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Book Review

Does the ouster of Random House head Ann Godoff signal the death of books? Nah—the publishing business as we know it died a long time ago. It’s just that nobody’s told book people.

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Gina Centrello, who was appointed to replace Ann Godoff as president and publisher of Random House.  

My dismay about Bertelsmann’s decision to throw Ann Godoff out of Random House and merge it with the tawdry Ballantine, and then AOL Time Warner’s decision to get rid of its entire book business, was as keen and reflexive as that of every other writerly-type person.

There was, too, the nasty way the Germans (don’t they ever learn?) expunged the respected and serious (if a bit of a cold fish) Godoff, denouncing her high-minded low margins before she got out the door! Godoff’s subsequent hiring by Random House competitor Viking Penguin was little consolation—and probably just more corporate shenanigans. (Random had previously hired former Viking chief Phyllis Grann—who, without a portfolio, left Random anyway, just as Godoff, too serious a publisher to be given serious responsibility, will probably spiral out of Viking.)

As for AOL Time Warner Books—which includes both crass Warner Books and venerable Little, Brown, and is run by the ever-ebullient Larry Kirshbaum—everybody has known for eons that AOL Time Warner, and before that TW by itself, never had any interest at all in the low-growth book trade.

So here I was, along with anybody of any determined high-mindedness (the Times, expressing its umbrage, ran the Godoff story on the front page—even though the Random House division that Godoff led was, in fact, quite a little one), thinking about philistines and media conglomerates, the sorry state of the written word, and the end of institutions that have sustained so many of us, when the issue suddenly presented itself to me in a slightly different fashion: Not How could they? Or Why don’t we get out there and picket for Ann and Larry? But Why, for God’s sake, would anyone want to work in the book business, anyway? What’s wrong with them?

I mean, books suck. Most books are dopier than television or movies or even advertising (many books tend to be just collateral promotions or the lesser offspring of dopey television, movies, and advertising). Even if there are precious exceptions, the overwhelming number of big-money, industry-sustaining books are incontrovertibly dum-dum things. More cynical, more pandering than any other entertainment product. Calling them books may be a substantial part of the problem with the book business—it provides undeserved and unfair dignity (perhaps there should be a way to certify something as an actual book). Working at a magazine where every day random books come flying in by the bushel (along with the calls from sluggish book publicists), you get a sense of the magnitude of the wasteland. Books may be the true lowest-common-denominator medium.

What’s more, in the book business, you have to work in really deadening conditions. A modern publishing house provides as congenial an atmosphere as an insurance company. Right now, as Bertelsmann gets ready to move Random House into a new building, facilities functionaries are measuring off ticky-tacky offices and cubicles (perhaps, as they were assigning space, the efficient Germans thought this would be a propitious time to eliminate Godoff). Virtually any other media enterprise (virtually any other business, save for the most bureaucratic and regimented) has more day-to-day comforts, joie de vivre, and personality than book publishing.

Then, on top of doing embarrassing, often even humiliating work in enervating, soul-destroying circumstances, you don’t get paid any money. Book publishing is a liberalish, feminist redoubt, but in some kind of retrograde inversion, the economic model requires that women, mostly, do the job because they have husbands to support them (young women, and the odd few young men, who end up in book publishing tend to have their parents supporting them).


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