Waiting for Godoff

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.”

“Ann called me and told me that S. I. Newhouse had suggested doing a bio of John D. Rockefeller and named me as a possible author,” remembers Ron Chernow. “I told her I thought it was an atrocious idea – that John D. Rockefeller was a cold, mean, wooden person and that there wasn’t much more to say about him. She was in a very ticklish position. Here her boss for the first time in my knowledge had suggested a book and possible author, and here I was rejecting it. It was interesting: She said to me, ‘Go out and explore the idea, and if you still think it’s a bad idea, fine, I’ll deal with that.’ ” Titan lingered for sixteen weeks on the Times best-seller list.

“She laughed at my jokes, which is all that an author wants,” says Adam Gopnik. “Ann sent me two dummy book covers – the one I wanted, and one that she came up with. Ann thought that if we had a cover designed, it would help me understand exactly what the book should be. I had been an art critic, and I thought I knew what I wanted. But my wife and I opened the envelope, and instantly we knew that hers was the one. It was a graceful way of getting what she wanted.”

It took Ann Godoff until she reached the age of 30 to discover her life’s calling – in the unlikely oasis of a publishing temp job. Her life until that moment had some fantastic locations and great guest stars but no central theme. Her father worked in the record business and moved her, her brother, and her mother from 89th Street and Park Avenue to Beverly Hills. She went to Beverly Hills High School in the sixties, walking the same halls as classmates Rob Reiner and Richard Dreyfuss. When her father died in 1965, the others moved back to New York, to the El Dorado on Central Park West. Ann attended Bennington for a time, then NYU film school, where a pre-Mean Streets Martin Scorsese taught one of her classes.

Some time after graduation, she enrolled in two different architecture programs – at City University and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Design – and supported herself as a writer for Dr. Joyce Brothers’s TV show, as a producer of TV commercials, and as a saleswoman, hawking Oldsmobiles at a West Side dealership. In 1980, she landed a part-time assignment at Simon & Schuster. She started typing mailing labels, then moved on to writing the letters that accompanied review copies of books, and eventually became an editor under the unrelentingly serious Alice Mayhew.

In 1987, she moved to Atlantic Monthly Press, home of some of publishing’s rock stars before they were superstars. Gary Fisketjon was there, as was Morgan Entrekin – the party-boy publisher immortalized by Jay McInerney – years before he published Cold Mountain and the Gospel According to Candace Bushnell. The place had a sense of great things about to happen: Think the Beatles in Hamburg, with Godoff most like George, the quiet one. “She was very serious and hardworking,” remembers Fisketjon, “and unlike the rest of us, she didn’t go out and snort coke every night.”

“She told me that Atlantic Monthly Press was the most she ever learned about publishing,” says Geoff Shandler, executive editor of Little, Brown, who worked at Random House in the nineties. As her confidence built, her ambition began to overgrow tiny Atlantic. In 1990, she jumped to Doubleday, only to jump back to Atlantic three weeks later. “Maybe coming from such a small house into such a big house was not what she was interested in,” muses Doubleday president Stephen Rubin, who had hired her and now is a friendly competitor with her within Bertelsmann. “Clearly, she got interested in it later.”

The following year, after Fisketjon had left for Knopf, Godoff came to Random House. Both Random House parent-company executive Alberto Vitale and Evans have claimed credit for bringing her in; in a sense, both are right. “I’d had lunch with both Alberto and Harry at different times and told them to hire her,” remembers agent Esther Newberg.

Godoff quickly developed a specialty in unlikely, quiet literary works. Her first hit was The Alienist, by Caleb Carr, an academic author whom Godoff brought to Random House from Atlantic and who had never tried a mass-market book before. “Nobody knew what the hell the title meant,” Carr recalls. “The whole sales force said, ‘We don’t know what this thing is. We don’t know if it’s a historical novel; we don’t know if it’s a murder mystery.’ They wanted me to change the name right up until it hit the stores. And I said to Ann, ‘You can’t rebreed the horse just as it’s at the gate.’ And she believed that, and she overrode everybody.”

Next came John Berendt, who chose Godoff after just one lunch meeting set up by his agent, Suzanne Gluck, who also happened to represent Carr. “That one-on-one is dazzling with Ann,” Berendt says now. “Other editors had said that they loved the book, but in the course of conversation they raised the question of ‘genre.’ Ann just breezed right over it. She said the challenge – not the problem, but the challenge – is to get people to read it. She understood that it didn’t need editing – it needed positioning.”

Godoff also invoked her sister imprint, Knopf, in the meeting with Berendt. “She said, ‘I see a narrow trim size and a Knopf cover,’ ” Berendt goes on. “It was heresy for a Random House editor to say that, because the two houses were in competition with each other.” Today Chip Kidd, the famed Knopf book designer who does occasional work for little Random, says Godoff has “a much better design sense” than Evans ever did. “Some of the stuff I see coming out of there is amazing.”

Armed with a talent for making authors feel important, Godoff began to make their books be important. She blazed a trail of best-sellers by untried authors, creating a potent tiny Random within little Random. In 1994, she had a hat trick: Midnight, The Alienist, and Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler all sat on the Times best-seller list. She also edited Tina Rosenberg’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, The Haunted Land. “She has the gift of making people pay attention to them,” says Adam Gopnik. “Like a good movie producer, she sees the one thing you have to protect to the death about a book. Her confidence about what’s strong about a work gives you confidence.”

On more than one occasion, Godoff used her graceful power of persuasion politically, inside Random House. In the wake of the O. J. Simpson trial, Random House published two different books: Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth’s An American Tragedy from Evans, and Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life from Godoff. An American Tragedy was announced well after Toobin’s book, taking Godoff and Toobin completely by surprise. Godoff used all her power in the marketing department to keep the book from upstaging Toobin’s. “There was no ‘This was for the good of Random House’ coming from Ann,” says an observer. “She had one client, and it was Jeffrey.”

Observers saw just one other younger editor, Villard publisher David Rosenthal, whose ambition seemed as potent as Godoff’s and who might have succeeded Harry Evans. Rosenthal had turned Villard into a powerhouse with Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air and his own O.J. book, Henry Beard’s O.J.’s Legal Pad. Complicating matters was the fact that Annik La Farge, Godoff’s companion, worked for Rosenthal at Villard.

“I think David was certainly a contender,” says Steve Wasserman, the editor of the L.A. Times Book Review and a former Random House editor. “David’s a very ambitious guy. He’s a guy who had been an editor at Rolling Stone, full of beans, a great wit, voracious appetites, a man of the city.”

And yet neither Rosenthal nor Godoff had the charisma of Evans. “David was a surprise to some people, too,” says one former Random editor. “A lot of people didn’t see David as a leader, given his personality, his abrasiveness. And yet if you found somebody who described Ann Godoff as warm and fuzzy, I’d like to hear it.”

In May 1997, Alberto Vitale named Ann Godoff editor-in-chief of Random House, giving her the day-to-day reins of the imprint under Evans. The following Labor Day weekend, Rosenthal left Villard to head Simon & Schuster’s flagship imprint, taking La Farge with him; the former internal rivals now inherited a long-standing feud between the two storied houses. “Once David left,” says Wasserman, “I think Ann had the field to herself.” By November, Evans had resigned, and Godoff assumed the top spot.

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.”

Waiting for Godoff