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Waiting for Godoff

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Some interpreted the changeover as a struggle -- if not between Godoff and Evans, then certainly between Evans and Vitale, who had favored Godoff and had the ear of S. I. Newhouse. "Harry wasn't getting along with Alberto. They both wanted to control the place. The tension between them was horrible; you could just sense it," remembers Jason Epstein, the stalwart Random House editor who relinquished his administrative duties to Godoff when she became executive editor. "Si had no choice" but to let Evans go, Epstein says, "because Alberto was running the company."

Bertelsmann's 1998 purchase of Random House from Newhouse resulted in a Random House, Inc., that -- because of a merger of two massive publishing entities -- became twice as large as its closest publishing rival. In this new competitive sphere, Godoff inherited a little Random that was hamstrung, always at a disadvantage to Knopf.

"The irony of Random House, Inc., is that the Random House trade division is one of the smallest divisions within Random House," says Peter Osnos, now at PublicAffairs. If Godoff has emerged as a sort of favorite child among the German ownership (which has begun to name all its book operations around the globe Random House), it's because she's taking aggressive steps to rebuild the imprint's stature. "Ann is really taking a long-term view of growing the division," says Peter Olson, Godoff's boss at Random House, Inc.

The relationship with Olson is key. Bertelsmann's book chief boasts about his decentralized, hands-off strategy in dealing with his division heads. But Olson and Godoff meet at least once a week and speak more often than that, and he's grown to rely on her taste in books. On Godoff's recommendation, he's toted in his briefcase Andersen's Turn of the Century, David Liss's A Conspiracy of Paper, and Alan Furst's Kingdom of Shadows -- all Random House books by Random House authors. When Godoff lured Ivan Held to Random House to head the paperback division, she invited Held out to dinner with Olson at Follonico -- the Chelsea publishing hangout -- to "close the deal," as she put it. Olson was only too happy to come along.

Olson is quick not to play favorites among his editors. "I'm on the phone several times a week with each of the division heads," he says. But it's hard to envision Sonny Mehta, Knopf's publisher, asking Peter Olson out to dinner.

"She has the gift of making people pay attention," says Adam Gopnik. "Like a good movie producer, she sees the one thing you have to protect to the death about a book."

Salman Rushdie's choice was clear: When he made a deal with Godoff for $5 million, he sent a signal that Random House was a more prestigious choice than Knopf, which is run by his old friend and former publisher. "It seems to me Knopf in the last few years has become more of a best-seller house," the author says. "When I was starting, it was hard to find a Dean Koontz and Anne Rice on their list."

So how would Rushdie compare the two editors?

"I'm very fond of Sonny," Rushdie says with a laugh. "Sonny and I go back a long way. But he is the most laconic man in the universe. Sonny will talk a great deal if you get him on the right subjects -- such as his jazz collection." There's another little fit of laughter. "I don't want to dis Sonny, but certainly it's easier to talk about books with Ann."

With Peter Olson's blessing, Godoff is making little Random into the true Bertelsmann flagship: Villard has retrenched and Times Books is gone, but Random is patiently building its electronic publishing, expanding the Modern Library, and adding that paperback imprint. "It just seems like a much more focused publishing program," says Stephen Rubin at sister imprint Bantam Doubleday Dell. "I mean, the days of saying 'We'll publish this and we'll publish that and we'll see what sticks' are over."

The addition of a paperback line is revolutionary. "That was really lying dead when I got there," says Joni Evans, who ran little Random before Harry. "Ann was faced with either giving books to Vintage at a bargain-basement price or selling them outside, which ultimately would hurt herself. So this is a very important change. She can't bring back the past, but she can build the future, and that's what she's doing."

Making it work will be easier said than done. Says one former Random House marketing executive: "It's a symbolic big deal, the paperback division. It's where you are when the movie comes out. It's where you are when Oprah picks it. It's where you are when the reading groups get it. But it requires more energy, more priority setting, very sharp packaging, and building the backlist. Sonny's a brilliant paperback publisher -- he was the brains behind the Vintage relaunch -- and Ann's got to prove that she can do that."

In a sense, any competition between the two may be overblown. "Everyone is doing more Knopf-like books," says one Random House veteran. "Who wouldn't want to be like them?" Adds agent David Black: "She's always been competitive, but I don't think it's just a matter of outdoing Sonny. People have always treated Knopf as if it's something special. And it is. All Ann has wanted is for people to treat Random as if it's someplace special. She wants Random House to have respect, too, to be a destination house, regardless of who it's competing against."

That will take a little marketing muscle. Her relationships with booksellers around the country, forged during twenty years in the book business, have paid off. "There was a certain New Yorkness to Random House under Harry that might have played better in New York than anywhere else, but Ann has managed to keep her eye and ear on the hinterlands," says Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.

"I think it has changed," says Roxanne Coady, owner of R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut. "It feels like the books are coming out with a quality that's brought to our attention but in a quiet way, which I like. It's about the books -- as opposed to figuring out how to market them. They never feel in-my-face about stuff."

Godoff has established a similar tone among her editors. "She urges us to create the trend, not follow it," says Scott Moyers, a young editor she recruited.

"I think you should read James Hillman's The Soul's Code if you want to understand her management personality," suggests Jonathan Karp, another editor, who left little Random last fall only to turn around and come back -- as Godoff did at Doubleday -- a few months later. In The Soul's Code, Hillman, a Jungian psychologist, argues that we are imbued with a sense of destiny -- an "acorn" of our potential -- and our struggle isn't to overcome childhood neuroses but to unleash that potential.

"One of the ideas in the book is that we all have a calling," Karp says. "And I think that Ann is tuned in to what her calling is."

Ann Godoff discovered her calling a little late in life, but she has more than made up for lost time. Along the way, she's done what few before her have managed to do -- remain herself, and keep a lid on her own exposure. It's non-buzz as buzz, and for Ann Godoff, it's working.

"She probably is the anti-Harry," says Ruth Reichl, the Gourmet editor whose Tender at the Bone Godoff edited. "There are people who constantly try to remind you of how important they are, and people who constantly try to make you forget it. She is one of those people who try to make you forget it. Which is very unusual for this business."

And even Harry Evans agrees that his successor "is very good and persuasive at meeting authors. She has a good instinct for contemporary culture. And she's very good at selling herself."


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