Knopf: The Business of Taste

M.S. in Publishing students with Knopf's Erinn Hartman, Diana Miller, Peter Mendelsund (1st, 2nd, and 4th from left), Russell Perreault (front left), Tim O'Connell (front right), and Paul Bogaards (rear right).
M.S. in Publishing students with Knopf’s Erinn Hartman, Diana Miller, Peter Mendelsund (1st, 2nd, and 4th from left), Russell Perreault (front left), Tim O’Connell (front right), and Paul Bogaards (rear right).

“People are reading!” said Paul Bogaards, Executive Director of Publicity, Promotion, & Media Relations at Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Penguin Random House (U.S.). “We’re very optimistic!” As Knopf approaches its 100th anniversary in 2015, the imprint has good reason to celebrate a storied literary legacy. During one of the regular industry visits sponsored by the NYU-SCPS M.S. in Publishing: Digital & Print Media program, students met with Bogaards as well as with editors, publicists, and a top art director to learn more about the traditions and philosophy of publishing at Knopf.

While giving an overview of the company and the team that would be speaking to us, Bogaards contextualized Knopf’s approach to business. He emphasized that the imprint is driven by the books the editors carefully curate. “Young editors are the gas that keeps the engine running,” noted Bogaards. Their individual tastes give Knopf its wide breadth, with a front list that currently includes Duty by Robert Gates, One More Thing by B.J. Novak, and Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. However, in 99 years, Knopf has had only three Editors-in-Chief: Alfred A. Knopf, Robert Gottlieb, and, currently, Sonny Mehta, fostering a distinct voice and reputation.

Diana Miller, Editor at Alfred A. Knopf, and Tim O’Connell, Editor at Vintage/Anchor, helped us understand the process of determining the right fit between an author and editor. “You have to position yourself as liking a certain kind of fiction or non-fiction,” said Miller. She personally values bringing in voices from around the world, underscoring the legacy of the imprint itself. Her current list includes Longbourn, a below-stairs answer to Pride and Prejudice by Jo Baker; Dust, a debut novel about a splintered Kenyan family by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor; and The Infatuations, a novel by the acclaimed Spanish writer Javier Marías.

In fact the Marías acquisition permitted Tim O’Connell to republish some of the writer’s backlist at Vintage/Anchor, adding to the cohesive voice of Knopf. O’Connell was also very proud of his books Taipei by Tao Lin (a writer known for his prominent Internet presence as well as his voice), and Novak’s One More Thing, a collection of literary short stories by a writer previously recognized for his TV work. Both books involved repositioning authors and introducing them to new audiences.

Unique covers, of course, help and this is the purview of Peter Mendelsund, Art Director at Pantheon & Associate Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf, who explained to us his approach to cover design. “I look for some form of visual emblem in the tale that can, by itself, bear the weight of the entire story,” said Mendelsund. “Historically, a distinction of Knopf is the attention and detail of cover design. We don’t always march in place with the marketplace. We use differentiation as a wedge.”

It is this interplay between the understood and the exceptional that helps distinguish Knopf. When it comes down to predicting success, however, Mendelsund pointed out: “The thing you can learn is what has worked; what you can’t learn is what will work.”

Erinn Hartman, Associate Director of Publicity at Alfred A. Knopf, and Russell Perreault, Director of Publicity, Vintage/Anchor Books and Everyman’s Library, wrapped up the conversation with insights into how to best target and reach an audience. Perreault stressed that his job is to seek “the right niche for each book.” “Finding the appropriate constituency is key,” added Bogaards, who noted Knopf’s success with Born to Run by Chris McDougal, a story about the reclusive Tarahumara Indian tribe’s long-distance running skills. Knopf started by reaching out to the running community, and then widened the audience to a more general population. The book became a bestseller.

For the publicity department, staying on top of all the various outlets and audiences for a book is a constant challenge. Hartman likened the current media sphere to a “sponge that just keeps growing.” She noted that the growth of digital media is both a blessing and a curse. O’Connell captured it well when he said: “Digital raises the questions of: ‘What format? When? How?’  It doesn’t  change the quality or the substance of what is being published. We are here to facilitate the best version of what the author made.”

This devotion to authors and their careers permits Knopf to evolve with the times while remaining true to its mission—providing readers with a distinct product, published with distinction. As an added benefit, Knopf also believes in providing aspiring publishing students with a prime example of a business that revolves around the literary art.

by Mallory Conder


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s