Book Review

Gina Centrello, who was appointed to replace Ann Godoff as president and publisher of Random House.Photo: AP/Wide World Photo

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).

Not to mention, even with this schoolteacher wage, there is no job security.

Rather, book publishing rests on a business edifice as fragile as any that exists today. Almost all the power in the business resides with (or, you might say, has been turned over to) a single distributor: Barnes & Noble. The most important number in the book industry, which few people in publishing ever take note of, is the Barnes & Noble share price, which is most often in precarious condition. The entire industry is dependent on the health of an overextended retail chain (something like if the fashion industry did most of its business through Kmart). Were anything to happen to Barnes & Noble, book publishing itself would fall into chaos.

So why would anyone do this? Why wasn’t Ann Godoff pleased to be freed? Why aren’t the people I know in book publishing (among them, my dearest friends) desperately looking for new careers?

In part, the answer is that against all the evidence, people in book publishing don’t agree with my characterization (about salary and working conditions, perhaps; that books suck, no). They seem to believe, in fact, that the business needs to be defended rather than rebelled against.

What if, by its very nature, book publishing isself-selecting exactly the wrong people—like the priesthood or certain police departments?

The love of books, or the idea of the love of books, or the identification with people who love books, casts a very powerful spell. It’s far stronger, for instance, than even the sentiment and myths that carry people into medicine—where, of course, almost every doctor is at war with his profession.

While book people will occasionally rise to decry falling standards in book publishing, or creeping corporatism, or the latest ritual beheading of a publisher who “didn’t make the numbers,” they are, in my experience, really quite content—or at least quiescent.

They may not believe, as Norman Mailer (who would hardly be publishable today) told the Times last week, that “writers are the marrow of a nation, the nutrient,” but they do believe that books are meaningful, self-justifying things.Indeed, among the people in book publishing today, there may be a telling and important disconnect that has occurred between writing and books. That is, writing is not the point—books are. Having run a publishing company, and having hired people who want to work in publishing, I can testify that in any interview, the prospective employee will invariably say: “I love books.” Now, this certainly seems to be a meaningless or pro forma notion. But my guess is that it has a rather precise meaning. Not that I love all books, or even most books, or even a particular few (nobody, by the way, ever says, “I love good books”), but that I don’t like numbers very much or technology or salesmanship. In other words, I feel uncomfortable with other, harder, realer career choices—I’m looking for a gentler occupation.

Books seem to offer such gentility—they’re a seemingly more refined product category. But a product category it is—a mountain of dumbed-down mass-market product. And soon enough, like any product marketer, you come to love your better-selling products and to want no truck with the lagging items. (It is true that there are still people who go into the book business because they have a genuine, disinterested love of literature for itself. But I know these people—and they are all quite creepy. They’re no longer part of a social norm.)Devoting your professional life to books, even to books that sell (even to really moronic books that sell), is for many people arguably better than spending life in a profession in which there are no books, and no talk about books, and no interest in them at all—which is almost every other profession (which book people are still able to look down on).There are, too, people in books who have come to see themselves as media professionals. They are held back in realizing their full media potential only because of an early career mistake (I have always thought that Larry Kirshbaum at Time Warner Books was a much more likely movie producer than book publisher) or because they lack visual talents and other presentation skills.Ann Godoff is, it seems, the former type—that is, she is able to maintain a certain snobbishness about books—and her replacement, from Ballantine, Gina Centrello, the latter, a kind of eager purveyor of a media category. The competing pictures of Godoff and Centrello, in almost all the stories on the Bertelsmann putsch, were worth a thousand words: a dour Godoff versus a perky Centrello.It is, though, I think, a kind of false face-off. They are not really different publishing people. They both seem to have fallen into a book career—Godoff first as a publishing temp, Centrello as an assistant at a paperback reprinter—and to have risen up and been shaped in the modern book business of ever-decreasing expectations on the part of authors and ever-rising irritation on the part of owners (book professionals, interestingly, have earned the enmity of both authors and owners). Godoff and Centrello are wanderers in publishing purgatory. Indeed, if Centrello’s replacing Godoff is seen as a triumph of the corporate ethic over a writerly one, when Godoff replaced the journalism legend and bon vivant Harry Evans—forced out, like Godoff, for large advances and thinning profit margins—it too was seen as an assault on editorial éclat and independence. So of course, the more reasonable answer to the question of why people are still going into the book business given its questionable satisfactions and low rewards is that—putting aside the several thousand people still on the payrolls of the few remaining houses—they are not.This isn’t where a kid with heart and imagination is going to end up. Rather, the book business is logically getting a dimmer bulb.Now, this is probably true about all the egghead professions. Public intellectuals are now merely political hacks—William Bennett, for instance. Academics are real losers, or, at best, people with specialized sexual and cultural grievances. Writers are, interestingly, often subliterate. And book publishers are … cold fish or overly promoted secretaries.What if, by its very nature, book publishing is self-selecting exactly the wrong people—like the priesthood or certain police departments?What if the book business reinforces its own failings by hiring failures (as with the priesthood and the police, this might suggest that the book business could benefit from really extensive HR psychological profiling)?This, of course, would not be a condition unique to books.Sony has just hired Andy Lack, the president of NBC, to run its music business precisely because he has no experience—or possibly even interest—in music.The least likely people to manage themselves out of a crisis are, reasonably, the people who created it.Surely someone at Random House has thought about calling Tommy Mottola.

Book Review