Knopf Ascendant: Mehta Galaxy Grows In Random Big Bang

Even those who felt it was too early to judge the winners and losers of last Wednesday’s upheaval had to stop and acknowledge Mr. Mehta’s dominance when news came that afternoon that Knopf was responsible for publishing fully 8 of the 10 books named to The New York Times Book Review’s forthcoming best-of-2008 list. That stunning showing was almost embarrassing in light of what had happened that morning, and congratulations were necessarily accompanied by and received with some discomfort. 

Mr. Dohle talked about the achievement on Thursday morning, when he met with the 200 or so people who make up the staff of Knopf to explain and take questions on the imminent changes. The “town-hall” meeting, as it was referred to in-house, took place in a large room next to the cafeteria on the second floor; normally, when it’s not being used for such purposes, people eat lunch in there.

According to several people who were in the room, Mr. Dohle, who delivered different iterations of the presentation to each of Random House’s five divisions last week, came to the meeting dressed in a suit, not the button-down collared shirt and Chinos that staffers usually see him wearing when they cross paths with him in the building. Mr. Mehta sat up front, and Mr. Dohle nodded toward him occasionally as he assured his audience that despite appearances, he intends to grow Random House, not shrink it, and described in broad terms his conviction that because book publishing is not a growing market, Random House needs to seize a larger share of it and increase revenue. The most important thing now was “teamwork,” he kept saying, punctuating many of his sentences by emphatically patting his rib cage with his hands.

Once he was done, the 40-year-old CEO opened the floor up to questions.

One person who was called on to speak pointed out that while having eight books on the Book Review’s year-end list is very nice, such books were not bringing Random House Inc. big profits or spending weeks on the best-seller list—that for all of Mr. Dohle’s congratulations, the books that had been recognized by the Times aren’t the ones that will help achieve the goals or solve the problems he identified in his opening remarks. Mr. Dohle responded vaguely, just as he did for all the questions that were asked of him.

Only a few others bothered raising their hands before it became apparent that Mr. Dohle was not going to tell them anything of substance, and the meeting was adjourned.

An editorial meeting was held in Mr. Mehta’s office shortly thereafter. Such meetings, during which editors discuss acquisitions with each other and with the heads of publicity, sales, marketing and rights, happen at Knopf once every month or so, and Thursday’s had been planned well before the timing of the reorganization was finalized. Consequently, it proceeded exactly the same way as it always does, except that at the end Mr. Mehta and Tony Chirico, the shrewd and disciplined president of the Knopf group, took questions from the staff.

Mr. Mehta, who is famously elusive and hard to get access to, was asked at one point how he plans to manage his time, now that he has so many more editors under his jurisdiction.

Though the question had not been directed at him, Mr. Chirico dove for it with the zeal of someone trying to set the record straight, and said as convincingly as he could that the number of Doubleday people coming over to Knopf was actually not that big, and that the change would be felt far less acutely than some seemed to expect.

Mr. Mehta amplified this sentiment and moved on, assuring those in the room that he and Mr. Chirico would work quickly to figure out what kind of budget cuts they will have to enact as a result of the restructuring.     

While they and their counterparts at Crown and Little Random sort through that, 1745 Broadway remains, as one agent put it, in a state of “complete emotional lockdown,” as everyone except the people in the thriving children’s division wonders if they will still have a job in 2009. 

Tomorrow, the Knopf Publishing Group will hold its annual office Christmas party. The new people are invited. No word on whether they’ll be joined by Mr. Dohle.