Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, January 21, 2003


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I was very sorry to learn Friday of Ann Godoff's dismissal as president of the Random House Trade Group. It appears this gifted editor got caught in a crossfire that had little to do with books - not even, I suspect, with money - but much to do with internal politics.

Godoff, a superb editor, found her star in ascendance when several of her midlist books - "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" by John Berendt, "The Alienist" by Caleb Carr - hit bestseller lists and stayed there for a long time.

Godoff was soon appointed president and editor-in-chief of the Random House Trade Group. She was further praised after turning the money-losing group into a profitable division.

Indeed, for a hardcover-only house to be profitable at all, *and* for it to publish serious, literary, midlist books, *and* for it to have an astounding number of bestsellers (Godoff's division had 12 bestsellers last year), is such a huge accomplishment that one would think Ann Godoff would have remained the most celebrated division chief in the corporation.

But no. Being profitable wasn't enough, it seemed. She had to turn Random House Trade into a money-making machine. One way was to sign up famous "bankable" authors, so she fell into the trap of offering huge advances - for example, $8 million to Charles Frazier, author of "Cold Mountain," for his next book - and she started a paperback line that would bring in new revenue.

This last effort brought Godoff's division in direct competition with the Vintage paperback line that another division president, Sonny Mehta, had somehow wrested from Random House years ago (1989) and placed under the Alfred A. Knopf umbrella. From all one hears about various shark tanks in publishing, you never want to swim with fishes like Mr. Mehta.

Meanwhile, all the decisions Ann Godoff made were discussed with and approved by Peter Olson, chief executive of the Random House corporation. So what a knife in the heart it must have been when Olson himself announced last week that he was firing Ann Godoff because her Random House Trade Group was "the only Random House Inc. publishing division to consistently fall short of their annual profitability targets."

What a terrible thing to say. He didn't mean it had consistently fallen short of *making* a profit, which is hard enough. He said Godoff's group hadn't brought in the $6 million in profits he had expected; instead it had produced $2 million in profits. Her new paperback line had been in existence only a year - not long enough to bring in sizeable income - so it was counted as another strike against her.

Olson certainly knew that a new paperback line needs time to grow; he knew that 12 hardcover bestsellers in a single year was "more than any other house in the company," as the New York Times noticed. And he knew that many of Godoff's titles *couldn't* be made profitable because, for example, "Black House" by Stephen King and Peter Straub, for which Godoff's division had paid $10 million, was published less than a week after the attacks of 9/11/2001, "when no one wanted a horror story," as the Times also noticed.

So why the abrupt and punitive announcement that Godoff was fired? Well, like something out of a bad Barbra Streisand movie, Godoff's star had suddenly started declining while that of Ballantine president Gina Centrello was suddenly rising.

Centrello was also an example of an up-and-coming publisher taking over a money-losing division and making it profitable. What she did with Ballantine in only three years was "the most successful turnaround in the history of Random House," said Olson.

And possibly the easiest. Ballantine, after all, publishes both a paperback and hardcover line, is far more commercial than Random House and, by bringing in the big hitters (Jonathan Kellerman, Tess Gerritson, Julie Garwood), probably sold more copies of bestsellers than Random House did. (According to the Times, Godoff paid $10 million for "Black House," but we don't know what Centrello, with whom she "teamed up to bid" on the book, contributed to it, if anything.)

This is not to say that Gina Centrello's achievement wasn't enormous. It was probably herculean. But it does mean that Centrello's "focus [is] on results" (i.e., financial results), Olson told the Times. Whether this makes her capable to replace Godoff, keep Ballantine and thus become president of the Random House Ballantine Group remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, voila! What a changing of the guard we find in Random House and the press: According to the Times' follow-up article yesterday, Ann Godoff is now characterized by unknown colleagues as "a snob" who "candidly told associates that she felt little personal interest or affinity for commercial romances, thrillers and page-turners."

Further, Godoff has "snubbed some fellow publishers," Gina Centrello among them - in fact it was Centrello who "told colleagues that Ms. Godoff looked down on her and had excluded her from meetings with authors and agents."

Poor kid. But don't worry about Gina C. It turns out that her former boss, Irwyn Applebaum has identified the basis for Centrello's "mastery of the nuts and bolts of the publishing business." It's the fact the when Applebaum worked with her, "Ms. Centrello did not regularly go out for long, expensive lunches," states the Times. "She was just as likely, [Applebaum] said, to order in pizza to eat at her desk so that she could nail down every detail of a book's publishing schedule."

What brilliance. And Centrello has "not an ounce of snobbery or chip on her shoulder," Applebaum added. She is a happily married mother of two children who's learned "to balance work and family life" and, according to author Jonathan Kellerman, hasn't got "a pretentious bone in her body."

So don't we feel better knowing all this? No one is saying publishers shouldn't make profits. But I think the message is that in today's mainstream publishing arena, if you're literary, if you have high standards, if you like serious books, midlist books and sure, a few commercial books now and then - and if you you believe there's an audience out there for quality books - you're out.

Why don't we admit that the way books are published from mainstream houses is an insane way to live? Gossipy, inbred, lunch-dependent and about two years behind the rest of the nation, corporate publishing is now in the business of sabotaging the very system it's supposed to keep vital and engaged - that is, selecting good books and finding a legitimate, creative, devoted and adventurous way to sell them.

Remember when Random's ax man, Alberto Vitale, hacked his way through the house's subsidiaries to force out Andre Schiffrin, who had been publisher of Pantheon Books for nearly 3 decades? Once again it wasn't money so much as his attitude that got Schiffrin kicked out, and my, what a ruckus that caused. A number of senior editors quit in protest. Studs Terkel, James Michener and dozens of other authors picketed outside the Random House building, and many spoke to the press against Schiffrin's departure.

But then as now, readers were given a choice: If you look at the authors who are singled out as making or breaking careers - Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Clancy, Stephen King - it's interesting to note that the longer these authors are published, the fewer copies they sell each year.

That's because the wide-ranging interests of readers in general - readers who want to read many different kinds of books, with many different stories and ideas from the very literary to the very commercial, won't be limited to the sameness of chain-driven bestseller lists like the New York Times'.

Increasingly, readers are turning to Bestseller and Recommended lists that offer true range and diversity, lists that include books from both mainstream and independent publishers, such as the many regional and national lists from BookSense at www.booksense.com.

I'm sure Ann Godoff will end up on her feet after all this; it's hard to say the same thing for Random House.



Like many in the book industry, I've been increasingly intrigued by the impact of online "customer reviews," message-board conversations, book group exchanges and other communications about books that have found a limitless arena on the Internet.

As space for traditional book reviews in printed newspapers and magazines has decreased, everything from excellent literary criticism to inane gossip has flooded the cyberwaves about books. Everything we do in the book industry today, it seems to me, is tied in some way to the explosion of book-related conversations online, but it's impossible to tell what part of this has the greater power to influence book sales.

One exception perhaps is the closely monitored genre of romance novels, where much can be learned about the byplay between, say, Publishers Weekly, online customer opinions, the traditional review media and a popular website called All About Romance, created and maintained by Laurie Gold (see columns (#348, 349, 350 and 354).

It's too glib to say that readers draw their information about buying books from a combination of sources, and that exchanges on the Internet are simply the electronic version of that great old standby, word of mouth.

As one romance novelist, Jo Manning, suggested (#354), it's possible that the careers of beginning authors are being slaughtered as a result of negative message-board chats, reviewers' grading systems and feverish "e-opinion" about romance books in general.

Because Manning specifically criticized Gold's AAR, I asked Laurie to respond to charges I think everybody has been wondering about for some years now. For example, what happens at a site like AAR where professional reviews are discussed by readers and authors alike on message boards? How does a grading system work and what power could such a site have over beginning authors' careers?

Equally important: How much blurring has occurred between professional review and customer opinion? Is this, overall, a bad or a good thing for books? And finally: Is there a way for publishers and booksellers to somehow be a part of this loop?

While Laurie Gold's statement below tells us much about the answers to these questions in the category of romance novels, it seems to me that her comments on approach, policy, customer/reviewer/publisher/bookseller relationships might be applied to other fields.

So here's Laurie's statement:

"All About Romance (www.likesbooks.com), exists solely for the purpose of giving lovers of romance novels an electronic 'back fence' by which they can discuss the genre. We accomplish this via original content in our commentary, reviews, interviews, polls and other articles, and through the five message boards we operate.

"Because we've taken the neighborhood 'back fence' and expanded it electronically, our content and the response to our content reaches a wide audience.

"What we do is simple: Our staff members offer informed opinions, and our message boards allow people to expand upon them or to refute them with their own.

"Other mechanisms are in place for disagreement - we sometimes post dual reviews and invite readers and authors to contribute segments to our At the Back Fence column (http://www.likesbooks.com/news.html). We try to be organic in nature, allowing readers to dictate content in terms of giving us ideas to write about. We offer so many ways for lovers of romance to communicate because we're all about the sharing of ideas and opinions. Because of this we try to discuss all sides of an issue.

"For some reason this has created dissension among some lovers of romance novels, including certain authors. I believe this happened for a couple of reasons: The print publications that 'grew up' with the modern genre romance were all about cheerleading, and the idea persists that discussion must be all positive, all the time.

"The other reason is that most of the print publications that have deigned even to review romance novels are publications not written for the reader as end user. Publications such as Publishers Weekly and Library Journal review books with a different sensibility than publications that review books for readers, primarily because of their audience and their mission.

"Reviews with consumers as the end user are written with more personality and flair than those written to be read by those in the publishing industry because they are meant to impart information as well as entertain the consumer. You can see this difference by comparing and contrasting reviews written for Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, or People to the magazines listed in the previous paragraph. AAR's style is modeled on EW's reviews, where books, movies, music and TV shows are graded and written about in a far more theatrical manner than you'd read, say, in Publishers Weekly.

"Even though AAR is considered one of the premiere sites online, the Internet, as far as romance novels are concerned, is still limited in terms of power. Were we truly as powerful as some seem to think, books we championed would become immediate bestsellers. And if we were as negative a force as some would say, books we panned would never make bestseller lists. And yet, neither is the case.

"There is some confusion between reviews by our staff, comments by readers on our message boards, and the type of reviews you'll find at sites such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Epinions. This is indeed unfortunate as there is quite a distinction to be made.

"The reviews at AAR comprise 'AAR Reviews' and 'Desert Isle Keeper Reviews.' The former are written solely by our review staff and can receive grades of 'A' through 'F.' A book receiving a grade of 'A' is given 'Desert Isle Keeper (DIK) status' - in other words, if you had one book to take with you on a desert island, this would be it - it's a keeper. DIK Reviews are written by our reviewers, readers, and authors about their all-time favorite books, and in the case of authors, books that influenced their writing.

"As a reviewer who has written some 300 reviews in the past 6 years (of which 1/3 were paid reviews), I've approached the creation and maintenance of AAR not as an amateur venue but as a site with original material as professional as you'll find anywhere.

"Most of our review staff have read romance novels for a number of years, and many are professional writers and/or editors in 'real life' - a few have been or are published romance authors. Official reviews as they appear on our site and the type of review you'll read at Amazon and/or B&N online are different animals altogether. Indeed, even those DIK Reviews, which we make a point of distinguishing from our AAR Reviews when not written by our staff, go through a rigorous two-tiered editing process, just as you'd encounter at a 'professional' review publication.

"This is perhaps the major difference between our reviews and what you'll encounter at Amazon and Epinions. I wish I could counsel authors before they jump into a message board discussion with both barrels blazing to remember that the message board discussion will disappear within a few weeks, whereas an actual AAR review will remain forever.

"I say this because in the past few months I've witnessed authors who've received good grades from our review staff squander those reviews by their online behavior when they *felt* provoked. In one instance, an author received DIK status for a book but was so argumentative with readers on one of our message boards that I doubt few readers would even remember the book had received our highest accolade.

"A more recent incident involved author Jo Manning herself. Again I would venture to say that few readers would remember at this point that her book received a recommendation from AAR. Indeed, Manning herself failed to mention her good review with us (http://www.likesbooks.com/jane109.html) in her letter to Holt Uncensored, which surprised me. A review remains forever, while a message board discussion will be gone as soon as the board is trimmed to make room for new discussion. At AAR this generally takes two to three weeks. Online conduct, however, both of readers and authors, lingers much longer in everyone's memories.

"The Internet reaches an electronic 'back fence' larger than a virtual back fence; it is because of this that I believe a segment of the publishing community is concerned about AAR's impact. Readers who haven't had a venue to talk about the books they love - warts and all - love AAR, as do many authors who recognize the value of good, honest discussion. Our commentary is widely read and we try to provide all sides to the issues we tackle. But we know we're reviled by other authors who find our style of review mean-spirited. Some find us mean-spirited simply for reviewing books we didn't like.

"We do post negative reviews, and yet the 'D' and 'F' grades, when added together, account for just over a fifth of all our reviews. Nearly 50% of our reviews are in the 'A' or 'B' range. Put another way, we post more than twice as many 'A' and 'B' grades as we do 'D' and 'F' grades (see our "Review Scorecard for details - http://www.likesbooks.com/scorecard.html).

"We model our reviews after those in Entertainment Weekly, which also assigns grades and offers a page online (http://www.likesbooks.com/negatives.html) of mainstream reviews that are far more negative than anything we've ever written ... (But) love a book or hate a book, anyone who reads our reviews will know exactly what we felt about a book, and why. The 'why,' we hear from readers, is very important because it helps them make informed decisions about how to spend their hard-earned money; what engages or turns off a reviewer may do the opposite for a reader."

Laurie Gold
Publisher, All About Romance

Gold's statement continues with more specific reviews and examples of controversies on the AAR website at http://www.likesbooks.com/patholt.html.

Meanwhile, a brief comment: Years ago B.I. (Before the Internet), when book reviewers were seen as a separate entity from readers, I would have been horrified to read Laurie Gold's statement. At Gold's website, book reviewers, authors, publishers and readers seem to mingle as if they were attending a happy (well, volatile) cocktail party.

But today I find Laurie's point of view refreshing and important. In fact, I think Laurie's statement might be considered a prognosis for the book industry. At dozens if not hundreds of websites across the Internet, book reviewers and general readers are contributing to a new, common wisdom about the quality and viability of books.

Perhaps the more flexible and open we are to the inevitability of this development, the more it'll become a useful tool in reaching more readers with the news of new books.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Probably most of your readers are aware of Section 215 of the Orwellian-named USA Patriot Act. Section 215 of this Act is the provision that requires booksellers and librarians to hand over the buying and borrowing records of their patrons to federal agents investigating suspicions of terrorism and other subversions.

Under 215, the feds don't have to show probable cause. Booksellers or librarians who resist can be arrested, and they're prohibited even from telling anyone that the demand has been made. It's a flagrant violation of the right to read, not to mention of Constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure.

Now the work of a little committee of Vermonters against 215 - Vermont Library Association executive board member Trina Magi and her colleague at the University of Vermont Library Peter Spitzform; Linda Ramsdell, president of the New England Booksellers Association and owner of the Galaxy Bookstore in Hardwick; Ben Scotch, executive director of the Vermont Civil Liberties Union; and myself - is starting to pay off.

Our petition protesting the provision and seeking its repeal (you can read the text on the ALA - American Library Association - website at http://www.ala.org) has the signatures of 156 librarians, library trustees and libraries public and college, as well as representatives of almost every one of the 25 or so independent bookstores in the state. And we're still collecting names.

In response, on December 20 Vermont Independent U.S. Congressman Bernie Sanders announced he plans "to introduce legislation that will exempt libraries and booksellers from parts of the Patriot Act" and will propose "strengthening Congress' oversight role over the Patriot Act." We want to make this a full-out repeal of Section 215 and other egregious parts of the Act.

The American Library Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (of the American Booksellers Association), Association of American Publishers, and PEN American Center have launched a campaign to support Bernie (as he is called in these parts), to publicize the bill and recruit Congressional co-sponsors for it.

Please write your representatives in Washington, D.C., urging them to oppose Section 215 (and other unconstitutional provisions of the Patriot Act). Urge them to sign onto the Sanders bill. Many municipalities are passing resolutions against the Act -- you can work for that too. If you want to do a campaign in your state, e-mail me at judebklyn@aol.com.

Judith Levine (for the Vermont committee)

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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