Markus Dohle Anticipates Obama as Mr. Tough Choices

Maybe it’s all the inauguration business going to Pub Crawl’s head, but at the end of the day, you kind

Maybe it’s all the inauguration business going to Pub Crawl’s head, but at the end of the day, you kind of have to hand it to Markus Dohle. The guy came out of nowhere—knew next to nothing of American book publishing when tapped last spring at the age of 39 to become CEO of Random House Inc.—and succeeded against all odds in drafting the blueprint for a radical restructuring of the company that not only didn’t inspire widespread contempt among his new American colleagues, but was met to a large degree with reluctant approval. 

Prior to his appointment, as everyone knows by now, Mr. Dohle was running a printing company in Germany, and understood the business of books about as well as one might expect the foreman at a cement factory to understand the art of sculpture. The fact that it only took him six months of door-to-dooring everyone at 1745 Broadway to come up with a halfway-decent plan—not to mention the fact that he did it without hiring an adviser from inside the company who could tell him what was what—indicates that the man is a remarkably quick study.

Now, the feeling among both literary agents and executives who used to work at Random House seems to be that Mr. Dohle inherited a rotten, bloated thing when he took over last May, and though one can wish it hadn’t gone the way it did, there simply was no reversing the damage done by his predecessor, Peter Olson, without forcing the publishers who’d survived his thoughtless 10-year reign to make some hard calls.

To be sure, the casualties that accompanied Mr. Dohle’s reconfiguration of Random House—around 50 confirmed in the press, but by some internal estimates closer overall to 100—made many observers wince, as dozens of beloved editors, publicists, marketers and production people were laid off over the course of the last month after many years of service to the company.

It was obvious, of course, that no sooner than Mr. Dohle’s reorganization plan was announced on the morning of Dec. 3, those cuts would come. The fact that they came as gradually as they did—names trickled out in a steady stream starting about a week before Christmas—provoked some executives at other houses to criticize (on background, of course) what they saw as an inhumane process that should have been more closely coordinated among the three divisions and deployed all at once. 

The final round of cuts, reflected in memos sent to staff last week by the company’s three remaining division heads, saw the elimination of several high-level positions, starting shortly after the New Year with that of Pantheon publishing director Janice Goldklang, and continuing with those of Villard publisher Bruce Tracy, Modern Library editor Judy Sternlight and Bantam Dell editor Toni Burbank, who had been with the company for more than 40 years and was recently given a lifetime achievement award for her work in health and self-improvement literature by the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

The list goes on and on, and the more pins one sticks into the map, the more one wishes some angel investor would come along and open a new house—hell, even one that just published ebooks!—that would employ all the talent out there now roaming free.

As it stands, everyone at Random House is about to get a lot busier—not just because there are fewer hands on deck in the wake of the reorganization, but because for the past six weeks, so many in the building were frozen in their seats in anticipation of cuts and were forced to put their work on hold until they knew what was happening to them. Agents reportedly slowed submissions to the house as well, and one must assume—since December and January are said to be slow months anyway—that they will resume at full speed now that all changes compelled by Mr. Dohle’s restructuring have been made.

As for Mr. Dohle, the question of what he will do and how he will lead now that his first major task—and this “evolutionary” year, as he called it in his Dec. 18 letter to staff—is behind him is one that only he knows the answer to. That he will exert more force over his charges than his notoriously hands-off predecessor is certain. Exactly what form that force will take—perhaps he will follow Random House’s Canadian division in imposing a ban on intradivisional bidding; perhaps he’ll be less shy than Peter Olson was about saying no when asked to spend millions of dollars at auction—remains to be seen.

lneyfakh@observer.com Markus Dohle Anticipates Obama as Mr. Tough Choices