Publishing: A House Divided

Random House made a quiet announcement two weeks ago that it had hired Viking Penguin editorial director Ivan Held to be the publisher of a new paperback imprint. He’ll also be associate publisher of Random House under Ann Godoff. The good news for Held concealed the important fact that Godoff is moving to regain the advantage in a decade-old feud between the corporation’s two star imprints, Knopf and Random House.

In 1987, control of Vintage paperback books was shifted from Random to Knopf. Former Random House publisher Joni Evans recalls that when she first arrived, she was told, “The good news is that you don’t to have to run Vintage. We just gave it to Sonny” – Sonny Mehta, the British publisher who had just been installed at Knopf.

Many old heads in publishing still scoff at Evans’s blasé attitude toward the loss of what they call the Vintage “gold mine.” Ever since the imprint was moved, it has had the unnatural advantage of being able to choose books from both the Knopf and Random House lists. And the imprint’s success in turning such unforeseen hits as A Civil Action and The English Patient into cash cows only underscores the open secret of the book business. As one executive says, it is “very hard to make hardcover publishing very profitable.” But paperbacks? “Pure money.”

Godoff naturally grew tired of seeing her best efforts become backlist profits for Mehta and Vintage publisher Marty Asher. “I assume it will be a great pleasure for her to guide the paperback publication of her books,” says Penguin’s Susan Petersen, who lost Held to Godoff. “Books sell forever in paperback.”

That’s why rivals are asking what will happen to Random authors like William Faulkner and Truman Capote, whose books, under license to Vintage, sell in the tens of thousands year in and year out. “The understanding,” says Vintage’s Asher, “is that any books with a history of a relationship between Random House and Vintage will remain that way.”

But not so fast. “There’s no definite rule right now,” says Random representative Tom Perry. “But we’ll be sensitive to authors’ wishes. If they want to stay with Vintage, they’ll stay with Vintage.” Asked specifically about the fate of Faulkner, he answers, “I don’t know,” adding, “That will be determined by Ivan.” Faulkner could not be reached for comment.

Publishing: A House Divided