The Selling of Edward Kennedy
Jonathan Karp, publisher of the just-released Kennedy memoir True Compass, talked with The Daily Beast about why the book isn’t political and the death of the embargo.
How do you make a liberal book a bestseller when your author isn’t Barack Obama and the current list is packed with writers whose pens are poised to bury the president, not praise him?
If you’re publisher Jonathan Karp, and your newest book is Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s True Compass, you deny that your book is political at all. Karp, the publisher and editor in chief of Twelve, told The Daily Beast Monday that he sees the blockbuster memoir written by liberalism’s lion as a publishing event that transcends partisan labels.
“We never saw it as a political book,” said Karp, whose firm is an imprint of Hachette Book Group. “We saw it as an American book.”
“We thought about calling the book Perseverance,” says Kennedy’s publisher, Jonathan Karp. “We decided it was very hard word for people to spell, but that’s what his life was about.”
Karp recalled meeting the senator in his office when Kennedy was pitching his story to prospective publishers. “You usually get an hour with these eminences. You try to be charming. You hope to prevail with him in the end,” he said. At that meeting, Karp noticed two things in the senator’s study: the photograph on Kennedy’s desk with his brothers, Jack and Bobby, and the books that ringed the room—histories, written by Michael Beschloss, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, among others.
“He told us that was the kind of book he wanted to write,” Karp said. “He told us it would be personal history and national history.”
Karp admitted that the book is being promoted on sites like Daily Kos, where progressive and liberal politics rule, but said True Compass “is not a political book. It is a life story.” That may be true—and it may also be smart marketing strategy, at a time when conservative tomes occupy four of the top 10 spots in the hardcover nonfiction bestseller list ( Last Lion, a biography of Kennedy reported by the staff of The Boston Globe, weighs in at No. 12).
The details of the book first surfaced last week when The New York Times printed a review, despite a strict embargo, intended keep the book off the shelves and out of the papers until the September 14 publication date. Karp said a leak was inevitable, given the high interest in the memoir following Kennedy’s death last month.
“This was like surfing a tsunami,” said the publisher, who rose through the ranks to become editor in chief of Random House before leaving to launch Twelve, an imprint founded four years ago that publishes just one book each month. Among Karp’s other offerings: books by John McCain, The Daily Beast’s Christopher Buckley, and former Clinton pollster Mark Penn.
“You can’t fault the news media,” Karp added. “It’s perfectly understandable. The fault lies with the retailers who were stupid enough to make this book available before it was nationally distributed. They are the ones at fault. The news media has every right to get their paws on anything that is of cultural value. I commend The New York Times for their cleverness. It’s whoever leaked the book to The New York Times who deserves to have the finger of responsibility wagged at them.”
• Read excerpt's from Ted Kennedy's memoir.The Times also printed a review of Dan Brown’s much anticipated new book before its scheduled release as well. Publishers say that they like reviews to come out when their books are in stores—otherwise readers will be confused.
At this point, how does a publishing company make sure readers don’t know everything in the book before they have a chance to buy it?
“I guess the bottom line is you don’t,” Karp says. “The whole idea of the embargoed book probably is an idea that time has passed. I suppose you could say that it’s a great idea, but it’s a fantasy.”
• Chris Matthews on how Teddy toppled Nixon. Kennedy remained upbeat throughout their meetings in Hyannis Port, Miami, and Washington, Karp said, despite the senator’s diagnosis with brain cancer. (“We thought about calling the book Perseverance. We decided it was very hard word for people to spell, but that’s what his life was about.”) According to Karp, Kennedy would tell stories about his time in the Senate in the second person, talking about things “you” would have done.
“Why are you using the second-person pronoun?” Karp said he asked. “It was his own small protest for people who take credit for too much. He didn’t talk about his accomplishments too much. He was much more interested in telling stories.”
While Kennedy did not say it, Karp said that the senator’s sense of his own impending mortality freed him up to write with greater urgency and honesty.
“I think he was writing the book with the awareness that time was short,” Karp said. “It may have contributed to his desire to look at his life with perhaps more of a sense of completeness than he otherwise might have done. He knew what the last chapter was going to be. He was able to write his own ending.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.