It was like a bomb went off in the publishing industry yesterday when Peter Olson, chairman and CEO of Random House, relieved Ann Godoff of her duties as publisher/editor/patron saint of serious writers.
To some, Godoff's send-off signals another loop in the downward spiral of literary publishing; to others it's strictly a business decision -- the division under her guidance was not making enough money.
"I have written three books with her," says Michael Pollan, author of "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World." "I can't imagine writing a book without her. She's a brilliant editor. I was devastated. She's had a huge effect on my career. She has been very supportive. I have written books that have done well and books that bombed."
She is, says Pollan and other writers who have worked with her, an old-fashioned kind of editor -- hand-holding and hands-on. "She stands by you through thick and thin," Pollan says.
As head of the namesake division of Random House Inc., Godoff, 53, was responsible for a pearl string of popular books, including "The Alienist" by Caleb Carr, "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy, and one of contemporary publishing's most phenomenal successes, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" by John Berendt. She breathed new life into the Modern Library, a collection of classics, and she launched the Random House Trade Paperback line.
She also had some clunkers. Within Random House Inc., the suits are still grumbling about "Black House," a joint production of Stephen King and Peter Straub that was published in the fall of 2001 and was, according to one publishing industry source, a multimillion-dollar write-off. "Hundreds of thousands of copies of the book were returned," says the source, who refused to be named.
"Hers was the only division that consistently failed to meet long-term and annual fiscal profitability goals," the source says. "If you're heading a publishing division, being a good editor is no longer enough. You've got to be a very effective publishing manager."
Olson also told employees that the Random House trade division Godoff directed -- known as Little Random to distinguish it from the umbrella company Random House Inc. -- is being folded in with Ballantine to become the Random House Ballantine Publishing Group. Little Random also includes the Villard imprint.
This, says Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum, "is an opportunity to preserve the continuity of the Little Random editorial tradition and give it a better chance to achieve profitability."
Publishing today is a what-have-you-done-for-me-tomorrow kind of business. Though "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith was a surprise success for Godoff, Smith's second novel, "The Autograph Man," underperformed. And many folks at the company wondered why she paid Charles Frazier, author of "Cold Mountain," $8 million for his next work.
Says one source of 1994's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil": "That was a lonnnng time ago."
Many publishing observers spent yesterday trying to read the entrails.
"I think it's terrible," says Jason Epstein, a former publishing and editorial leader of Little Random, "to subordinate Random House, a publishing house with a great history and maybe a great future, to Ballantine," which Epstein describes as a "highly commercial, mass-market company."
He adds, "These two companies are doing two quite different things."
Gina Centrello, who has been running Ballantine since 1999, was named president of Random House Ballantine Publishing Group. Centrello, 43, served as publisher and president of Pocket Books in the 1990s.
"There will be no change in the composition of the editorial program," Applebaum says. "Random House will continue to do many, many books for a niche audience, books that will continue to appeal to the literary critical world.
"Our publishing division leaders have unparalleled decision-making autonomy and creative and financial empowerment to acquire and market the books they want," Applebaum says. "The only thing that is asked of them is to achieve long-term profitability." Publishers Weekly reported yesterday that Random "was tight-lipped about the effects on titles and staff, but the expectation is that changes are in the works as Centrello seeks to improve Random Trade's profitability." Reports of nervousness and unease among Random House employees filtered through the publishing world.
Applebaum praises Centrello's "strong publishing and managerial skills and her editorial affinity for a broad range of publishing."
Several publishing observers point out that it is becoming a rare thing for a publisher to also act as an editor. At Random House, Sonny Mehta of Alfred A. Knopf is the only publishing division head who operates with the leeway to purchase and edit books.
"Over the past 76 years," CEO Olson said in the official statement, "the Random House publishing program has been home to many fabled editors and editorial leaders. Ann is surely one of them."
Before coming to Random House in 1991, Godoff worked at Simon & Schuster and the Atlantic Monthly Press. She took over Little Random in 1997.
"She's certainly one of the most distinguished editors around, with a great sense of good books," says David Rosenthal of Simon & Schuster.
Michael Pollan, meanwhile, is at work on a new book. He has no idea who his new editor will be. He says he tried to call Godoff. "I've been thinking about her," he says. "I haven't been thinking about me."
He adds, "I have been blessed to have this relationship. Until now."