Changing of the Guard at Simon & Schuster

Mr. Karp had been serving as editor-in-chief of the flagship imprint at Random House when he left abruptly and started Twelve as an imprint of Warner Books. Though the move meant newfound autonomy, it was seen by some as a stumble for the lifelong Random Houser because super-corporate Warner was known for down-market commercial authors like Nelson DeMille and Nicholas Sparks. But Mr. Karp’s model worked, and the Warner brand proved a non-issue when Hachette bought the publishing house in 2006. By the time it was announced last week that Mr. Karp was taking over Simon & Schuster, more than half of the 37 books he published under the Twelve name had become New York Times bestsellers. 

It’s a track record that makes the editorial team at Simon & Schuster optimistic, even as they acknowledge that their house will never be the same without Mr. Rosenthal.  

People who knew Mr. Karp when he was an assistant at Random House describe a sweet, goofy kid whose current status as a major publishing player could not have been predicted when he arrived at Random House at age 26 after deciding to abandon a career in newspaper journalism. He was known to have written and produced an Off Broadway musical, and he contributed to the Random House in-house magazine, At Random. As one former colleague put it, “He’s everything Rosenthal isn’t.” 

To be fair, Mr. Karp definitely has some jokes—he has been known to say that “publishers who work in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” a reference to the glass interior of the Hachette Book Group building—but Mr. Rosenthal has, well, infinite jokes. This is a guy who commissioned Henry Beard to write a book based on O.J. Simpson’s courtroom scribbles and hired a Judge Ito lookalike to give copies of it out at the courthouse from the back of a white Bronco—a guy whom Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonnell credits with coming up with, “He’s hot, he’s sexy, and he’s dead,” the famous 1981 Rolling Stone cover line on Jim Morrison’s posthumous popularity. This is a guy who would have probably been walking around with a hand buzzer if it was the 1930s.

“Let’s put it this way: I was never in a meeting run by anyone that resembled a meeting run by David,” said Bob Bender, who has been an editor at Simon & Schuster since before Mr. Rosenthal arrived there. “It was like a rehearsal for a stand up comedy routine, you know? Any kind of comment was welcome, especially if it was witty.”

Working for Mr. Rosenthal, Mr. Bender said, you felt insulated from the suits in the finance department. Which isn’t to say Mr. Rosenthal had the power to actually protect anyone—but he made known his scorn for corporate culture, and walked around with a swagger that empowered his underlings. 

“He regarded the corporate life as something you had to put up with,” Mr. Bender said. “The more you could work around it or ignore it or make fun of it the better off you were. In a sense it created a camaraderie among everybody, like we all knew what we were up against… We’d all roll our eyes, but David would roll his eyes and raise his voice.”

His attitude, according to longtime Simon & Schuster author—and Rosenthal pal—James Carville, made “the boys in accounting irritated.”

Mr. Rosenthal liked being seen as something of an outlaw, shocking people with profanity and regularly deploying politically incorrect remarks in the press.

“People always loved to call him up for a quote and he was always willing to oblige them,” said Mr. Bender. “He had to have been the most quoted publisher in the business over the last decade.” 

Mr. Rosenthal liked reporters in part because he was one at heart, having started his career in New York as a copy boy at the Post after graduating from high school. Ken Auletta, who worked there briefly while Mr. Rosenthal was there, said he was known even then as an aggressive little raptor. Before he got into book publishing, he served as a top editor at New York magazine, and as managing editor of Rolling Stone until Jann Wenner reportedly fired him for “not liking music.”

He never fell out of love with the press, and you could tell just by reading his quotes (see sidebar) that he had fun being a regular, reliably feisty presence in the papers. Ask him now why he courted reporters, though, and he’ll tell you it was all about strategy.

“I did that for a reason—to create a certain persona, a certain excitement about Simon & Schuster which had been lacking.” Mr. Rosenthal said, when asked if colleagues and competitors resented his attention-seeking tactics. “The more you can help people in the media, the better chance you have of getting your authors in the press and getting coverage for them.”

Mr. Karp talks about them a fair amount. Since starting Twelve—whose unusual 12 books-per-year model was an implicit critique of how the rest of big publishing works—he has made himself visible in his own way, rarely making catty comments to reporters but writing essays for the Washington Post and Publishers Weekly about why houses should be putting out fewer books. 

Some in the publishing world are puzzled by the fact that this evangelist for small lists has accepted an offer from Simon & Schuster to take over an operation that produces more than 100 hardcover books per year in addition to a paperback line. What about all that talk of focused and narrow? 

Mr. Karp gets a teensy bit defensive about this when you ask him about it directly. He wrote those essays for the Post and PW because he was asked, he insists, not because he had some unequivocal conviction that his way of doing things at Twelve was the right way. 

“You can infer a lot from a person’s decisions but that doesn’t necessarily mean that was what they were thinking,” he said. “I also think it would be really small to assume that there’s only one right way to publish.”

Mr. Karp said he knows the Twelve model shouldn’t scale, and he knows some of the core principles he has been championing as its publisher might turn out to be inapplicable at Simon & Schuster. The fact is, though, as long as he hits his budget targets, no one’s going to be worried about whether he’s staying true to anything.

“If you make money you can do whatever you want to do,” said Mr. Bender. “You can wear your tie backwards on your back if you’re making money, if that’s your style. Nobody cares. You can wear gloves in the office if you want. But when you’re not making money, when financial times are tight, then every single quirk comes in for re-examination.”  

lneyfakh@observer.com

With additional reporting credit to Molly Fischer

Changing of the Guard at Simon & Schuster