Why Is Ann Godoff
Diving on Penguin?
It’s a Lovely Match
Not since 1999, when Tina Brown dumped Condé Nast for a little adventure called Talk , has there been so much buzz about the comings and goings of a middle-aged media personage. But for the past two weeks, the only thing people in book publishing could talk about was the rat-a-tat firing and hiring of star editor Ann Godoff.
Just in case you’ve been wasting your attention on more trivial matters like whether we’re going to war with Iraq, here’s a quick recap: Two weeks ago, Ms. Godoff was abruptly fired by Random House chief executive Peter Olson for, on the record, repeatedly falling short of the target goals for her imprint, known in the industry as “Little Random.” The common wisdom, however, was that the feared or revered (depending on whom you talk to-sometimes both adjectives come from the same source) Ms. Godoff was let go for more personal reasons.
“She’s a literary snob,” some said, despite the fact that many of her signature books, like Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation and John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , are hardly of the highest brow. “She doesn’t play well with others,” others said, pointing to her supposed feuds with Knopf chief Sonny Mehta and with Gina Centrello, the publisher of sister imprint Ballantine, which has now absorbed Little Random. Eight days later, Ms. Godoff had her own imprint with the Penguin Group (USA) and was signing up a Random editor, Scott Moyers, to help her publish a line of primarily nonfiction titles. She’ll soon make another hire, according to Penguin president Susan Petersen Kennedy, for her as-yet-unnamed imprint. (It will launch in 2004.) “We hired her for her taste, her editorial acumen and her brilliant work,” Ms. Petersen Kennedy told the Financial Times on Monday. “I really admire her, and have for several years,” she echoed to me.
Ms. Godoff’s detractors may predict disaster, but Penguin’s move makes sense. The Pearson-owned publisher is all about expansion, having added several imprints in the past two years, including Portfolio, a business-book publisher headed up by Adrian Zackheim, formerly of HarperCollins, and Gotham books, which is run by longtime publishing personality William Shinker. And Ms. Godoff is what anybody would call a real “get”: a “prestige” publisher who may well bring best-selling authors like Mr. Brokaw, Mr. Berendt and Caleb Carr to her new job.
But why would she choose Penguin? Not the type to kick back and reconfigure her life, those who know her say-and savvy enough to take advantage of the very small window of time before her writers get settled in with other editors-Ms. Godoff may simply have taken the first good offer to come her way. Ms. Petersen Kennedy said she was on the phone to Ms. Godoff “within minutes” of hearing the news. HarperCollins probably didn’t come calling at all: Ms. Godoff and HarperCollins honcho Cathy Hemming barely speak, said one editor who knows them both. Ultra-commercial Warner Books-even before it was officially put up for sale-would have been out of the question; Holtzbrinck surely doesn’t pay in the Ann Godoff $500,000 range. And Simon & Schuster already has its own heavy-hitting nonfiction editor in Alice Mayhew.
Still, the switcheroo has caused no small measure of confusion and controversy. Pity poor Ms. Godoff: Anxiety follows her wherever she goes. When she was fired, the hue and cry was that Random House had given up on “literary” publishing, and some agents and editors worried there would soon be fewer outlets for the kind of smart books they like to publish. Now that Ms. Godoff’s landed at Penguin, staffers there worry for their own jobs and lists. Whereas Random House imprints are allowed-make that encouraged -to bid against each other for projects, the Penguin group forbids such competition. With Ms. Godoff’s contacts and track record, some fear that all the best books will go to her automatically, that they’ll be shut out of the bidding. “If I were Suzanne Gluck,” says one of the nervous, referring to the William Morris mega-agent who represents Mr. Carr and Mr. Berendt, among others, and is thought to be a semi-direct pipeline to Ms. Godoff, “would I give a book to Ann, or to some other Penguin editor?”
As one might imagine, Ms. Petersen Kennedy waves away these intimations of trouble, suggesting instead that the more “collegial” atmosphere at Penguin will make it easier, not harder, for editors to divvy up the projects. And one longtime staffer is similarly sanguine, in a resigned kind of way: “I was often bidding for the same books as she was,” this person said, “and I lost most of them to her bigger advances. At least now when I lose them, they’ll stay within the company.” But I can’t help thinking that Ms. Godoff has exchanged a headache for a stomachache: Never the teamiest of team players-even her staunchest supporters say she thrives on competition-it’s hard to imagine her giving ground to other editors. In other words, if I were Bill Shinker or Rick Kot at Viking (another strong editor of narrative nonfiction), I’d be worried.
And what about those big advances? The $8 million she spent on Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier’s unwritten second novel is already the stuff of legend, not to mention the $3 million she authorized for the purchase-from Suzanne Gluck-of a second book by the authors of The Nanny Diaries . To judge from Mr. Olson’s memo-which was either candid or, as most agree, just plain mean -Ms. Godoff’s generosity (authors and agents say), or her profligacy (competitors insist), became a piece of the rope he hung her with. Will Penguin allow her to spend so freely? Will she even try?
And who, exactly, will run little Random now-and which editors will Ms. Godoff poach? When it was first reported that she would make one hire, I’d have bet that her choice would be Jon Karp, the editor of the best-seller Seabiscuit and a Godoff favorite. (She welcomed him right back into the Random House fold after he bolted for what turned out to be a disastrous six-week stint working for the film producer Scott Rudin in 2000.) But so far she’s only hired Scott Moyers, who also worked closely with her at Random House, and Mr. Karp is staying put: He has a ways to go on his contract, and though he declines to comment on any of this, those who know him say he’s gambling on getting the editor-in-chief job. Mr. Karp is “a player,” says one agent. “He knows how to get along over there.”
If that’s true, he learned on his own. For all her talent, surviving the particular publishing quagmire that is Random House is one skill that Ms. Godoff, his former boss, apparently couldn’t master.
Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time will be published this fall by Putnam, an imprint of the Penguin Group (USA) .