The End of an Era at Random House

Could the fact that Ms. Centrello got Spiegel & Grau and the Dial Press imprint of Bantam Dell–both very literary-minded outfits, though Spiegel & Grau’s two biggest books so far were written by Suze Orman and comedian Artie Lange–mean that Little Random is that much closer now to standing shoulder to shoulder with Knopf?

Make no mistake: as indicated by The New York Times’ list of top 10 notable books of 2008–which included fully eight titles from Knopf and none from Little Random–“closer” here still means “really far.”

Anyway, according to a top agent, whatever the reorganization did for Little Random’s literary profile, it gave Knopf the flagship imprint of Doubleday and Nan A. Talese, both of which are strong literary properties that cut into whatever gain Little Random might have made with Spiegel & Grau and Dial.

“In terms of who gained in terms of literary authority, or clout, or prestige,” the agent said, “Knopf got stronger from this than Little Random did, but Little Random got a bit stronger, too, so the distance between Knopf and Little Random is probably increased by this but not by as much as it could have been.”

It could have been worse for Little Random, as one highly placed publishing observer said: Spiegel & Grau could have–as might have been expected–ended up at Knopf.

The reason they didn’t probably has to do with Sonny Mehta having his hands full. Knopf’s editorial department was already stacked with marquee names who are accustomed to buying big books and receiving top-notch support from marketing and sales; Mr. Mehta’s welcoming of Nan Talese, as well as Doubleday’s Phyllis Grann, Gerry Howard and Allison Callahan, will leave him stretched thin enough without Cindy Spiegel and Julie Grau in the mix.

“Power at Knopf comes from having access to Sonny,” said the agent quoted above. “And he’s already hard to get access to.”

This of course puts Ms. Talese and the Doubleday editors at a potential disadvantage as they try to make their way at Knopf–a fact that supports the point of view that Doubleday lost more than anyone else in yesterday’s reorganization. In addition to facing potential competition from longtime Knopf hands, the staff there is also suffering a painful separation from their sister imprint Broadway, which means a lot of their colleagues–Charlie Conrad, Stacy Creamer, David Drake, Michael Palgon, and Kris Puopolo–are all at Crown now.

The motivation for separating Broadway from Doubleday has to do with Broadway’s bent towards practical, commercial nonfiction titles, which are more at home at Crown than they would have been at Knopf (Sonny Mehta, when all is said and done, does not really do self-help). The fact is, though, many of the books published under the Broadway name were precisely the sort of high quality narrative nonfiction that secured the Doubleday imprint a place at Knopf. Would it not have made more sense, some publishing observers wonder, to have given up the pretense that Broadway and Doubleday were wholly distinct entities, instead of busting up their alliance along lines that have been mainly nominal for years?

Asked yesterday how it was decided which imprint went where, Random House spokeswoman Carol Schneider said the “alignments are not 100 percent black and white but certain affinities have been brought together.”

Which is mainly true–an informal survey of agents and publishers at rival houses suggests that most of the people watching Random right now, though horrified by the inevitably serious layoffs that will result from yesterday’s reshuffling, believe that Mr. Dohle did not spend his six months of silence staring at the ceiling.

This was yesterday, though, when these people were discussing it, and one could be forgiven then for feeling too stunned to evaluate in great detail the logic of Mr. Dohle’s plan. A few hours after it was announced, after all, the publishing community was rocked by a series of news breaks that taken together gave the impression of an industry under siege. First word came that Simon & Schuster was cutting 35 jobs–including those of Little Simon editor Denise Roy and Scribner’s Colin Robinson. Then Ann Patty at the collapsing trade division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt told GalleyCat she’d been fired along with “a lot” of colleagues, which we now know includes award-winning veteran editor Drenka Willen and Anjali Singh.

If only it could be said that the worst were over. Instead, HarperCollins spokeswoman Erin Crum is telling Bloomberg that her company “hasn’t decided whether to eliminate jobs” yet, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s treacherous parent company is apparently struggling to find a buyer for the trade division who is willing to accept the massive amount of debt that comes attached to the once-proud property like a ball and chain.

At Random House, most expect that there’s only more pain ahead. Cuts there have not even begun, and rumors in the building, though probably founded merely on someone’s back-of-the-napkin calculation, predict that reorganization-related layoffs will number in the three figures. Ms. Schneider, the Random House spokeswoman, said who stays and who goes at this point depends on the division heads.

“If the layoffs are necessary, those decisions are going to be made as objectively as possible and as quickly as possible, but I would venture to guess not in the next week or so,” Ms. Schneider said. “This is a big reorganization.”

The End of an Era at Random House