Shortfalls lead to company ouster

The bloodshed spilling through the executive ranks of media companies from coast to coast reached New York’s publishing biz Thursday with the news that Ann Godoff, president, publisher and editor in chief of Random House Trade Group, had been forced out.

In a memo to staff, Random House Inc. chairman-CEO Peter Olson said Godoff’s exit was the result of an organizational realignment at the Bertelsmann-owned publishing giant, which effectively eliminated her position.

But he made clear it was the bottom line that ultimately did her in.

“Despite the many core publishing strengths of Random House Trade Group and their numerous bestsellers, they have been the only Random House Inc. publishing division to consistently fall short of their annual profitability targets,” Olson said in the memo.

Few New York publishing figures were as high-profile as Godoff, and work at rival publishing companies briefly came to a standstill Thursday as speculation spread about her ouster.

In his memo, Olson praised Godoff’s long tenure at Random House Inc.’s flagship imprint.

Joined in 1991

Joining the house as exec editor in 1991, Godoff was responsible for landing major bestsellers like John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” and Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth.” She took over the Random imprint after former publisher Harry Evans exited in 1997.

Olson said two of Godoff’s “most important legacies” as head of Random “are the revitalization of the Modern Library, the foundation imprint of classic literature upon which Random House was built, and the new Random House Trade Paperback line” — a division meant to leverage the Random imprint against sibling imprints like Knopf, which has its own Vintage paperback line.

But a number of prominent Random authors defected during Godoff’s tenure, including Rick Russo, who decamped to Knopf, and Martin Cruz Smith, Stephen Hunter and Hunter Thompson, who fled to Simon & Schuster.

Paid out big advances

It couldn’t have helped Godoff’s cause that, in the midst of a publishing downturn, she committed huge advances to high-profile authors, paying close to $10 million combined on novels from Salman Rushdie — whose latest novel, “Fury,” was a commercial flop — and “Cold Mountain” author Charles Frazier, whose new book for Random was bought on the basis of a short proposal.

With Godoff out, the conglom will merge two of its largest divisions, Random House Trade Group and Ballantine Books, into a single unit, Random House Ballantine Publishing Group. Ballantine chief and 20-year book vet Gina Centrello has been promoted to head of the combined group.

This latest combination is part of an ongoing trend as publishers streamline divisions in an effort to trim costs. Over the past few years, Bertelsmann has merged several once-autonomous imprints, including Doubleday and Broadway and Bantam and Dell, under single publishing units.

The merged division will retain the separate imprints of the two houses, but major staff cuts in editorial, marketing, publicity and sales may follow.

The two houses together publish such top scribes as John Irving, Alice Walker, Gail Sheehy and Laura Hillenbrand, who penned bestseller and soon-to-be Universal release “Seabiscuit.”

Random House Ballantine will publish its titles in hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback and e-book formats.

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