Exec's startup to focus mainly on nonfiction titles

NEW YORK — A grudge match is taking shape in Gotham’s cloistered book publishing industry.

Recently ousted Random House Trade Group publisher Ann Godoff wasted little time getting back on her feet, announcing Monday that she would be joining Penguin Group (USA) as president and publisher of a new imprint.

The startup will focus mainly on nonfiction titles. Godoff, 52, expects to publish as many as 40 books annually. Joining her is Scott Moyers, one of her senior editors from Random House.

Godoff was fired from Bertelsmann-owned Random House Trade Group earlier this month for failing to hit financial targets.

In a thinly veiled jab at bottom-line-minded Random House chief Peter Olson, Godoff noted in a statement, “Penguin is a place that understands that it is the authors and their work that matter most and that the properly published solid list is the list that is inevitably the most profitable.”

Godoff published a number of bestselling writers at Random, including John Berendt (“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”) and Zadie Smith (“White Teeth”). But she has been criticized for profligate spending on big-ticket authors.

Random House said it had no ill will toward Godoff in her new position. The immediate question was whether Godoff would bring any of her authors with her.

“This is not a serious concern for Random House,” said Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum.

Godoff takes up her new post Feb. 4. She’ll report to Penguin Group prexy Susan Petersen Kennedy, an exec known to be considerably more “hands-on” with editors than Godoff’s previous boss, Olson. Also, unlike Bertelsmann, whose imprints bid against each other for publishing rights, Penguin typically allows only a single corporate bid for a given title.

Whether Godoff will ultimately chafe under the tighter controls at Penguin remains to be seen, but she is not the first Random exec to decamp to Penguin. In 1999, Dell-Delacorte prexy Carole Barron left for Penguin after a dispute with management.

For Penguin, nabbing Godoff may be payback for Penguin Putnam chief exec Phyllis Grann’s defection to Random in 2001. Grann, the longtime publisher of Tom Clancy and other megabucks authors, joined Olson’s team as vice chairman, a job with little direct authority. Adrift in the highly decentralized Bertelsmann system, Grann exited after only six months.

Godoff’s flight to Penguin could escalate the tug of loyalties and egos between the two publishing powers, creating a rivalry as acrimonious as the long-simmering Hollywood rivalries of ICM and William Morris, or DreamWorks and Disney.

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