Murray looks to be a less conspicuous character. He promises to continue Friedman’s innovations, and to accelerate a worldwide expansion of the business. “We have a green light from News Corp. to invest in our business,” he says. Friedman, meanwhile, is said to be mulling an Amazon consulting gig.
The new face at the top of Random House, who replaced Peter Olson as CEO the week before Friedman left, is 40 and has never worked in book publishing before. Markus Dohle, a veteran of Bertelsmann’s printing business, cuts quite a different figure from, say, dapper, laconic Knopf editor Sonny Mehta, a man who’s survived many a CEO and is said to have shrugged comically when he found out—via the New York Times—that Olson was out. “It’s like Dohle’s 27 years old: He sort of bounces on the balls of his feet the way college athletes do,” says one longtime industry observer.
Dohle has spent the last three months on a listening tour, and his subjects nervously await the results. So far, many prefer his demeanor to that of Olson, a man whose voracious reading failed to make up for his coldness (an in-house joke was that he was a Swede pretending to be a German). But managerially, Olson had one saving grace. “He left people alone,” says the industry observer. “But [Dohle] doesn’t come out of a tradition of editors as geniuses who need to be left alone in a room to smell manuscripts and decide on them.”
Random House had a weak 2007, and publishing sources say Olson didn’t do enough to eliminate its endemic inefficiencies. Imprints are still allowed to bid against each other for books, thus driving up prices, and every one of them has a major problem or two. Little Random has been without an official editor-in-chief since Daniel Menaker left last year. Doubleday, post–Da Vinci Code, is overextended. And two of Random’s down-market imprints, Crown and Bantam, are said to have dragged down past earnings; Bantam Dell head Irwyn Applebaum is a frequent object of anticipatory Schadenfreude. “When business is slow, tongues are fast,” responds Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum, Irwyn’s brother, declining a request to speak to Dohle and calling the speculation “fantasy-league Random House.” He says there is “zero change” at the imprints, and that Bantam “consistently delivers some of the company’s biggest-selling hardcovers and paperbacks.”
“What I’ve heard from editors is, ‘My judgment doesn’t count any longer.’ They didn’t flock to publishing because they want to publish Danielle Steel.”
Dohle has been popping into editorial marketing meetings, something Olson almost never did. At the end of July, Mehta brought Dohle as a surprise guest to a Knopf meeting. Looking over a sales spreadsheet, he muttered to Mehta, “This isn’t how the other imprints do it.” Editors who were called in during the meeting hadn’t all been told Dohle would be there. One such editor, herself a former executive, said of a book with disappointing sales, “It’s dead in the water. Don’t worry about it.” Another person in attendance says, “You could see Dohle’s eyebrows going, ‘Oh boy, that was candid.’ ” What was his take on the proceedings? Where would these little observations lead, and how would they affect the people in this room? No one yet knows.
“I think agents often like for there to be problems, because they can be the stalwart support behind a writer.” —GARY FISKETJON, KNOPF EDITOR
The blockbuster era makes retaining marquee writers an increasingly complex proposition. Back when Grove’s Barney Rosset was boozing around Paris with Samuel Beckett, agents were adjuncts, the ones who handled the details (in fact, Rosset became Beckett’s agent too). The editor, both best friend and midwife to genius, had it made. The pay was awful, but what company! And all in the service of art. “We publish authors, not books,” FSG’s people like to say—and for decades, through best sellers and duds, great writers and prestigious publishers were inseparable. Some still are: Philip Roth, thus far, has stuck by Houghton Mifflin even after its painful merger with Harcourt. John Updike, at Knopf, doesn’t even have an agent. But early this year, two of publishing’s tightest bonds were broken. Richard Ford left Knopf’s star editor, Gary Fisketjon, for Dan Halpern at Ecco (Binky Urban, the agent who handled Frazier’s deal, did this one, too). And, after 42 years at FSG, Tom Wolfe left for Little, Brown.
Fisketjon, renowned for his close friendships and even closer edits (Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, et al.), was more than Ford’s editor—he and the novelist “would kill furry animals in the woods together,” as one colleague puts it. But doing business together had become tricky. Ford’s literary reputation and popularity had fallen out of alignment; his last book, The Lay of the Land, sold less than 100,000 copies, per BookScan. Slow-and-steady Knopf didn’t seem fazed, but the author himself was. He thought house enthusiasm had waned, and “he never felt the money was commensurate with the work that was produced,” says the colleague. It couldn’t have been easy when the Lauren Weisbergers of the world were getting better deals than he was. “He’s 64, looking for that one last score in the literary world.” Knopf offered Ford roughly $750,000 per book, at which point Mehta capped the money, according to the source; Ecco offered $3 million for three books.