Officials with Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck stress that sense of autonomy, and it may prove to be one of the more intriguing surprises of the recent changes in ownership: While big American media companies are buffeted by the stock market, nervously watching quarterly profit reports, the privately held German publishers are accustomed to the ups and downs of publishing, often taking a more long-term view. This explains their interest in a business that rarely generates vast overnight profits.
Still, Baker and other industry observers speculate that economic pressures will inevitably take a toll on Random House. They suggest Bertelsmann is likely to close down some of its 27 publishing imprints this year as a cost-cutting measure, and also reduce the number of books it produces. Inside the publishing house, however, top officials are cautiously optimistic.
"We didn't know what to expect, but now that we're into this six months or so, these new owners are walking the way they talk it," said Ann Godoff, publisher of the Random House imprint. "I keep looking for sign of German-ness. . . . I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it hasn't."
Although Random House's once-legendary enthusiasm for fat advances has waned, Godoff said she continues to pay healthy sums for certain titles, with no interference. "The new owners are more interested in reducing printing costs and distributing books than they are in the content," she said. "It's a pleasant surprise."
Across town at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, longtime publisher Roger Straus said Holtzbrinck has not interfered with his editorial decisions. He noted that the acquisition has helped his company compete more effectively for big titles because of its link with St. Martin's Press, which has a big paperback operation. "For us it's been an improvement," Straus said.
Others are not so upbeat. When Bertelsmann announced plans to buy Random House in March, the Author's Guild tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Federal Trade Commission to block the merger.
"We have members who say to us, 'There is now one less major publisher to submit my work to, and that's just a fact,' " said Kay Murray, general counsel for the Author's Guild. "I'm afraid that a publisher who has this much of a market share will be less willing to take risks with authors who don't sell a large number of books the first time out."
Yet big is here to stay, cautions Baker of Publishers Weekly. And on the plus side, he suggests, the book business is easy to break into, with the number of independent publishing entities in the United States at 35,000 and growing. "Whereas the large get larger, the small continue to multiply," he noted. "It's a world in flux."
The only constant is that publishing remains a crapshoot. At Random House, Godoff saw an earlier owner ring up large sales--and take financial baths--like any other publisher. The rules of the game don't appear to have changed under the German regime.
"Ultimately, you're on your own," she said. "If I make a lot of mistakes, I'm presumably gone. But if I fall on a sword, it'll be mine. And that's really all I could ask for."
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Bertelsman and Its Rivals
Bertelsman, the world's third-largest company, owns Random House, the largest publishing house in the U.S.
Random House: $1.8 billion
Penguin Putnam (owned by Pearson): $871 million
HarperCollins (owned by News Corp.): $737 million
Simon & Schuster (owned by Viacom): $550 million
The Bertelsman empire also includes:
BMG Music; Arista, RCA, Windham Hill.
Magazines: McCall's, Family Circle, the German magazine Stem and many others.
Broadcasting: 22 TV and radio stations in nine European countries.
The 27 Imprints Under the Random House Banner
Crown Publishing Group
House of Collectibles
Fodor's Travel Publications