Random House Loses a Star; Bright Lights Gets Rent -ed

At the beginning of August, it was pretty quiet in the halls of Random House’s offices at 201 East 50th Street. Being sales conference week, most everyone was schlepping back and forth to a dreary hotel in White Plains, N.Y. But something big was happening. On Monday, Aug. 10, official word came down that Cathy Hemming, executive vice president and publisher of Random House’s Adult Trade Books, was defecting to Harper Collins to take the same job there. Ms. Hemming–not only a highly prized publishing executive but also a personal friend of Random House president and editor in chief Ann Godoff–had occupied her post for all of six months.

This looks like a tidy victory for Harper Collins Publishers’ chief executive, Jane Friedman, whose “greatest expertise,” according to a former colleague, “is acquiring power.” Up until last November, Ms. Friedman herself had worked at Random House as executive vice president of the Knopf Publishing Group. Upon leaving the company for Harper Collins, she reportedly signed an exit agreement that included a “no raid” clause, effective for a year. Many believe that this applied only to people who worked at Random when Ms. Friedman did, which is why Ms. Hemming was free for the tapping. (Ms. Hemming did not respond to requests to be interviewed.)

But it may not be such a sure triumph. Random House has always been fierce about guarding its assets, or employees, and knowledgeable speculators believe that one likely condition of releasing Ms. Hemming was a significant extension of Ms. Friedman’s troublesome “no raid” clause. Then again, these clauses are difficult to enforce, according to attorney Martin Garbus, who has represented major publishers in several exit agreement disputes.

Meanwhile, six months seems to be an average stint for publishers under Ann Godoff. In July 1997, Michele Martin signed a three-year contract as publishing director of Random House’s Adult Trade Books division, but only lasted until December. Ms. Hemming basically took over those duties this February–albeit with a spiffier title.

Indeed, Random House had been courting Ms. Hemming for quite some time. Back in early 1997, according to a former Random House employee, Harry Evans, who was then Random House’s president and publisher, approached Ms. Hemming about coming to work for Random House. At the time, she was executive director of Penguin U.S.A., and turned down Mr. Evans’ offer, said sources at the publishing house, because the perception existed that she was being groomed for the plum job of president of Penguin. But then a merger intervened–Putnam Berkley Inc. joined with Penguin–and Ms. Hemming’s rise was delayed. So at the end of 1997, Ms. Godoff approached Ms. Hemming–the two women had become friends years ago, when they both worked at Atlantic Monthly Press–and offered her the job of president and publisher of Random House’s adult trade division. Ms. Hemming accepted–but then Michael Lynton, Penguin’s charming new chief executive, persuaded Ms. Hemming to stay, and she got a grand new title: president of Penguin International. Undaunted, Ms. Godoff tried again this February, and Ms. Hemming assented.

But once Ms. Hemming arrived at Random House, things went sour pretty fast. According to one editor with knowledge of the situation, “Ann didn’t give Cathy enough rope.”

“Cathy had been promised a more significant role, and was not given those responsibilities,” said a Random House employee. “She perceived her role as being a glorified marketing director rather than an actual publisher.”

Through Random House spokesman Carol Schneider, Ms. Godoff responded that Ms. Hemming’s job description clearly stated that she was to oversee the publishing and marketing process for Random House and its Modern Library line–”Bringing the books to the public,” in Ms. Schneider’s phrase.

A source at Random House said Ms. Godoff had been blindsided by Ms. Hemming’s announcement. The twice-spurned Ms. Godoff–who is reportedly not feeling particularly chummy toward Ms. Hemming at the moment–has gone the safe route this time, promoting from within, making Wanda Chappell and Howard Weill deputy publishers of the adult trade group.

One of the New York theater’s most unlikely projects–a half-million-dollar musical version of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City –has scored a coup: Michael Greif, who directed the megahit Rent , has signed on as the production’s director.

The creator of the show, Paul Scott Goodman, who did the book, lyrics and score, said that when he moved from Los Angeles to Manhattan in 1983, one of the first cultural acts he committed was reading Mr. McInerney’s novel. Mr. Goodman, who would soon become known Off-Broadway for his Scottish-Jewish one-man musical Tiny Dancer , made a few notes in the back of the book for a musical and then forgot all about them. Some 15 years later, those notes provided the germ of the musical version that the New York Theater Workshop plans to premiere in late January 1999. Plenty of things could prevent the production from making it to the stage, but rehearsals are scheduled to begin in December.

“I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about it,” said Mr. McInerney about the whole idea, from his home in Tennessee. Mr. McInerney has seen workshop versions and said he was pleased. Of course, he has already lived through the bad trip of the film version, which underwhelmed the moviegoing public in 1988. “I was skeptical–does the world really need the musical version?”

Apparently, yes. Three years ago, a good friend of Mr. Goodman’s, playwright Peter Stone ( Titanic , The Will Rogers Follies ), suggested that Bright Lights had inherent musical possibilities. Mr. Goodman went back to his notes: Sure enough, when he looked again, he saw more than sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, which lend themselves quite naturally to the genre. “The counterbalance,” he said in a deliciously thick Scottish brogue, “was the poetic soul of the narrator,” the infamous fact-checker, Jamie, who has to cope with his mother’s death.

There will be plenty of levity, though, spread over the two-and-half-hour time trip. The song “I Love Drugs” might turn out to be one of those intermission hums. Mr. McInerney predicted that a tune called “I Hate the French” would be “something everybody’s going to like.” Jamie sings that one while seated at his desk at Gotham Magazine (that’s The New Yorker to you and me). He’s checking an article about truffle trafficking. The words go: “I hate the French/ I hate them all/ From Toulouse-Lau-fuckin’-trec/ To Charles de Gaulle.”

For his part, Mr. Goodman has enjoyed his relationship with Mr. McInerney, who, he said, hasn’t been meddlesome in the least. In fact, there have been perks. “Getting the best table at Balthazar has been the best part of working with him,” Mr. Goodman said.

At a time when publishers are cranking out titles about spirituality faster than you can say “Deepak Chopra,” it’s refreshing to see that Viking is shipping a how-to book for aspiring ball-breakers to bookstores this September: The 48 Laws of Power , written by one Robert Greene and artfully designed by Joost Elffers ( Play With Your Food ). The book is not for the weak-willed: Law 13, for example, counsels, “When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude.” Law 17 recommends that you “Keep others in suspended terror: Cultivate an air of unpredictability.” Law 10 is simplicity itself: “Infection: Avoid the unhappy and unlucky.” And Law 14 is already in full swing in New York publishing circles: “Pose as a friend, work as a spy.”

Mr. Greene and Mr. Elffers met three years ago in Venice when they were part of a group that inaugurated Fabrika, the experimental art school founded by Benetton ad guru Oliviero Toscani. Strolling the quay one day, Mr. Elffers asked his new friend if he had any book ideas. Mr. Greene noted that “Everything at the art school was just like something out of Machiavelli’s The Prince .”

What makes Mr. Greene, a quintessential entertainment-industry freelancer, qualified to set down rules of modern manipulation? The book’s flap copy states that he “has been an editor at Esquire and other magazines,” a half-baked biscotto at best. He conceded the description is misleading: Some 17 years ago, Mr. Greene was a mere editorial assistant at Esquire . (In crafting his bio, Mr. Greene apparently applied Law 12, “Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm Your Victim.”)

Mr. Greene, speaking from his Los Angeles home, said his modest standing gave him an advantage. “Powerful people are too close to the subject,” he said. “The tactics they use they aren’t conscious of. I’m similar to Machiavelli himself, who was a low-level diplomat who witnessed all these things going on around him.”

Used-book dealers are a growly, independent lot, and when one of them sells out, it’s news. Interloc, a Southworth, Wash.-based Web search engine that matches literary customers with used book dealers, has decided to pull an Amazon: Rather than just arrange the marriage, Interloc wants a matchmaker’s fee. Within a month, if all gets debugged, Interloc will become Alibris. Some dealers are annoyed by the terms Alibris is laying down: Alibris is asking dealers to discount the books 20 percent (for books under $500) and is strongly encouraging dealers to list a minimum of 1,000 books. The discount means dealers will have to raise prices on Alibris-listed books.

Interloc founder and chairman Richard Weatherford said he is creating Alibris to save the used book business from itself. Alibris, he said, will try to eliminate nagging problems: listed books not being available, books being described as being in good condition when they are not, books not being shipped promptly.

“I don’t agree with their top-down approach,” said Andrew Gutterman, co-owner of the Avocado Pit bookstore, in Charlottesville, Va. “Weatherford is sending the message that dealers can’t be trusted.”

Alibris isn’t taking any chances: The company has hired the same public relations firm, Connors Communications, that Amazon used when it was starting up.

Random House Loses a Star; Bright Lights Gets Rent -ed