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New Random House Ballantine Chief Daniel Menaker Sees a Clear Mission Ahead

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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Daniel Menaker
Senior vice president and executive editor-in-chief of The Random House Publishing Group

By Doris Booth

November 2004

 

. . . the job may be a perfect fit, one for which he has been well-groomed over a long publishing career.

NEW YORK, NY/11/01/2004—Daniel Menaker has been on the job for only a few months (July 2004) as senior vice president and executive editor-in-chief of a key division of the world’s largest general interest book publisher—The Random House Publishing Group. Already, his mission is clear.

Good-humored, lean and energetic at age 63, Menaker fills half of the chair once occupied by the legendary Ann Godoff, who moved to Penguin last year, after she and Random House President Peter Olson parted over sagging profits.

Dan’s main challenge at Random House Ballantine Publishing Group will be to meld the venerable literary lines of Random House, Modern Library, Villard, and Random House Trade Paperbacks into one big functional family together with the more commercial imprints of Ballantine Books, Del Rey, One World, and Presidio Press. Industry insiders say that such a task is daunting. For Dan, however, the job may be a perfect fit, one for which he has been well-groomed over a long publishing career.

Dan Menaker spent 20 years as an editor at The New Yorker before joining Random House in 1994 to work under former Random House publisher Harold Evans and Ann Godoff herself. He left Random House for sixteen months to serve as an executive editor at rival HarperCollins, but returned to Random House in 2003. He was among a half dozen contenders for the title of editor-in-chief.

Dan literally grew up in publishing. His mother was an editor at Fortune Magazine for many years. His own life in letters began at age eight when he sold an anecdote to The New Yorker “Talk of the Town” for $20. Menaker, himself is the author of two volumes of short stories and the novel, The Treatment (Pocket, 1999), and continues to write numerous magazine articles.

Some industry observers fear the Random House imprint will lose its literary prestige as it is gulped into the new group with Ballantine. Menaker, however, sees a far more promising outcome.

Dan recently talked exclusively with Authorlink in his Broadway office overlooking the Hudson River about his hopes, aspirations, and challenges for the new Random House Ballantine Publishing Group.

"We want to put more

 

arrows in our quiver for our authors and agents."

—Menaker

AUTHORLINK: What is your mission as the new editor-in-chief?

MENAKER: My mission is fairly simple—to combine Random House with Ballantine and its other imprints, to integrate the two divisions, and to sustain and enhance the new group. We want to put more arrows in our quiver for our authors and agents. Combining the two groups will enable us to sell across a broader marketplace.

AUTHORLINK: Haven’t Random House and Ballantine been seen as a clash of cultures?

MENAKER: Random House has been historically viewed as literary, while Ballantine has been perceived as a commercial fiction imprint, especially, at the outset, for paperback readers. Now Ballantine, in addition to its strong hardcover frontlist features the Ballantine Readers’ Circle, with authors such as Sue Miller and John Irving. These two imprints have indeed been perceived as a clash of cultures. However, when Gina Centrello arrived as president and Ann Godoff left, and the two entities were combined, we were able to offer a greater number of options to authors and agents. In the new combined group, one book might benefit more from being placed on the Ballantine side, where another might be published under the Random House imprint. I am here to match the right editors with the right books across all of the lines within our Random House Publishing division. All of our editors now acquire across these lines.

AUTHORLINK: Is there any truth to the charge that the literary side of Random House is in danger?

MENAKER: This is simply not true. My job is to sustain and enhance both sides, to meld the legacies of both. Random House will maintain its literary importance as an imprint. That is its profile. Ballantine has distinguished itself more as a literary imprint than most people understand. The line has been categorized as a commercial imprint. Yet, Ballantine publishes many outstanding literary authors too. In fact, we’ll soon be releasing an updated description of both lines. I am here not only to combine the lines into one group, but to also help them maintain their distinct identities.

"One of my goals is to enhance

 

all of our imprints by turning

our identity outward. We are

one of the best publishing

houses in the world. . . "

—Menaker

AUTHORLINK: How will you go about enhancing the imprints?

MENAKER: One of my goals is to enhance all of our imprints by turning our identity outward. We are one of the best publishing houses in the world, with a very well known name. Our logo is one of the few recognized at the consumer level, and I want to take advantage of that brand awareness. We intend to make the Random House brand more public, to strengthen our identification. For example, among the many new strategies we will use to enhance our identity is to sponsor two Random House evenings of selected shorts on NPR Radio.

AUTHORLINK: Have you seen brand identity work anywhere in publishing?

MENAKER: It worked for The New Yorker, where I served as editor. To some extent I would like to emulate their model. I have not yet seen a publisher achieve this sort of brand attraction in bookstores, but maybe that’s because it hasn’t been done well. We will use the recognition of our name to celebrate what we do.

AUTHORLINK: What other ways are you using to enhance the Random House name?

MENAKER: We’ll be taking advantage of the full Random House corporation and what we have to offer—enterprise-wide. I want to increase our arsenal of weapons in every way possible. For example, we were sponsoring a live NPR reading of Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and I wondered if the Random House audio books division had done a CD on Collins. It turned out no large record division had. I immediately called the audio division to set up a live recording of the Collins reading, and we’ll be selling a CD in conjunction with his books.

AUTHORLINK: What are some of the major changes you see on the horizon for publishing?

"One of the big changes I see

 

in publishing is in the number

of books a title will sell."

—Menaker

MENAKER: We have said for 150 years that literary and first fiction is becoming harder to sell, and that remains true. One of the big changes I see in publishing is in the number of books a title will sell. Ten years ago, certain literary hardcover debuts might have netted 10,000 to 20, 000 copies. Today hard covers generally sell between 3,000 and 4,000 copies. A marvelous collection of stories by Lewis Robinson called OFFICER FRIENDLY, for example, was reviewed nearly everywhere and netted well under ten thousand copies in hardcover. The gap is widening between smash hits and modestly successful literary fiction. Today, in order to make more money, we have to be more selective and far more passionate about the titles we choose to publish.

AUTHORLINK: How has the emergence of large media conglomerates impacted publishing?

MENAKER: Media companies have changed the model for publishing. The industry is no longer quite so indulgent of creative talent as it once was, nor given economic realities, should it be. The business model comes first, and strangely enough, perhaps, I am among the first to want to run a financially successful operation. I would love to give the bean counters more beans to count. Publishing, however, is an unpredictable business. The sales graph doesn’t always rise in a steady line. It can often squiggle its way upward and downward. I’m hoping that all corporations everywhere will factor these uncertainties into their publishing goals.

AUTHORLINK: You have said that being an author in your own right has helped you understand the authors you work with. While you now leave a lot of the acquiring to other editors in the publishing group, what are you, as the senior spokesman, looking for in the books acquired by your publishing group?

MENAKER: In nonfiction, we are looking for recognition, surprise, revelation. We want our books to tell readers something they have never read before. Our fiction writers must have a rigorous discipline for the craft. Whether fiction or nonfiction, the work must have originality of voice, or, if it is practical nonfiction, great authority and something new to offer.

"The serious task of writing

 

and editing and publishing

is hard, grinding, obsessive."

—Menaker

AUTHORLINK: Beyond the purely corporate goals, do you have a more personal objective?

MENAKER: The serious task of writing and editing and publishing is hard, grinding, obsessive. In a business where we are often competing with each other, the atmosphere can sometimes be glum. One of my personal goals is to help make our company a more collegial and enjoyable place to work. I want to be sure that we foster friendships. We’re not a family, but we want to be known as a good place to work. I believe we can encourage passion for our projects, build a positive working environment, and grow our profits at the same time.

Editor’s Note: With some 8.000 new books a year and more than 50,000 backlist titles, Random House is the world’s largest general interest book publisher. The publisher represents a broad spectrum of editorial voices supplied by more than 100 publishing imprints in 16 countries. The Random House Publishing Group is one of the two or three largest of these.

—Doris Booth