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Furor Over Ouster of Random House Publisher

Highly regarded editor's job is eliminated as division is merged with Ballantine Books.

January 17, 2003|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

The clubby world of American publishing was rocked Thursday when Random House Inc. abruptly ousted Ann Godoff, the highly regarded president, publisher and editor in chief of its Random House Trade Group, often referred to as "the imprint that William Faulkner built."

Simultaneously, the parent company announced that Random House Trade Group and Ballantine Books, historically a mass-market paperback imprint, would be folded into a new publishing entity that will be run by Gina Centrello, Ballantine's president and publisher. She is a longtime mass-market publisher with little experience in the industry's literary end. She is well-regarded within Random House for improving Ballantine's financial performance.

Random House is an amalgam of different book publishing imprints; Random House Trade Group and Alfred A. Knopf are two of its most prestigious literary divisions.

"I am flabbergasted," said former Random House chief executive Alberto Vitale. "I feel Ann is one of the most brilliant editorial and publishing talents in the business. I am very, very shocked by her dismissal."

Since the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann bought Random House for $1.4 billion in 1998, the book publisher has focused more on costs and profitability. In an internal memo distributed to employees Thursday, the firm's chairman and chief executive, Peter W. Olson, said that Godoff was dismissed because despite its many bestsellers, hers was "the only publishing division to consistently fall short of their profitability targets."

In an accompanying memo, Olson wrote, "Over the past 76 years, the Random House publishing program has been home to many fabled editors and editorial leaders. Ann is surely one of them." However, "the formation of the Random House Ballantine Publishing Group ... will result in the elimination of her position."

Godoff, who had held the post since 1997, said Olson informed her at 9 a.m. Thursday that her job had been eliminated. Random House employees were told at meetings two hours later.

"He didn't say much," Godoff said, "just that they had made a decision to combine the two imprints and, therefore, I no longer had a job. My division had more bestsellers than any other Random House division this year. Our success in critical terms was beyond question.

"The only reason given for firing me was that we were not -- by their lights -- a profitable unit," she said. "Like everybody else, we have had down years, but this year there was a marked uptick in profit. We were decidedly in the black."

According to a Random House executive who asked not to be identified, Godoff's division rolled up a $2-million profit last year, though its "profitability target" was $6 million. The $4-million difference, the source said, was almost precisely the profit made on one-time Random House Trade Group books republished as paperbacks by Vintage Books, an imprint of Alfred A. Knopf. Random House Trade's lack of its own paperback line -- until Godoff started one last year -- had long been a drag on its profitability. "The economics of publishing these days are such," said one New York literary agent, "that you need more than one bite of the apple to make a decent buck. Ann fought to give her imprint that second bite."

Godoff said that she had been building a trade paperback line and had been assured she would have time to make it work. "Obviously," Godoff said, "that wasn't so."

Olson's decision to force the Random House hardcover imprint into a shotgun marriage controlled by a mass-market paperback publisher drew fire from prominent publishing executives and editors.

"I think the decision to fold Random House into Ballantine is simply wrong, irrespective of Ann Godoff's performance," said Harold Evans, her immediate predecessor in the job. "The best Random House authors will not be pleased. One doesn't want to sound snobby, but handing them over to a paperback publisher is like saying, 'Well, you're a good barber. You know your way around a head, so how about looking after this bit of brain surgery for us.' It shows an astonishing lack of sensitivity on Olson's part."

Former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein called the reorganization "very sad. I think Peter Olson has every right to fire Ann Godoff if she is not performing to his satisfaction, but to put Random House under Ballantine is a mistake. Theirs is a completely commercial list and Random House is a publisher with literary values. It sends all the wrong signals. Olson should have had more respect for the integrity of the imprint."

Godoff's firing stunned New York's relatively close-knit community of writers and literary agents, among whom she is regarded as a skillful hands-on editor with an ability to steer new authors onto the bestseller lists. As a Random House editor in 1994, she had three previously unknown authors on the bestseller lists: John Berendt ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"), Caleb Carr ("The Alienist") and Nathan McCall ("Makes Me Wanna Holler").

Esther Newberg, a literary agent with International Creative Management, called Godoff "an elegant editor with extraordinary taste and definitely an author's publisher. She's a stand-up person, a grown-up, somebody with whom you can share a secret. She's what a writer always wants to think of when they think of their editor."

Frank Rich, a Random House author and a columnist and associate editor of the New York Times, said Godoff's dismissal came as a shock. "I was discussing my next book with Ann just last week," he said. "It is impossible to imagine Random House without her. But as shocking as Ann's departure is, it's a shock to our culture that Random House, a publishing institution, is no longer a stand-alone imprint."

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