Million Dollar Baby

By Kathryn Comment

For several days now, Sara Nelson‘s upcoming ‘letter from the editor’ has been riding the web’s tides like sewer-mangled styrofoam. We know it shouldn’t be there, but we’ve always been more comfortable littering than cleaning.

More importantly, however: we rarely get to offer our readers an emotion as genuine, as pristine and untouched (by the super-ego), as the discomfort provoked by Nelson’s “metaphorical” baby fixation.

Losing Neverland:
‘Little Random’ Grows Up

Two years ago, nearly to the week, book publishing, as we know it, died. Well, not exactly–even if that was what many of us believed–and said–at the time.
January 16, 2003, was the infamous day on which Ann Godoff–the feared, revered, loved, reviled but never-to-be-counted-out head of Random House–was fired. It was the day a new era of much maligned conglomeratization began. Henceforth, the sainted house of Random would be joined with the dastardly commercial Ballantine to be ruled by the evil stepmother, Gina Centrello.
Surely, no good would come of this. “Little Random”–the venerable imprint now subsumed–didn’t have a chance.
But against all odds and many predictions, the child of this unlikely union has just turned two. And–according to CEO Peter Olson’s pronouncement that the division is profitable–the baby is thriving. Still, as most parents, if they’re honest, will tell you, raising a toddler can be… complex. At two, they’re willful and strong, full of mobility, ambition and joy–but sometimes lacking in sense.
There’s no denying that Little Random has had its share of growing pains: first, there was the inevitable “what do we name it?” Where, exactly, should the word “Ballantine” go? Although they managed to settle on the commodious “Random House Group” (including Ballantine), there was no lack of contentious jockeying for power within a reporting system that no one seemed to completely understand. (Who reported to Jon Karp and who to Dan Menaker? Insiders say it was never clear.) Most disturbing, perhaps, was the departure of the Nannies–and I don’t just mean those women whose second novel, the non-blockbuster Citizen Girl, was canceled and ended up with S&S’s Atria. In the past six months, at least four editors have moved on, or at least out–some by choice, some not.
The most recent departure, that of Lee Boudreaux, an up-and-coming (primarily) fiction editor, is perhaps the most surprising, given that (a) Boudreaux has had some notable successes, particularly with the novels of Adriana Trigiani and Prep, the current hit by Curtis Sittenfeld; and (b) she resigned without a job to go to. This second fact, of course, has publishing watchers wondering: Why would a young woman whose salary Centrello recently upped to around $150K (to prevent a defection to Warner) just walk away?
It’s tempting, as always, to blame her professional siblings, or the structure of the family as a whole–and many do. (Boudreaux herself did not return two requests for an interview; she was scheduled to end her decade-long stint at Random House last Friday, but left a week early because of a death in the family.) Many say she got fed up with Jon Karp, the famously ambitious editor-in-chief; some say Karp’s emphasis on nonfiction left her and her work feeling unappreciated. (Karp’s greatest hits include Seabiscuit, the works of Susan Orlean and last summer’s Shadow Divers, which has done so well the house is now making the unusual move of releasing it simultaneously as a mass market and trade paperback.)
So maybe, as is often the case in families, the situation is both more and less complicated than it at first appeared. First of all, although Karp may have a better track record in nonfiction, the success of Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club notwithstanding, the house still maintains a strong fiction list. In 2005, it will publish novels by E.L. Doctorow, Salman Rushdie and John Irving, among others. Second, Boudreaux had a powerful ally in Dan Menaker, himself a fiction lover and an avuncular figure, who, like all Random House executives, declined to comment on Boudreaux’s departure except to express his admiration for her.
“Isn’t it possible that for some people in some situations, there just comes a time to move on?” asked a publishing executive who knows Random House from the inside out. In other words, is it possible that there was, in this most dramatic of businesses, a minimum of drama? Sure, it’s possible–just as it’s possible that a newly configured publishing house, in the middle of a shrinking publishing market, will survive childhood without a bunch of bumps and scrapes and tantrums and scenes.
Growing up, after all, is hard to do.