For months, the chatter in the book business has been about the sky falling. Amid a swirl of mounting bad news, last week the change everyone knew was coming—the restructuring of Random House—was finally made public. And although only two executives were lost in the shuffle—Irwyn Applebaum and Steve Rubin (who is talking to CEO Markus Dohle about a new position)—more layoffs are on the horizon. So what does the new management structure and the merging of divisions mean? PW spoke to a number of agents and others in the industry about whether the new Random could be a house of the future, ready to publish less and buy smarter, or just another corporate entity trimming costs.
That the restructuring, which puts Gina Centrello, Sonny Mehta and Jenny Frost in charge of the three overarching divisions—Random House Publishing Group, the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and the Crown Publishing Group, respectively—still allows for imprints to compete for the same book is puzzling to some, since the practice has led to overspending on advances. (Overspending contributed to the high costs that Dohle was brought in to control.) While many saw the logic in moving Bantam and Dell's mass market operations into the Random group, already home to Ballantine, the restructuring also made for some curious pairings.
“Some of the fits are better than others,” said one agent. “Doubleday and Nan Talese under Sonny [Mehta] is fine, but Cindy [Spiegel] and Julie [Grau] with Gina [Centrello]—I don't know.” The comment hints at the different publishing sensibilities of Spiegel and Grau, brought in by Rubin, and their new boss, Centrello. As the agent elaborated, speaking to the particulars of book publishing, “A lot of it is personalities, even though it's corporate.”
Although all those interviewed said it's too soon to know what the changes at Random really mean, some are hoping that the house will run more effectively now. “This is an organization that makes some sense in terms of financially steering such a large ship,” said one agent, who prefaced the statement by saying that the pending layoffs are no less a “tragedy” because of that. Another agent added that what's happening at Random is “a realistic thing.” Given the economic climate and the drop in sales volume, he said, “It's irrational to hope companies could maintain their overheads.”
“Random House has been on a buying spree for years,” said Robert Gottlieb of Trident Media. “They have to redistribute their business and look at what they can streamline.” Noting that the book business has always suffered from a disconnect between publishing and retailing, Gottlieb added that he's hoping “publishers will start to look at new avenues for revenue sources in online and direct marketing—in areas where they've been slow to react.”
Still others, knowing Random House will be laying off more people—and seeing the layoffs at other houses—are dubious about cutting jobs instead of other expenses. And as one agent explained, the buying practices haven't changed—houses are still chasing bestsellers and abandoning the midlist: “It seems that rather than buying the same books for less money, [publishers] are all still vying for the big books. The midlist isn't getting published or it's getting published in a self-defeating way.”
Susanna Einstein at LJK Literary noted that, as people lose jobs, the industry contracts in the wrong way. “Intelligent, diverse, and valuable people are being and will be laid off—not just at RH, but across the industry—and the less diversity in the talent pool that makes up publishing, the more homogenous the lists, until publishing looks like the film business, all tentpoles and not much underneath.”
Others wondered if the changes at Random House and the promise to, as Dohle said in his letter, “publish the best books in the best way,” are really in synch. One agent would love to see the “nepotistic buy”—which he described as “buying something just to stay on the happy list of a big agent”—fall by the wayside. But that same agent said he sells only books he really believes in and he would hate to think, corporate mandates aside, an editor would buy for any other reason.
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