Steve Rubin would like everyone in book publishing to know that the 16 people who were laid off from Random House’s Doubleday division last week lost their jobs because he thought it had to be done, not because the new guy in corporate told him so.
Mr. Rubin, who at 66 has been the publisher of Doubleday off and on for the past 18 years, made sure this message rang out as soon as news of the cutbacks began to spread last Tuesday morning. The intended takeaway was that Mr. Rubin’s new boss, Random House CEO Markus Dohle, had had nothing to do with initiating the unpleasantness.
In an interview with a trade reporter the morning after the affected employees—including six from editorial and the rest from publicity, marketing and sales—were informed of their elimination, Doubleday spokesman David Drake said he could “unequivocally state that the job cuts … were a decision of Doubleday management and not the result of any corporate mandate or budgetary requirement.” Later that day Mr. Drake told The Observer that while Mr. Rubin had certainly spoken to the new CEO many times in the five months since his installation at Random House, “when it comes to this particular action it is something that originated with Doubleday and it is something we informed Markus Dohle that we planned to do.” Mr. Drake said Mr. Dohle had “accepted that it was necessary for our business and accepted our decision.”
Anyone who advanced the notion that the Doubleday cuts were just the first of many that Random House would suffer as Mr. Dohle went about shrinking the house, in other words, was but an overeager gossip with a thirst for intrigue. In an e-mail to The New York Times, Random House corporate spokesman Stuart Applebaum—who recently told Pub Crawl that those engaged in speculation over Random House’s future were uninformed “yentas”—said there is “no corporate mandate to our publishing leadership from [Mr. Dohle] or from our parent company [German media conglomerate Bertelsmann AG] to reduce staff.” He added that he was “not aware” of any plans to enact layoffs in other parts of Random House.
Make no mistake: There is absolutely no reason to think Mr. Drake and Mr. Applebaum were being dishonest when they made their remarks to the press, and if there is any evidence to suggest that Mr. Dohle pressured Mr. Rubin to initiate last week’s cuts, nobody has volunteered it.
Why was so much energy expended, though, on making sure everyone knows who did and didn’t pull the trigger?
“They want to emphasize to the community that there’s a sense of control there, that they’re steering their own ship,” said a literary agent who has done business with Doubleday, reflecting a view echoed by several other high-ranking people in the industry. The agent added that the distinction between receiving an order to cut costs and cutting them preemptively was not necessarily a material one.
“You take a bunch of meetings with your CEO, you consult with them, and then you fire 16 of your people? Well, O.K.,” the agent said. “I guess it wasn’t an order, but the change in leadership had to be influential in some way.”
Other influential factors include the abrupt cancellation of a Jon Krakauer book that was supposed to be published this fall with a first printing of 500,000 copies; the disappointing performance of Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle, a debut novel for which Mr. Rubin paid $1.2 million dollars that fell from the best-seller list in just a few weeks despite a tremendous marketing push; and of course, the fact that Dan Brown, whose 2003 blockbuster The Da Vinci Code emboldened Mr. Rubin to start andexpensive new division and in so doing expand Doubleday substantially, has still not turned in a follow-up or given any indication when he might.
Such a confluence of misfortunes, coupled with the crippling economic environment, would amount to devastation for many publishers, compelling one to wonder why Mr. Rubin, whose career in publishing has been long and uncommonly stable, would want to stay in the game at all.
So far, Mr. Rubin has remained silent on the matter. When approached by Pub Crawl for a profile last week, the onetime publishing reporter declined repeatedly to be interviewed and took impressive measures to make sure his many friends and colleagues in the industry did the same.
Some of those who didn’t get the memo agreed that unlike with some of the marquee names in the modern book business, it’s difficult to look back at Mr. Rubin’s career and pinpoint exactly when and with which book he proved himself to be a publisher whom rivals and colleagues had to pay attention to.
As literary agent Binky Urban put it, “Steve was kind of always a star. Some people were just always stars.”
MR. RUBIN WAS in his early 40s when Jack Romanos plucked him out of journalism and made him an executive editor at Bantam in 1984. Mr. Romanos was the publisher of Bantam, and one of Mr. Rubin’s main sources when he was a reporter. He wanted Mr. Rubin to help turn his company, which had always been known as a mass-market publisher, into a house that could produce hardcovers as well as anyone else in town.