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Q&A: Reagan Arthur on taking the reins of book publisher Alfred A. Knopf

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Reagan Arthur, new publisher of the renowned publishing imprint Alfred A. Knopf.
(Michael Lionstar)

Reagan Arthur just landed what might be the most coveted job in book publishing. As the newly announced publisher and executive vice president of Alfred A. Knopf, Arthur will become only the fourth head of an imprint that has introduced the world to writers such as John Cheever, Toni Morrison and Kazuo Ishiguro.

She succeeds three great men: Knopf himself, Robert Gottlieb and, most recently, Sonny Mehta, who died in December at age 77. For more than a century, Knopf has been both a literary starmaker — a frequent winner of Nobels and Pulitzers — and a commercial powerhouse publishing Stieg Larsson, E.L. James, Carl Hiaasen, a president (Bill Clinton) and a pope (John Paul II). Under Mehta, in an environment of rapid consolidation, Knopf maintained its own identity and only increased its power within what became Penguin Random House, the world’s largest book publishing conglomerate.

Arthur has worked for nearly 20 years at Little, Brown, a division of Hachette, where she became publisher in 2013. Her list of authors, like Mehta’s, ran the gamut from literary to commercial — Josh Ferris, Kate Atkinson, James Patterson.

We talked to Arthur about the new line of women taking over publishing, the reckoning over “American Dirt” and her vision for the future of Knopf.

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You’re going to report to a woman, incoming Knopf Doubleday group publisher Maya Mavjee, who will also report to a woman, Penguin Random House chief executive Madeline McIntosh. How does this feel?

I’m excited about many things, and you’ve just put your finger on one of the most exciting aspects for me. I’ve respected Maya and Madeleine from afar for a long time — I think they’re so smart and creative and inspiring — so that plus the whole Knopf team that’s already in place is really a dream date.

Would you say that the old boys’ club is breaking up?

I’d say there have already been a lot of strong women in place over there, and I wouldn’t want to discount the impressive and important work of a lot of the men there too. I don’t want to play too hard into that angle. It’s an incredible history and exciting future.

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What do you think will be some of your biggest challenges?

Some of these are the same challenges of any new job: getting to know the people, figuring out where the coffee maker is. But on a larger scale I think they’re the challenges that every publisher is facing, which is the conflicting demands on readers’ attention. In my early days on the subway, I first learned as a Californian what a subway fold was for the New York Times, which felt very exotic to me. When I first had an e-reader to read manuscripts, people would ask me what that was. So now, people are watching movies on their phones, they’re playing games, they’re perhaps listening to books. There are just a lot of claims on their attention. Finding new ways to navigate that — that’s the biggest overall challenge but also opportunity. There’s never going to be a lack of interest in stories or storytelling, fiction or nonfiction. The growth of things like streaming services and all of these great shows — that’s another way of storytelling. There’s always that hunger, and we have to find new ways to tap into it and direct it.

Many of the books you’ve worked on have morphed into different forms. I’m thinking of the podcast based on Ronan Farrow’s “Catch and Kill.” Should we consider books IP that then leads to other forms of art? Is this a trend?

Yeah, I do think that will increase. “Catch and Kill” lends itself to that in a very particular way, but it’s not the only book that will. Another success was Malcolm Gladwell’s [audiobook version of] “Talking to Strangers,” because he really produced it like a podcast. It has pleasures on its own merit as a book, but it’s also an audio experience. So that was an interesting merge of those two worlds. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I’m excited for Marlon James and Jake Morrissey’s new podcast — it sounds so fun. Again, that’s another opportunity to find readers.

Is Knopf’s outsize reputation and legacy a weight on your shoulders?

I think everything that’s given Knopf its identity comes down to people: the authors, first of all, and then the teams behind the scenes, from production to publicity and everyone in between. Even as we all adjust to different ways of doing business, that experience and shared dedication to quality will always be at the heart of Knopf’s identity and purpose.

I promise I wasn’t going to ask you about this, but then I saw the opinion piece in the New York Times, in which David Bowles cites the controversy over “American Dirt” to argue that “the publishing industry is broken.”

I don’t know what you’re talking about! [Laughs]

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Do you agree?

No. I think that he raised a lot of interesting points. I have a lot of different feelings about the situation. I think taking this particular book and publication out of the equation for a minute, it highlights a situation we’re all aware of. This isn’t news to anyone in publishing, that we’re very white and very privileged in some aspects — not all of us. It’s a myth that everyone came here with a trust fund — I didn’t! But there is a cultural dissonance between the way a publishing company looks and the American readership we’re trying to serve. It’s a necessary conversation and one that’s been ongoing, but this is amplifying it in ways that I think are important.

Do you plan to bring any of your authors over from Little, Brown to Knopf?

They’re all really well tended to here and happily under contract and well loved.

Any authors that you’re excited to inherit at Knopf?

[Deputy Publisher] Paul Bogaards sent me this big box of galleys and books, and it was like Christmas. I’ve been looking into the books that are just about to publish, like Emily St. John Mandel, J. Courtney Sullivan, Stephanie Danler’s followup to “Sweetbitter.” Jim Carrey has an autobiographical novel. There are all kinds of delights. Lawrence Wright has a novel coming out, and Nicholas Kristof’s book just came out so I’ve been reading that. It’s been hard to stick with just one thing. I keep jumping around.

What’s the last book you’ve read for pleasure?

Most recently I read and thoroughly enjoyed “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo. I read Lily King’s upcoming novel, “Writers and Lovers.” And over the break I reread “Mrs. Bridge,” which is such a joy. And [essayist] Jo Ann Beard — “The Boys of My Youth,” that’s such a great book.

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You’re from California. What do you think of the literary scene there?

My dad was an English professor at Cal State Northridge, so I grew up in a very reading-centric house and I used to read the New Yorker cover-to-cover, starting with all of the tiny event listings in the front. I could imagine myself attending them, like the little nerd that I was. I went to UCLA and I’m so impressed when I go back, which I do a couple of times a year, by the really vibrant bookselling community there. There are so many great independent bookstores. When I’ve been at author events at those stores, the attendance is so strong. The L.A. Times Festival of Books is truly my favorite book event of the year. The first time I went it was so heartening to see how many people come out for an event about books.

I always bristle at the knee-jerk assumption about L.A. that nobody reads. I’ve seen the statistics at some point that per capita it’s the biggest book-buying city in the country. I don’t know if that’s true but I like to trot it out all the same. It’s a very culturally engaged community with a lot of different voices. There’s a local identity that makes L.A. stand out.

Where do you see Knopf in 10 years?

I see it continuing a tradition that’s — I can’t say “really unique,” my writing teacher and [Random House copy chief] Ben Dreyer would kill me — but the same unique position as the publisher of voices that are important, exciting, accessible, fun. From mystery to nonfiction to poetry, they’ve done it all, so I see that still being their primary identity — brilliant and exciting publishing — and continuing to find new ways to do it.

Maris Kreizman is the host of the Maris Review, a literary podcast.


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