Ann Godoff’s Power Play Was Not a Random Move

To hear some of his colleagues tell it, Harold Evans saw Ann Godoff coming a mile away, and planned accordingly.

To hear some of his colleagues tell it, Harold Evans saw Ann Godoff coming a mile away, and planned accordingly. But then, so did she.

Long before Nov. 25, the day he announced he was stepping down as president and publisher of Random House Inc. to become editorial director of Mortimer Zuckerman’s mini-media empire, the stakes had gotten too high for Mr. Evans. Ms. Godoff began to take charge “starting as long as two years ago,” said Steve Wasserman, who left Times Books last year to become book editor of the Los Angeles Times . “It seemed that Harry’s heart wasn’t in what he was being asked to do: preside over the money side of the ledger. And increasingly Ann was asked to take on those responsibilities.”

The “money side” is, of course, the side that matters most to Random House chief executive Alberto Vitale and ultimately, the owner, S.I. Newhouse Jr. And as far as Mr. Vitale was concerned, Random House sources said, the time had come for a change. After years of handing out advances for book projects as if he was using Monopoly money, Mr. Evans, 69, was put on notice that his spending habits were not appreciated when Ms. Godoff, 48, was promoted from editorial director to editor in chief of Random House in late May. While Mr. Evans’ internal memo informed the staff at the time that “Ann … will be responsible to me for the publishing program and budget,” the signal was all too clear to many inside the venerable publishing house.

According to Random House insiders, Mr. Vitale resented having to share direct access to Mr. Newhouse with Mr. Evans. What’s more, while Mr. Evans had done a good job turning the moribund Random House into a brand name again, his lavish spending habits had resulted in books that didn’t make money and events that raised his profile as much as, if not more than, the company’s. Ms. Godoff was viewed as a seasoned, resourceful acquisitions editor with years of publishing experience and a growing reputation as a tough businesswoman. In “taking the budget out of Harry’s hands and giving it to Ann Godoff,” as one Random House executive said, Mr. Vitale seemed to be giving a yellow light. As one former colleague put it, “Ann saw an opening there, and Alberto wanted an opening.” (Mr. Vitale, Ms. Godoff and Mr. Evans refused to comment for this article.)

“I can only assume her rise and rise had something to do with her keeping her ear close to the ground to hear what the tom-toms were saying,” said Mr. Wasserman. “She’s a skilled corporate insider.”

Divide and Conquer

That may be putting it lightly. To those who have watched her, Ms. Godoff does not appear to think twice about careers she may have damaged or sensibilities she may have offended as she’s made her way inside, coolly learning the lay of the treacherous editorial hallways and executive suites at Random House. In a company notorious for its back-stabbing, she is known for sticking it to people up front. “She has the managerial skills of an irascible hot dog vendor,” said one former employee who crossed Ms. Godoff’s title-hopping path.

Despite her ability to play the bemused and slightly disapproving spectator-regularly decked out in a tailored jacket, Brooks Brothers button-down shirt and ascetic wire-rimmed glasses-Ms. Godoff is never far from any internecine fray. So while Mr. Evans was out barnstorming, sources say, Ms. Godoff formed the crucial alliances that helped lead to his departure and her ascension.

Despite her pronouncements against celebrity books (Mr. Evans’ strong suit), Ms. Godoff has been known to try her hand at them, with lackluster results. A pumped-up self-help book by bodybuilder Jake Steinfeld, Power Living by Jake , looks to be a flop. And a final joint venture by Ms. Godoff and Mr. Evans, Proud to Be , the tell-all memoir penned by Kelly Flinn, the United States Air Force bomber pilot who was forced to resign on charges of adultery, was in a promotional free fall before it even got off the ground. They reportedly paid more than $1 million for that. Ms. Godoff has had more solid results with literary nonfiction and the occasional experiment in fiction, most notably Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s current best seller, The God of Small Things .

Random House being a privately held company, it’s always been hard to read the corporate tea leaves. But as one literary agent put it, Mr. Vitale’s management philosophy is “Divide and conquer.” In this case, he was looking for someone who could turn the volume of self-promotion down and the volume of sales up. Ms. Godoff apparently fits the bill.

As president and editor in chief of Random House trade publishing group, Ms. Godoff won’t be ordering up events at the drop of a Balthazar fork. Indeed, it’s well known that she doesn’t like them. Still, that doesn’t mean the Random House publicity machine has ground to a halt. “Harry restored Random House’s luster,” said one literary agent, “and it will be a hard thing to lose.”

Nonetheless, the high-stakes game Ms. Godoff has inherited at Random House has to be seen in the context of the publishing industry at large: its attempts to pull itself out of a crisis of overexpansion and crippling returns; the bottom-line expectations of the conglomerates that control many publishers; the slippery business practices of the bookstore chains; the worrisome plight of the independent houses that have traditionally provided the most dependable book-buying base; and the encroachment of mass media. Publishing was a game Mr. Evans seemed to enjoy playing, even if, at some point, he stopped making money at it. Ms. Godoff, on the other hand, plays tough behind the scenes, sources say, rather than blithely in front of the klieg lights, and apparently thinks she can make money doing so.

Meet ‘Ann Godawful’

The number-crunching ability that seems to have caught the eye of Mr. Vitale was, according to Random House sources, an acquired trait. Once Ms. Godoff started to rise at Random House, where Mr. Evans hired her as an executive editor in 1991, she gleaned much of her understanding of the business side from subsidiary rights director and associate publisher Wanda Chappell, a longtime Random House veteran. “Wanda was like her consigliere ,” said a former Random House editor. “Ann would spend hours in her office learning about numbers.” Ms. Chappell’s promotion to Random House trade publishing group senior vice president in late September was read as a further sign of Ms. Godoff’s strengthening power base. (Ms. Chappell did not return calls for comment.)

However, Ms. Godoff’s relations with the editorial upper echelon at Random House are the subject of speculation both inside and outside the company. When she first came on board from Atlantic Monthly Press, “she was hip, approachable,” a former Random House associate said. “But she changed. She was totally charming to anyone above her, but the minute you were below her in the food chain, she didn’t return your phone calls.” Many took her unadorned approach to human interaction as prickly and rude, earning her the nickname “Ann Godawful.” Even those who appreciate her sincerity are uncomfortable with her slightly stiff social manner.

“There’s a real warmth there, but it isn’t spontaneous, it’s always controlled,” said one publishing consultant. “I only saw her let her guard down once, when Alberto and Harry and some foreign agent came out of Alberto’s office one day, and Ann said, ‘Well, isn’t this a testosterone fest!'”

In the gregarious publishing world, Ms. Godoff is not known, as one Random House author put it, as “an editor-slash-social butterfly,” and no one can remember seeing her give or receive an air kiss. Her perceived gruffness is viewed as a legacy of her lengthy stint with the legendarily fierce and uncompromising Simon & Schuster editor Alice Mayhew. Ms. Godoff does not appear to believe in overnight success, in herself or others: She stayed with Ms. Mayhew for seven years, from 1980 to 1987. “She worked on two of my books,” said Francine du Plessix Gray, a Mayhew author, “and she always told you exactly what she thought, and yet she had a very subtle and supple intellect, and wonderfully inventive ideas as to how to resolve narrative problems.”

When Ms. Godoff was lured away from Atlantic Monthly Press for a big position at Doubleday, she decided within three weeks that she wasn’t ready for life at a large, corporate-style publisher, and returned to the downtown house. Ms. Godoff’s career course had already been offbeat, to say the least. After leaving Bennington College, she tried filmmaking at New York University, and then studied architecture until she “failed concrete,” as she once told this reporter. According to Alfred A. Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon, a friend since their Atlantic Monthly days, there was also a digression into “selling cars over at Potamkin on 10th Avenue,” a concept almost as strange, he said, as her reminiscences of attending her senior prom at Beverly Hills High School as classmate Richard Dreyfus’ date.

‘A Real Technician’

It was during her second stint at Atlantic Monthly Press that she came to Mr. Evans’ attention. She had a reputation for possessing a journalistic edge and an impressive track record with such authors as Ron Chernow, whose The House of Morgan won a National Book Award, and Gerald Posner, who made the best-seller list with Hitler’s Children . Yet her first year or so at Random House was far from auspicious. She paid dearly for a book on the B.C.C.I. bank scandal, for instance, which tanked spectacularly, and she seemed to know it. “She was doing loud mea culpas, and she was skating on very thin ice,” said an editor who worked with her at the time. “She was close to getting fired. Then she got lucky with Midnight and Nathan McCall [author of Makes Me Wanna Holler ] and The Alienist .”

According to John Berendt, however, luck had little to do with it. “She’d become a real technician at getting her books around to the right people, all the key players at Random House, where there’s always a lot of competition among editors, and she aced everybody out,” he said. “Also what she did, which was very shrewd, was send the manuscript out to the regional sales reps very early-not even galleys, but a copy of the manuscript printed on both sides of every page, so it didn’t weigh 500 pounds. Before long, all the booksellers were talking, and she got publicity involved. It was like greased lightning.”

Mr. Berendt also stressed Ms. Godoff’s strong design sense and her emphasis on books as objects. “It was her idea to give Midnight its long, narrow shape,” he said, “and what she called a ‘Knopf cover,’ which was anathema inside ‘little’ Random, because Knopf and Random are spirited adversaries.”

Ms. Godoff’s taste in books is not easily characterized, especially in a publishing climate all too ready to equate pigeonholing with a sure bet. Among the books on her slate are New Yorker writer William Finnegan’s Cold New World , a bleak four-part portrait of young American lives; a memoir by New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl; Ron Chernow’s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller ; Gerald Posner’s Killing the Dream , about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; and a book by Winifred Gallagher on contemporary religion.

When he first met Ms. Godoff, back when she had more time to hang out with her authors around her Atlantic Monthly office on Union Square, Caleb Carr, the author of The Alienist , recognized a kindred “misfit, growing up being a little bit of an outcast and so wanting to do things in an unorthodox fashion, not flamboyantly, but because of a determination to do them your own way.” Call it arrogance, he said, but “she always says, ‘You go home with the one who brought you.’ You print the book you bought. When she makes decisions, she’s ferociously loyal to them.”

It would seem so. When she moved into her new corner office at Random House, she even had Ms. Gallagher “feng-shui” it for her. “She was worried,” Ms. Gallagher said, “because she kept hitting her elbow against the doorjamb on her way in.” Ann Godoff’s Power Play Was Not a Random Move