Ann Godoff Knocks Wood For New Shabby-Chic List

Poor Ann Godoff, she can’t win for losing. When the veteran editor was fired as president of Random House last January, she was both hailed and reviled for being tough, for being independent, for spending too much money while at the same time being too “literary.” A quiet period followed, during which Ms. Godoff and Scott Moyers-the sole editor she recruited from Random House-contacted agents, hired staff and collected manuscripts. Now, with her first list under her new imprint, the Penguin Press, just published in the winter catalog, the Godoff gossip-good and bad-is set to begin again. The 14 books listed here, and the way they’re presented, reflect a sensibility that is both higher-brow and softer-hearted.

The first sign that the Penguin Press is not your run-of-the-mill commercial publisher is the plain-brown-paper catalog cover. (An earlier version of the cover was made of the more typical metallic paper; it was nixed as “too commercial.”) Inside, each of the 14 books gets a two-page spread, as opposed to the one-page announcement that many catalogs give most books. Each book cover is shown in black and white (surely, in the flesh, there’ll be some color) and otherwise illustrated with sepia photo strips. Nothing flashy here. The message seems to be: “We’re Old World-smart and subdued.” Penguin Press is the publishing equivalent of shabby chic.

So are the books themselves: all nonfiction except for one novel, The Shadow of the Wind , by Spanish-born Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves. Many are current-affairsy: Ken Auletta’s Back Story: Inside the Business of News , Roger Lowenstein’s Origins of the Crash . There’s only one business book: The Carolina Way , by Dean Smith. And for sentimental value (and upmarket cachet), there’s Colored Lights , the collected articles and columns of the late, beloved journalist Michael Kelly. “There’s not much fun here,” admits one publishing executive who worked for the company at the time the list was being put together. Even the one surefire best-seller in this history-obsessed age, Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, is pitched as serious homework and makes barely any mention of the sexual scandals that plagued the founding father. That all the authors here are male is probably coincidental-“for reasons more cosmic than practical,” as Ms. Godoff says in her letter at the front of the catalog-but it’s striking that they come mainly via three of the toniest agencies: Melanie Jackson, the Wylie Agency and I.C.M. (Noted nonfiction agent Kathy Robbins has one book on the list, as does Thomas Colchie, who represents virtually all of the literary Latin American books published in this country.) To further the sense of upmarketness-and, not incidentally, to fill out what would be a thin catalog-Ms. Godoff also publishes excerpts from all the featured books. This is super-serious stuff: “A bunch of books for serious readers!” it fairly screams. It’s almost as if Ms. Godoff-who, for all the accusations of literariness, published such crowd-pleasers as Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation books and John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil -has taken to heart what both her critics and fans have said. She’s a serious publisher, goddammit! She’ll leave the fluff to the other guys.

And yet … there’s a self-consciousness about this catalog, this list, that makes you root for it. First of all, there’s that letter in the front. While it’s not unusual for an imprint founder to introduce herself and her list to journalists and booksellers, the tone here is an endearing combination of feisty and defensive. “It’s back to old-fashioned publishing for the brand-new Penguin Press,” writes the woman who fell afoul of the newfangled variety. But then she backtracks. “If you build it, will they come?” she asks plaintively. “Knock wood.” And, as if to thwart speculation about what will come next, the publisher includes a list of authors whose books are forthcoming from Penguin Press. Never mind that the naysayers point to the former Godoffites who aren’t there-Zadie Smith, Adam Gopnik-the to-be-published list is pretty impressive and a lot more varied. It includes John Berendt (which puts to rest rumors that he would stay at Random House) as well as Hendrik Hertzberg, David Nasaw, Michael Pollan, Alexandra ( Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight ) Fuller, and food mavens Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters. Could it be that, over time, Ms. Godoff will build the kind of rich and varied list that made her the star she was for so many years at Random House? Nobody at her old shop wants to talk about it, naturally, and Ms. Godoff, as is her wont, declined to be interviewed for this article. Apparently, she believes that the books speak for her, and for themselves.

Then again, she’s already said it, and I’m just repeating: “Knock wood.”

Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time , published by Putnam, a division of Penguin (USA), is in bookstores now.