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A Blow to Writing's Great Unknowns

January 24, 2003|Samuel G. Freedman | Samuel G. Freedman, associate dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is the author, most recently, of "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry" (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

Several years ago, I joined a small group of authors in studying what we believed to be a crisis endangering serious works of fiction and nonfiction. We had presumed that major publishing houses, virtually all of them owned by corporations fixated on the bottom line, were cutting risks by signing up fewer such titles if they did not appear to have bestseller potential.

But this conventional wisdom proved wrong. Publishers bought and produced more so-called mid-list books each year. The books failed because of the dominance of huge chain bookstores, which charged publishers hefty fees for display space and drove scores of independent bookstores into extinction.

With last week's ouster of Ann Godoff as president of the Random House Trade Group -- often referred to as "the imprint that William Faulkner built" -- our original fears are being realized. And the lessons we learned about superstores may increasingly apply to publishers: They can sell sure things in unprecedented numbers but can't discover and break out new authors nearly so well.

Godoff was fired by her boss in the German conglomerate Bertelsmann for making only $2 million in profit last year, when the corporate goal was $6 million. It mattered little, evidently, that under Godoff, Random House published 12 books that became bestsellers last year.

"Little Random," as Godoff's imprint is commonly known, is being merged with Ballantine, a more commercial division. The chief executive of the hybrid will be Gina Centrello, who has made impressive profits there and published a number of critically acclaimed writers. But she has done so with established bestselling authors such as Anne Tyler, Jonathan Kellerman and Jane Smiley.

Godoff, by contrast, discovered and nurtured talent. She commanded the clout and resources of a top executive while paying attention to the manuscripts coming in at the bottom of publishing's food chain. She made her name at Random House with unlikely hits by unknown authors, including John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and Nathan McCall's "Makes Me Wanna Holler." She turned critics' favorites like the historian Ron Chernow and the suspense novelist Alan Furst into commercial successes. One of the books she most ardently championed last year was Alexandra Fuller's piercing memoir of white life in Rhodesia, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," nobody's idea of a safe bet.

Smart, savvy editors -- and Godoff is far from the only one -- mediate between the craft and art of writers and the demands of corporate owners for increasing profits. In the past, publishing houses were satisfied to clear 8% or 9% annually; the large media companies that now control them want to double that.

Few people think commercial publishing should be a nonprofit enterprise, but when a decades-long career like Godoff's can be terminated in a 10-minute meeting, the chill runs through the corridors of all large publishing houses and into the home offices of thousands of serious writers. You cannot help but wonder who gets beheaded next. You cannot miss the message being sent to ambitious young editors.

And you cannot help but despair, out of both self-interest and a broader commitment to American letters, that the next Berendt or McCall or Fuller will have it so much harder finding a champion willing to take a chance.

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