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To publishers, profits aren't without honor

Sunday, January 26, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

It's only the end of January, and American publishing has already been declared dead.

The postmortem followed the firing of Random House President Anne Godoff two weeks ago. That house was the most prestigious literary group in the American empire of the German publisher Bertelsmann, and one of the largest commercial U.S. publishers.

Now, Random is merging with Ballantine Books, which cranks out romances, thrillers and paperbacks.

Among Random's writers are William Stryon, Salman Rushdie, E.L. Doctorow, Stephen King and Anna Quindlen. One of Godoff's last signings was Charles Frazier, author of "Cold Mountain," who was paid $8 million for his contract.

Random House, once a famous independent partly owned by Bennett Cerf, best remembered for his antics on "What's My Line?" the 1950s and '60s game show, made $2 million last year

It was supposed to bring in $6 million -- hence Godoff's pink slip.

Then last week, we learn from The New York Times, which has been covering the story as though Godoff were more important than Paul O'Neill, that there might have been other reasons.

Godoff was considered a snob who looked down her nose at romance and thriller books and took long expensive lunches, the Times gossiped.

Her successor, Gina Centrello, on the other hand, ate take-out pizza at her desk.

Thus, on such things rests the future of literature.

Patricia Holt, an industry observer, said Godoff's firing sends the message that "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 believe there's an audience out there for quality books -- you're out."

The problem with that pronouncement is that Godoff's overall selections contained a few literary gems but also a healthy dose of conventional and fast-turnaround books, such as David Frum's "The Right Man," a superficial account of the Bush White House.

She also depended on the millions a Stephen King title was supposed to bring in when Random signed the horrormeister and Peter Straub to collaborate on the 2001 novel "Black House." However, readers were in no mood for a fictional horror story following a real one Sept. 11, and the book did not sell as well as expected.

There are other aspects to the Random House story, specific to the financing arrangements of the publisher and of little interest to us. What does matter to readers is that the country's major publisher made no bones about what's important -- profit.

And, is that a bad thing? There's no reason why a quality piece of fiction can't make money, and so far, despite the schlock and superficiality found in the bookstores, publishers will continue to offer books worth reading because they sell, too.

Speaking of bones, sales of "The Lovely Bones," Alice Sebold's first novel, are nearing 1.6 million. Published in late spring of last year, the Little, Brown product hit 1.5 million in sales by year's end and has already sold more than 50,000 this year.

Its success -- book clubs love it, apparently -- and its appearance on the year's best lists, this paper's included, has brought renewed attention from critics, this paper's included.

At first reading, "Bones" creates an appearance of originality and freshness, largely on the strength of the voice of its narrator, Susie, 14, who is raped and murdered in the opening pages.

The book appeared shortly after several widely reported assaults on teen girls, thus lending it a Cassandra-like quality. Adding to the impact was the author's published memoir, which recounted her own rape.

The fact that Sebold began the novel more than seven years ago seemed immaterial to its "timely" reputation.

My review was mostly positive, focusing on Sebold's taut writing style and sympathetic portrayal of grief, but I found the conclusion unsatisfying, if not a bit cloying.

Prodded to reread it by several correspondents who were unhappy to find it on my Top 10 list (hey, it was slim year in fiction), I found it more contrived and artificial than at first blush.

The other problem with "The Lovely Bones" is that in the end, it avoids the very reality it opens with, by substituting a kind of Hallmark Cards "closure."

Yet, it's a better-written novel than most, and that fact alone contributed to its commercial success.

With an apology to F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are second acts in American magazines.

The Oxford American is back in business after disappearing for a year to struggle with financial difficulties. It resurfaced on newsstands this month from its new quarters in Little Rock, Ark.

John Grisham, who kept the literary publication with a Southern bent going in the 1990s, stays involved as a part-owner. His help included publication of his nostalgic novel "The Painted House" in the magazine.

Even that contribution was not enough to keep the magazine in its original home of Oxford, Miss. Its savior is a publisher of regional magazines based in Little Rock.

Founder and editor Marc Smirnoff continues to run The Oxford American and plans seven more issues this year. Among the articles in the "relaunch issue" is a rumination on motels by "True Grit" author Charles Portis.

Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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