Stepping into the role of president and CEO of Simon & Schuster during an extraordinary time in the company’s history, Jonathan Karp isn’t worried. “Carolyn left S&S in great operating shape,” he told PW. “It has been very well run. It is profitable. It is a cogent and conscious company. What we really need to do is look straight ahead and focus on the books.”
Last week, S&S parent company Viacom/CBS tapped Karp, a 10-year S&S veteran who also held important editorial positions at Random House and Hachette Book Group, to replace Carolyn Reidy after her sudden death on May 12. In addition to succeeding the much-admired Reidy, he is confronted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the potential sale of S&S.
In a memo to the S&S staff announcing his promotion, Karp wrote about his relationship with Reidy over the past 10 years and how that will affect his leadership style: “Carolyn Reidy has shown me how an executive communicates and leads—candidly, firmly, warmly, attentively, and generously. I owe Carolyn a debt I will never be able to repay to her, but I will do everything I can to pay it forward by sustaining her standards and humanity through my work with you. We will maintain our culture of straightforward and creative collaboration, in which anyone from every corner of our organization can suggest any idea.”
As for the pandemic, Karp told PW that surprisingly, despite the massive disruptions to the economy and society, book sales at S&S haven’t dropped much. “The center has held, and that is reassuring.” He added that S&S employees have done a great job working remotely and have been able to generate lots of interest in the publisher’s books. He hopes that the worst part of the pandemic is over, and, if that is indeed the case, “what comes next should be pretty good—we have great books coming.”
Given the smooth way S&S is operating at the moment, Karp said there is no rush to reopen the publisher’s New York City office. S&S is working with Viacom/CBS to develop policies that will allow for the safe return of its employees, he noted, adding that no immediate decisions will be made—“There isn’t a sense of urgency.”
Karp said he has a good relationship with Bob Bakish, president and CEO of Viacom/CBS: “Bob has been very supportive of me and Simon & Schuster. He has given us the freedom to do our best work.”
The sale process will kick into a higher gear when market conditions have stabilized, according to Karp. “There has been lots of interest,” he added. Since a trade publisher the size of S&S hasn’t been on the market in a long time, he said the publisher is seen as a “crown jewel,” and he is “confident we will wind up in a good place.”
Karp took the editorial route to the top spot at S&S. He entered publishing in 1989 at Random House, where he worked for 16 years, rising to editor-in-chief of the Random House division. He moved to Hachette Book Group in 2005, where he founded the Twelve imprint. He joined S&S in 2010 when Reidy chose him to turn around the flagship S&S imprint, which had endured several years of disappointing sales.
In 2018, after improving results at the S&S imprint, Karp was promoted by Reidy to president and publisher of the newly formed Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group, which gave him responsibility for the Atria Books, Gallery Books, Scribner, and Simon & Schuster divisions. During his tenure, the group launched Avid Reader Press and established the Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau.
Since joining S&S, Karp has overseen the publication of many of the publisher’s most important adult books. Among them are Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, In One Person by John Irving, Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, What Happened by Hillary Clinton, Fear by Bob Woodward, Frederick Douglass by David Blight (winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in History), and The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Authors who have broken out under Karp include Jack Carr, Mary Beth Keane, Megan Miranda, Mike Rowe, and Rebecca Serle.
At Twelve, Karp published such critically acclaimed and bestselling works as God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, True Compass by Edward M. Kennedy, and War by Sebastian Junger.
Karp’s successful experiences on the editorial side of the business have a direct influence on how he approaches his new position as CEO. “My first job was as an editorial assistant to Kate Medina at Random House,” he explained. “She told me, ‘Authors control the ball.’ ” Ever since then, he’s realized that “it is clear that authors and books are what drive the business—they are central to success.”