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Waiting for Godoff

Who is Ann Godoff? At 30, the president of Random House was an aimless temp. At 40, she was quietly editing for the two biggest party boys in publishing. By 50, she'd beaten all comers to lead the most important imprint in the book business. How'd she do it? Well, she doesn't want to talk about it.

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She would rather be anywhere else but here, in the upstairs lounge at Patroon, chatting up Steven Brill, Mike Wallace, Walter Isaacson, Charlie Rose, and Steven Rattner. This kind of thing -- a gathering of the media elite disguised as a book party for Ken Auletta's World War 3.0 -- is the part of the job that Ann Godoff, president of Random House, says she likes the least. It's not shyness as much as a suspicion: A crowded room, she once joked, presents the risk of being spurned in mid-conversation.

But nobody spurns her tonight, including the evening's prized, unexpected guest -- attorney David Boies, who draws a crowd like he's Jennifer Lopez. "She's not shy, but she's publicity-shy," biographer Ron Chernow, one of her authors, once told me about her. "My experience writing about moguls is that they're the ones with the big egos, who have to dominate everyone in the room. But that's not my experience with Ann."

"William Shawn, Harry, Tina -- these are people who were either larger than life or wanting to be larger than life," Daniel Menaker -- a former New Yorker fiction editor under Shawn and Tina Brown, whom Godoff's predecessor, Harold Evans, lured to Random House -- had explained to me. "Ann doesn't want to do that." But doesn't refusing to be larger than life make you a little bit larger than life?

Menaker mulled it over a moment. "I think there's maybe a sense of mystery about her," he said. "It makes time with her seem more valuable because she has an air of privacy."

And when I finally introduce myself, letting her know what nice things her colleagues have had to say about her, Ann Godoff smiles and shrugs; then down comes the curtain.

"Well," she says, "I guess you won't have an angle for your story, then."

"In the early days, the editors were individual publishing fiefdoms," says Ed Victor."Balkanized was a very good word. Now when I think about that company, I think of Ann."

No publishing company has transformed its identity more thoroughly and rapidly than Random House has under Ann Godoff. While her predecessor turned publishing's traditional rules on their ear -- Evans's event-planning department came from Hollywood, and his mammoth book advances sometimes seemed to come from there, too -- Godoff is a publishing lifer, best known for turning long-shot propositions like John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Caleb Carr's The Alienist into runaway smashes. Under Evans, Random House saw explosive feats like Joe Klein's Anonymous turn and Colin Powell's book tour turned pre-presidential campaign. With Godoff in charge, the imprint's best-sellers are more in her vein: Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon.

For the house that Bennett Cerf built, many say, this new identity is welcome. "The difference is between Mr. Magoo and General Patton," one long-established star within Random House says. "Harry thought he was a character playing a publisher. She's the real deal."

Being serious has served Godoff well inside the company -- particularly during the final act of her rise to the top of Random House. "The fact is that Ann was incredibly ambitious," one former editor says. "While Harry was giving breakfasts at Barneys, Ann was consolidating her power. She wanted that job, and she brilliantly positioned herself for it."

"She had to supplant a lot of very powerful people," Caleb Carr crows about Godoff's success. "Ann focuses on what's real, not who is at the parties. Taking over Random House -- and I think that was her plan from the beginning -- gave her a chance to do things on a really grand scale. It was a roll of the dice -- it was, 'Listen, we're going to shake hands with the devil until we can change this place.' The ones she won over ended up sticking around. The ones she couldn't win over were kicked aside or upstairs. But effectively, Ann won."

And as older Random House editors lightened their workloads, Godoff centralized her authority. "In the early days, the editors at Random House were individual publishing fiefdoms who reported to a feudal lord," says Ed Victor, the American-expatriate agent in London who has sold books to Random House for almost three decades. "You didn't think of Random House so much as 'Do I sell this book to Joe Fox or Bob Loomis?' They were not a team. Balkanized was a very good word for it. Now when I think about that company, I think of Ann."

With the exception of last year's $3.3 million contract with Robert Rubin and the $4 million beauty contest with Knopf over Stephen L. Carter, Ann Godoff's Random House has been tempted by fewer seemingly excessive deals. (The celebrity and celebrity-politician franchise now seems more the property of Talk Miramax Books, which just snapped up Madeleine Albright and Rudy Giuliani.) And yet last year, the imprint known as "little Random" that Godoff controls had nineteen best-sellers -- a lifetime record for the group, and two more than what Evans says he did in his best year.

Of course, there is some debate about whether the ship is run tighter under Godoff or she is simply getting better support from Bertelsmann, the German conglomerate that bought Random House a few months after Evans left. Many of Evans's accomplishments -- like instinctively deciding to order a 200,000-copy reprint of Midnight -- can't be denied. And many of Godoff's marketing efforts have echoed his own: launching John McCain's memoir just in time for the presidential race; publicizing a 100 Best Novels of the Century list for the Modern Library (initially an Evans idea); getting Tom Brokaw to shill for The Greatest Generation on NBC's airtime. "The notion that Random House did not make a profit in the nineties is nonsense," Evans proclaims. "In one very good year, my recollection is we made 11 percent profit."

Evans admittedly uses some interesting math to arrive at that figure -- including the Random House books published in paperback under the Vintage banner. Godoff doesn't have to do that, because she recently received the backing to start her own paperback imprint. "I'm happy," Evans continues, "that Ann has got from new management what we failed to get."

The new lower profile is by design. While Godoff may demur at being the public face of the company, she manages her image just as carefully as Evans promoted his. She wouldn't sit for interviews for this story, but she made it clear through her press department that she was happy to cooperate -- just not to participate. So she gave her writers the go-ahead to speak to me while remaining silent herself. As it turned out, her writers confirmed her personal touch -- a bedrock sincerity and gentle persuasion, particularly with high-maintenance authors who might think they're low-maintenance. "She's a publisher, fairy godmother, and shrink," says best-selling historian Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, "like a mix between a sergeant major and the teacher at school who really believes in you."

"I don't need endless hand-holding from an editor," protests Jeffrey Toobin, whose Clinton-scandal tome A Vast Conspiracy Godoff edited personally. "And Ann's not fuzzy-wuzzy. She has a wonderful conspiratorial style, especially on the telephone. You have this feeling that everything she's telling you is a big secret, which makes you feel special and taken care of. It's fun. I think at least as far as I'm concerned, she sized up what kind of person I was and what my needs were, and she gave them to me."

"I can't imagine being better handled," says Kurt Andersen, whose novel, Turn of the Century, Godoff edited. "I had an epilogue originally, when I turned in the manuscript. Ann didn't say this, but I would say it wrapped things up too neatly and tidily. All her other suggestions were 'You might want to think about this or that.' The one absolute thing she said was 'Get rid of that epilogue.' And she was right."


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