring. While he may have a publishing pedigree (his former colleague at FSG, Lorin Stein, called him “a natural”), he is also a somewhat unconventional candidate. Although he has been at Twelve since its inception, his expertise is as a publicist, not an editor.

“I used to call Cary the hardest-working man in show business,” said Stuart Krichevsky, who brokered the sale of Sebastian Junger’s 2010 book War to Mr. Karp.

Mr. Goldstein is best known for stunts like pitting Christopher Hitchens against the Rev. Al Sharpton in a debate about the existence of God at the New York Public Library. (Published by Twelve, Mr. Hitchens’ 2007 book God Is Not Great was one of the imprint’s early hits.) “My fingers will certainly have a lot more ink on them,” he said of his new role.

For an imprint that prides itself on the individual editorial attention its minimalist publishing schedule affords to authors, the appointment of a man known more for his prowess as a shill than his chops as a literary luminary has cast some doubt on the proceedings. Of the 44 original titles released by Twelve since it started, Mr. Goldstein has edited only three. Some agents have therefore wondered about the robustness of the brand. Of his capability, Mr. Goldstein said, “That’s not my bet, that’s somebody else’s bet.” He added, “I’m confident that I know what I’m doing.”

Since he started on the job in January, writers and agents have not shied away from working with him.

“If you had handed me his line edit and his feedback, honestly I wouldn’t have known that he had come from the other side of the room,” said Michael Cannell, whose book about 1950s Ferrari racers, The Limit, is currently being edited by Mr. Goldstein. And unlike Ms. Lehman, who in her three months on the job failed to acquire a single manuscript, Mr. Goldstein has already signed several.

It’s a testosterone-heavy list. As Mr. Goldstein goes through it, his publicity background shines through. There’s Mr. Hitchens’ memoir about his illness, currently with the working title of Malady and Mortality. (“It’s very much in the vein of Joan Didion’s book about her husband,” said Mr. Goldstein.) There’s Anthony Swofford’s next memoir, Hotels, Hospitals and Jails (“a very powerful consideration of masculinity, fathers and sons and his legacy in the military”); a book by Salman Khan, a hedge fund manager turned Internet lecturer (“a manifesto offering a radical new approach to education”); and The Russians, by the journalist Gregory Feifer (“he has been in Russia reporting for various outlets for a decade now,” and “his father accompanied Nixon on his famous kitchen visit”).

Ms. Raab said that Mr. Goldstein buys books already knowing how he will sell them to the public. “It’s a meshing of editorial and marketing.”

“I’m not going to pretend that Jonathan wasn’t in a very different place in his career when he started this imprint,” Mr. Goldstein said. “Is there a learning curve? There is in any position.

“I’m working very long hours,” he added.

As for Mr. Karp, he seems to have a learning curve as well. At Simon & Schuster, he has organized his staff into a number of mini-Twelves: teams with an editor, a publicist and an assistant.

ewitt@observer.com