Bertelsmann’s Barracks

With his burnt-orange cowboy boots propped on his desk and a western shirt tucked into his Wranglers, Gary Fisketjon, the grizzled Knopf editor, lit the first of many filterless Camels, happily demonstrating how he flouts the lax no-smoking policy of 299 Park Avenue. It was Thursday, Nov. 14, and the man who gets his paper cuts on Richard Ford’s manuscripts left his office door wide open as he puffed away.

Mr. Fisketjon’s old-school style is in for a little crimp: On Dec. 20, the 48-year-old editor and his 26 years of accrued bric-a-brac-snapshots of Raymond Carver, a bear skull (shot and killed by Mr. Fisketjon in Alaska in 1976) and his poster of Hemingway hoisting a swordfish-will be moved with the rest of the Knopf Publishing Group to 1745 Broadway at 55th Street, the sleek, generic and strictly smoke-free site of the new Random House building.

Mr. Fisketjon, however, was a vision of rugged, bookish independence-Steve McQueen meets Maxwell Perkins-as he insisted he’ll continue smoking indoors, regardless of policy. “If it’s a nonsmoking building,” said Mr. Fisketjon, who claims never to have laid eyes on his future home, “I think everybody else is up the creek.” He made clear he’ll be smoking in his office “pretty much every minute I’m in there.”

But by late February, when all 100-plus imprints and the more than 1,000 employees of the world’s largest trade publisher will reside in the first 25 floors of the brand-new 48-story skyscraper, there’s a good chance that Mr. Fisketjon’s personal smoking campaign will look like one more charming relic of a bygone era. If there ever existed a golden age of book publishing, when tweedy types with ink on their cuffs milled about in oak-paneled enclaves smoking and drinking and plucking the 20th century’s literary canon out of the slush pile, and when individual imprints had personalities as strong and as distinct as the men who founded them, then 1745 Broadway would seem to consign it to final oblivion.

The new $300 million building will fulfill chief executive Peter Olson’s grand vision of a unified company under a single roof: one big happy family, with German parent Bertelsmann as patriarch. “There’s a degree of corporate unity we hope to foster,” said Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum. Or, as one Random House editor put it, it’s Bertelsmann “saying auf Wiedersehen to the shabby gentility of American publishing.”

Not since the staff of The New Yorker moved kicking and screaming into the Condé Nast building has Manhattan corporate real estate been made to bear so much symbolic weight. For many publishing people, there’s a visceral resistance to the idea of lumping dozens of book-publishing cultures-from the fusty highbrow aura of Knopf to the mass-market commercialism of Bantam Dell-into one midtown conglomerate monstrosity

“It’s just awful,” said Joni Evans, the William Morris agent, who was an editor at Random House in the early 90′s. “It’s like taking Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, Lord & Taylor, Henri Bendel, Bloomingdale’s and Lane Bryant and putting them all together in the Javits Center. There’s something about it that is really upsetting me.

“It just feels … wrong.”

Conceived four years ago during boomier times, when 12 percent growth was a realistic goal and the notion of synergy à la Thomas Middelhoff still had takers, the new building has arrived in a virtual depression: Sales are flat, cash for acquisitions is tight, and corporate efficiencies are pinching editors’ lunch money-no more Four Seasons!

Now comes the final insult: Staffers far and wide say the new digs are extraordinarily ugly-and tiny. One publishing executive referred to them as “rabbit warrens.” Indeed, a lot of Random House folks are feeling like small, nervous animals. “Whenever they think about it,” said Mr. Fisketjon, “people get sort of squirrelly .”

An in-house urban myth is already swirling through the halls: That there aren’t enough of these Lilliputian offices to hold all of the employees. Considering recent layoffs at Simon & Schuster, the rumor has resonated. Mr. Olson told The Observer that the rumor was just that: a rumor. But he added that layoffs in general were up to the imprints’ individual publishers, who have financial targets to meet. And in any case, he said, “changes in staffing of individual positions are part of daily life in book publishing and other businesses.”

Sample modules of the new offices were set up for all to experience on the 22nd floor of Bertelsmann’s Times Square headquarters. Those who’ve visited them say they’re a Teutonic wet dream: Every editor will reside in an identical box measuring approximately 10 feet by 12 feet, with blond wood and stainless-steel detail, Ikea-style modernist furniture, aluminum bookcases, oval desks on rolling wheels, fluorescent lamps, Aeron chairs and ottomans that second as filing cabinets.

“They look like the food court in an airport,” said Nan Talese, the publisher of the Nan A. Talese/Doubleday imprint. “It makes people feel very uncomfortable.”

“I think it’s almost an offense,” said a Random House editor, who added that he was fond of Mr. Olson, but thought the execution of the new building had stumbled badly. “There’s no individuality whatsoever. When every office is exactly the same, it runs counter to the idea of ‘We’re this publisher with individual personalities and personas.’ It’s the conformity of it, every single floor. It’s sort of appalling.”

But wait a minute, kids! For the individual touch, each imprint’s office walls will be color-coded to distinguish it from the others. Publishers even got to choose their imprint’s color.

There will also be a bicycle-storage room, a 500-seat cafeteria and a second-floor smoking lounge that will be “the ONLY space in the building where smoking is permitted,” according to company policy. There will be a wood-paneled lobby that features a glassed-in bookcase with 6,000 first editions inside. The whole joint will scream “Publishing Empire” (or at least “postmillennial insurance company,” as one staffer put it.)

Still, nearly everyone at Random House’s two current locations-299 Park Avenue, home of the Random House imprint known as Little Random as well as Knopf, Vintage, Harmony and Crown; and 1540 Broadway, where Bantam Doubleday Dell resides-will see their individual spaces reduced. The executive suites are said to be barely larger than those of the plebes. “It kind of sucks,” said one junior editor. “What do we aspire to?”

Knopf Knocked Down a Notch?

Not everyone is unhappy. Staffers at some of the other imprints are actually looking forward to the move-if only to see the prima donnas at Knopf, with its patina of elitism and its collection of superstars like Mr. Fisketjon and his dashing boss, Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta, fall into corporate lock-step with the rest of the company. One editor, who wished to remain anonymous, called certain Knopflers, with obvious disdain, “the people who don’t go outside to smoke,” saying, “There’s a certain expectation that because the cultures are being physically moved to one building, they’ll have to adhere to a certain standard of behavior.”

“This symbolizes their entry into the corporation in a very tangible way,” said one West Side staffer who declined to be named. “Now they’ll be using the same filing cabinets as everyone else.”

Mr. Mehta, Mr. Fisketjon and the rest of the gang at Knopf are still seen as keepers of a certain flame, a sepia-toned ballast in a storm of corporate whitewash. The imprint was forged in 1915 by Alfred A. Knopf, who gathered literary firebrands like Thomas Mann and John Cheever. Bennet Cerf acquired Knopf for Random House over lunch in 1960: “Of all the publishing houses in the world, Knopf was the one I had always admired the most,” he wrote in his autobiography. After Bertelsmann bought the old Random House from Si Newhouse in 1998, it merged the company with Bantam Doubleday Dell and moved both to their present locations.

The Knopf imprint still holds onto its highfalutin’ image by publishing writers like Julian Barnes, Toni Morrison and Robert A. Caro, this year’s National Book Award winner for nonfiction. Consequently, Mr. Mehta (who declined to be interviewed for this article) and Knopf have managed to maintain a certain style that their counterparts at, say, Ballantine can only daydream about-mainly because Ballantine publishes stuff like the novelization of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones .

Mr. Fisketjon, for instance, spends a lot of quality editing time in his country home outside Nashville, and Random House staffers say he rarely shows up to company events at the Frankfurt Book Fair-where Mr. Mehta is ensconced in an elegant castle outside town.

Even more tangible than the filing cabinets at Knopf’s new home at 1745 Broadway will be the hovering suits-particularly Mr. Olson, who’ll be perched on the 25th floor. Until now, Mr. Olson has been stationed in the Bertelsmann headquarters at Times Square. Mr. Olson is a palpable presence for those in the same hallways with him, staffers there said.

By most accounts, the tall, bearded chief executive, a former lawyer and banker, is popular among his employees for his hands-off managerial style. Socially awkward among the bookworms, he has until now given Mr. Mehta leeway to be “Sonny Mehta,” the sexy-eyed genius who still plucks American Spirits from a sterling-silver cigarette case while mumbling witticisms and, oh yeah, putting out great books. (Through a spokesman, Mr. Mehta indicated that he too would continue smoking in his office at 1745 Broadway.)

Mr. Mehta has also benefited from one of the facts of publishing life: An editor with a little glamour has always been good for the business. As Simon & Schuster editor in chief Michael Korda, a 44-year publishing vet, wrote in his memoir, Another Life : “A house without such a personality rapidly becomes dull and sooner or later begins to lose authors. An editor who becomes a celebrity might or might not be profitable-the best are, of course-but lends glamour to what might otherwise be a fairly ordinary list.”

Mr. Mehta, of course, has maintained Knopf’s flame primarily by bagging big game like Bill Clinton, and by otherwise staying solvent with the lucrative Vintage softcover imprint, a cash cow with a stellar list of classics that he’s fought hard to protect (most recently, from the newish Random House softcover imprint now under Random House publisher Ann Godoff).

But part of what brings his persona into bold relief-besides his sartorial statements, like wearing Nehru suits to black-tie events, as he did this year at the National Book Awards-is the fact that he has remained somewhat aloof from corporate types like Mr. Olson.

With Mr. Mehta at its center, the environment has given editors like Mr. Fisketjon license to speak their minds, regardless of what their corporate masters might think. For instance, asked how he felt about New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani’s savaging of so many recent novels-including two big Knopf titles, John Updike’s Seek My Face and Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend , which Mr. Fisketjon edited-he said, “She needs to get her meds adjusted. She was always ever a B-plus student.”

Staffers say that Mr. Mehta has protected them from the corporate glare and fostered esprit de corps. Mr. Olson, one staffer said, does not have the same power over the hearts and minds of his employees: “I smile and forget the things that Peter says.”

Real Estate Romance

At one time, the real estate that editors inhabited was part of the romance of the business. After all, the original Random House logo, designed by Rockwell Kent the day Mr. Cerf came up with the name, is a quaint little cottage that would probably hold a dozen editors at most. Ms. Talese, who worked at Random House in the 1960′s and 70′s under Mr. Cerf, recalled life at the original Random House headquarters, the Villard Mansion on Madison Avenue, with a certain golden hue. “It was fabulous,” she said. “You skipped up the marble staircases, and it was this wonderful, big old mansion. It was a very elegant house. Bennett Cerf would come around and see what you were reading.”

Since then, as Mr. Korda observed, many an ambitious corporate headquarters has fallen into decline as grand designs created in boom times became truncated in down markets, with office space partitioned into smaller and smaller cubicles. “The spirit that created these ambitiously designed premises,” he wrote, “has long since departed; the present is more Spartan, utilitarian, pessimistic, the future uncertain.”

And that was in 2000. Now, the uncertainty has grown. While publishing has always been a low-margin business, the buying and selling of publishing concerns by larger conglomerates has been something of a sport since Random House was first acquired by RCA in 1965, as a way of creating synergies with the movie business. Given the never-ending boom-and-bust cycles, is there a long-term logic to lumping so many imprints together with the goal of creating growth? “None,” said Jason Epstein, a Random House editor from 1959 to 1999 and the author of Book Business Publishing: Past, Present, and Future , published by-ahem-W.W. Norton & Company. “There is no logic. Logic is the wrong word for it.

“Mistake,” he continued. “Anybody who thinks you can make money out of trade publishing is making a mistake.”

And without money, what’s left is, well … a little romance, a little glamour.

“It’s sad,” he continued. “These companies don’t really pay anything. There’s not a payoff, as there would be at an investment bank. All you have left is morale. If you don’t have that, what’s the point?”

But Ms. Talese, who roamed the same Random hallways as Mr. Epstein over the years, had a different view. Ms. Talese said that, all things considered, almost nothing had changed about making books. Corporations came and went and the job stayed essentially the same. “Jason is very sweet about all that,” she said, “but in a world of finance, a lot of the acquisitions cannot be reduced to silly greed or expansionism; they have meant the survival of a certain way of publishing. I’m just a tiny little dinghy attached to a big carrier, but the fact that I publish today the way it was done under Bennett Cerf-it’s a testament that Bertelsmann is not a dangerous devil.”

The times have changed, she admitted. It’s noisier now: “There was more conversation about books” in the past, she said, “but we live in a world of blaring music now.”

Yet ultimately, Ms. Talese confessed, her relatively sanguine view of the business is due to her long career. “If I were only in it five years,” she said, considering the kids coming up through the ranks, “I’d probably be more apprehensive than I am. It’s where you learn publishing that you tend to take with you as you go on through your years. I have been very lucky to be able to hold onto that wonderful, old-fashioned idea wherever I was.”

The Next Sonny

But the world of blaring music is not a “wonderful, old-fashioned” place. Where, then, will the next Sonny Mehta come from? If the money is gone, the offices tacky and the business buffed to a high corporate shine, what’s the attraction for a young, bookish, ambitious type? “If anything happens to Sonny, there’s no No. 2,” Mr. Epstein observed. “You need somebody with a lot of panache. It’s not a very rewarding business. I think a very, very bright kid would go somewhere else. I can’t see another [Robert] Gottlieb coming along. That kind of career? It’s just not fun anymore.”

But for his part, Mr. Olson said hopeful young editors were all over the place at Random House-although he couldn’t or wouldn’t name any. And he didn’t think Mr. Mehta was any more unique than any other Random House editor. “We have such a collection of individualists among our publishers,” he said. “To say that one is more individualistic, independent or eclectic in their publishing tastes than the others-I think we have a tremendous array of individuals and individualistic approaches.”

He is confident, he said, that talented younger editors would be attracted to the business as it is. “I would say that many of the younger people now are coming up in a business which remains, in many respects, traditional in its commitment to author development-which is, for us, at the forefront of everything we do-and at the same time seeing new opportunities, through technology and marketplace development, to be even more effective in selling books.”

Mr. Fisketjon, meanwhile, said he was still having a good time. But he would , being one of those who can still fly his freak flag without fear of corporate reprisal. He insisted that he wouldn’t be altering his lifestyle on account of some fancy pile of bricks-after all, he’d been in his share of “shitholes” over the years, he said – and that Knopf’s freewheeling culture would be maintained, as long as it has “the tendency to be profitable.”

Corporate unity? “There ain’t gonna be any meshing,” he growled. “It doesn’t matter what shit we hang on our wall. It’s all about the list.”

With not a little sarcasm, Mr. Fisketjon said of the prospect of being closer to his anti-smoking detractors from other imprints, “Maybe some of their magic will rub off.” Of course, he’s barely aware of who “they” might be. He said he couldn’t begin to name all the imprints in his own company: “It’s safe to say there are too many of them.

“A lot of these places have no personality,” he continued, snuffing out his cigarette. “It’s been leeched out over time. It’s a hard thing to generate.”

In the end, real estate alone may not have the power to make or break a book, even if the people publishing it hate their new oval desks. (Think about it: How can you line up the pages of a manuscript on an oval desk?) And even now, Mr. Fisketjon and his crew aren’t exactly operating out of an antique, dark-wood publishing Shangri-La. Since mid-2000, they’ve been renting seven floors from UBS Warburg, the Swiss banking giant. As Crown Publishing’s senior editor Doug Pepper, who works on the sixth floor, described it: “It’s a temporary office in a bank building in a neighborhood that’s duller than dishwater.” He said he was looking forward to the move.

Even so, there’s a certain isolated charm to 299 Park. From the street, you can look up to the fourth floor and easily spot Sonny Mehta’s office: It’s on the right-hand corner, a five-window spread with stacks of books and a life-size model of “the coursing Borzoi,” Alfred Knopf’s canine mascot, perched on the sill. If you squint, you can almost recall the old publishing fiefdoms, when the business was haphazard and romantic, before you needed a 21st-floor office (where Mr. Mehta will next reside) to see above the cultural racket.

The next window over from Mr. Mehta’s office belongs to Mr. Fisketjon, whose mane of blond, shoulder-length hair can be seen as he leans back in his chair. He said he gets a kick out of looking down and watching his tobacco-addicted neighbors huddle outside.

“I see a lot of extremely well-paid Swiss-German types hanging out in the rain, smoking,” he said. “I’m sure it’s not because their offices are too little.”