Reading 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.
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.
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