After five years as president of Random House, Ann Godoff was dismissed on Thursday Jan. 16 by president and chief executive Peter Olson, as part of a major shake-up at the Bertelsmann-owned publisher. Random House–one of the premier imprints in American publishing, founded by Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer in 1925–will be merged with Ballantine Books, a mass market imprint that recently published the novelization of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones , to form a new entity called Random House Ballantine Group.
Sources inside the company said Ms. Godoff had spent too much on acquisitions in the last year–in one instance, she paid $3 million on a two-book deal for the authors of The Nanny Diaries , based on three sample chapters agented by Suzanne Gluck of the William Morris Agency.
In an unusually brusque memo to staffers, Mr. Olson announced his fiscal displeasure with Random House: “They have been the only Random House Inc. publishing division to consistently fall short of their annual profitability targets,” he said.
Random House employees were generally blindsided by the announcement. “Holy shit! Holy shit!” said one editor, upon opening Mr. Olson’s memo. Members of the publishing industry had about the same kind of reaction. “I was surprised by it,” said Esther Newberg, the senior vice president of ICM, who had done siginificant business with Ms. Godoff in the last year. “I’m a huge fan of Ann Godoff. She’s got keen instincts, she’s a standup editor and she’s got a closed mouth in a business where everybody thinks its okay to prattle on.” Ms. Newberg characterized Ms. Godoff as “an author’s publisher.”
While at Random House, Ms. Godoff published best-sellers like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , The Alienist , White Teeth and A Short Guide to a Happy Life .
Others in the company had suspected a change was imminent, considering the reports of big losses. But they were taken aback by how it was done. “Some of the shrewder people in the company have been predicting this,” said one staffer. “But there are ways of dealing with this short of axing a highly visible and accomplished publishing figure. The shock is the way it’s been done. It feels like they’re spiritually downsizing the Random House imprint. You’ve got to wonder about the wisdom of that.”
The conventional wisdom immediately declared Ms. Godoff’s ouster a victory for Alfred A. Knopf publisher, Sonny Mehta, the chain-smoking president and editor in chief who was thought to be in an ongoing intra-company competition with Ms. Godoff, as he was with former Random House president Harry Evans, who hired Ms. Godoff. Now, said sources in the company, the up-market soul of Random House falls squarely to Knopf. Lumping Random Trade with Ballantine, a decidedly downmarket imprint, is seen as a clear sign of Mr. Mehta’s prestige primacy.
As it happens, Mr. Mehta was featured in a two-page spread in Vanity Fair this month, pictured with a gaggle of his famous authors, including Lyndon Johnson biographer and National Book Award winner Robert Caro and novelist Richard Ford.
Reached for comment, Mr. Evans took a dim view of the merger. “There are more important things than the fate of an individual,” he said, referring to Ms. Godoff. “It’s the fact that the house has been sacraficed. I think it’s a mistake. From the accounting standpoint it may make a point, but underneath that is a reputation and that will come around and hit the accountants on the head.”
The changes arrive just as the entire company was moving into its new headquarters at 1745 Broadway. According to a company newsletter, Random House was to reside on the 16th and 17th floors, Ballantine on the 22nd and 23rd, and Knopf on the 21st. How the merger will affect the new seating charts is not known. Random House spokespersons declined to comment on it.
One publishing executive who declined to be named–and they all did–wondered if Ms. Godoff’s ouster and the merger signify a tectonic shift in how much money will be spent on books in the future. “If Random House is not going to pay the money that they’ve been paying,” he said, “it changes what people are going to be getting for books in a big way.”
In his memo, Mr. Olson announced that the Random House Ballantine Group will now be headed by Gina Centrello, the president of Ballantine Books. Ms. Centrello was formerly the president and publisher of Pocket Books.