New Chapter Begins for Random House

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Among the highs in Harold M. Evans' seven eventful years as president and publisher of Random House was the fall of 1994. He described himself at the time as "a Japanese wrestler who's suddenly wrestling with himself," because eight of his company's books were simultaneously on the New York Times' national bestseller list and two more were about to "make the list" as well.

Advance to Wednesday of last week, when Evans' planned departure from Random House topped the day's media news, and the Times list to be published Sunday shows a less impressive picture. Only three Random House books are among the 30 listed. One is John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," hardly a new title; Monty Roberts' sleeper hit of the fall, "The Man Who Listens to Horses"; and Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things," a novel set in India.

All three books were acquired by editor in chief Ann Godoff, who this week succeeded Evans as president.

It's not a case of the mighty falling--Evans, who had been angling to leave, will become editorial director of the Daily News and its sister publications--but it is an important transition in the life of the famous publishing house.

Evans, whose name seemed to appear in the gossip columns as often as it did in Publishers Weekly, was ridiculed by many in the business for his very public persona and generous spending. He paid $5 million to Marlon Brando for an autobiography that the actor barely promoted and that few wanted to buy and $2.5 million to the disgraced Dick Morris for an Oval Office memoir that no amount of hype and advertising could elevate into a big book.

But Evans also cultivated big successes, including Colin Powell's "My American Journey" and Joe (Anonymous) Klein's "Primary Colors." He went a long way to make books and book publishing hot by putting his own colorful emcee of a personality behind new titles and the classics. He revitalized, for example, the Modern Library, redesigning and expanding the series of attractively priced classics that he first collected during the 1950s, when he visited America from his native Britain.

"The heart of a publishing house is editorial," he told me last year. And as for the financial risks that go with the publisher's job, well, he added: "It's not atomic science. What's important is getting a feel for the zeitgeist, figuring out what books will work and making John Grisham fall in love with you."

Still, the financial risks do loom large, especially in this period of static sales and uncertainty about the future of the industry. Evans knew this all too well; indeed, he took the bold step a few years ago of revealing that the 29 Random House titles included among the New York Times' "notable books" of 1993 collectively lost $600,000. The inference to be drawn was that the advances paid to the authors and other costs totaled $600,000 more than the 29 books had earned the publishing house.

However, Evans went on to admit that two other books published by the company had sold so well in 1993 that they essentially covered the shortfall. Although he did not identify the pair, presumably he was referring to Maya Angelou's "Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now" and Marianne Williamson's "A Woman's Worth."

No doubt the strong sales of Colin Powell's autobiography, which earned the retired general an advance of $6 million, also provided a kind of underwriting that enabled Random House to publish a few other books of far less certain appeal.

The problem is that a publisher cannot budget Powell-like success even though he must try to replicate it, again and again. One admiring colleague last week called it "the treadmill," as in: "Harry knew that he was on a treadmill that he would have to step off of. It stopped being fun for him."

In addition, sources said, Random House Chairman Alberto Vitale had come to tire of Evans' wide profile and took to going around him, dealing directly with Godoff, who was promoted in June from editorial director to editor in chief.

Godoff, 48, who often cuts a hip image in black jacket and black jeans, in marked contrast to the seriously suited Evans, spoke last week of "stylistic" changes ahead.

"It's an open door," she added. "I'm a hard-working editor who came up through the ranks."

An expected but no less telling change was that Godoff will not be assuming Evans' role as host of the monthly literary breakfasts that he had begun, at $35 a ticket, at the swank Barneys New York.

A Tabloid View of History "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD" . . . "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR" . . . The "best" tabloid headlines tell the story with speed, punch and a dash of irreverence.

But how would the tabloids have covered the great events of history? Kevin McDonough considers the possibilities in "A Tabloid History of the World," his funny new paperback from Hyperion.

Aaron Burr kills famous money man at 50 paces? "HEAD FED DEAD," over the readout, "Alexander Hamilton Dies After Foolish Duel With Creepy Veep."

Joan of Arc burned at the stake? "FRENCH TOAST!"

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* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His e-mail address is paul.colford@newsday.com. His column is published Thursdays.

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