Knopf Ascendant: Mehta Galaxy Grows In Random Big Bang

pubcrawl 14 Knopf Ascendant: Mehta Galaxy Grows In Random Big BangReading the memo from Markus Dohle last Wednesday morning about the reorganization of Random House was an exercise in restraint. The temptation to skip ahead—to bypass the note’s soft top and find out as quickly as possible the part that unveiled, finally, after six silent months, how Random House Inc. would change under Mr. Dohle’s leadership—was overwhelming. The memo inspired in its recipients a nervous sort of skimming that should be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to absorb a piece of news while staving off the dread of irrevocably finding out what that news is.

Just after 10 a.m., a few minutes before Mr. Dohle’s e-mail went out, the president of Random House’s Knopf division, Sonny Mehta, asked his senior staff to gather for a brief meeting in his office on the 21st floor of the Random House building. About a dozen people piled in, including Mr. Mehta’s top editors and the heads of various other departments within the group.

Some sat on the couch while others crouched on the floor, as Mr. Mehta, from behind his desk, announced in his usual matter-of-fact manner that Mr. Dohle was preparing to unveil a major reorganization that would see two of the company’s other divisions—Bantam Dell and Doubleday—dismantled, and the other three—Mr. Mehta’s Knopf, Gina Centrello’s Random House Publishing Group and Jenny Frost’s Crown—made even bigger than they are. Knopf, Mr. Mehta told his team, would be absorbing Doubleday’s flagship hardcover operation as well as its subsidiary imprints (Nan A. Talese Books and Flying Dolphin).

By the time the meeting ended, it was clear to most everyone in the room, especially after they found out what was happening elsewhere in the company, that Knopf had not only survived the long-dreaded reorganization but that it stood to get more out of it than any other division.

How much Mr. Mehta had to negotiate for his lot is unclear—unfortunately, little is known about the discussions he had with Mr. Dohle and the other division heads prior to Wednesday morning’s announcement. While it’s generally believed that Mr. Dohle crafted the realignment unilaterally, several sources said the three division heads did gather for a meeting with him over the previous weekend in the Random House building.

 

WHATEVER ROLE Mr. Mehta had in getting what he got, the spoils reaped—from the unspeakably lucrative John Grisham franchise to the next blockbuster by Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown—were evident immediately. And though there are some who think Ms. Centrello got the best deal simply by virtue of the fact that she survived in spite of her vulnerable track record as head of Little Random, the belief that Knopf emerged from the restructuring much stronger than it was before has proven uncontroversial in the week since Mr. Dohle’s announcement.

Mr. Grisham and Mr. Brown alone, according to several top agents, would have given Mr. Mehta a massive advantage over the rest of Random House, but the fact is, he’s also inherited an all-star editorial team led by the gifted Phyllis Grann, who seems to turn every book she touches into a best seller and is regarded by colleagues with a level of respect usually reserved for former U.S. presidents. Other heavyweights Mr. Mehta will welcome to his ranks as a result of the reorganization are Gerry Howard, a beloved literary editor who acquired David Foster Wallace’s first novel and whose list now includes Chuck Palahniuk; Alison Callahan, who edits Ann Patchett and Carolyn Parkhurst and specializes in commercial women’s fiction; and Ms. Talese, who publishes a small but distinguished list that includes Ian McEwan and Alex Kotlowitz.