Random House cleans house again, splitting Crown for digital future

Just three years ago, the Crown Publishing Group was the most profitable division of Random House, the largest U.S. trade publisher of the media conglomerate Bertelsmann. Boldface names -- Barack Obama, Rachael Ray, Deepak Chopra, Ann Coulter -- produced a string of hits. And narrative non-fiction and thrillers, like Erik Larson's Devil in the White City and Max Brooks's World War Z, were selling big, too.
It's a different story today. The engineer of much of Crown's profit, Steve Ross, decamped for HarperCollins, only to see the imprint he was hired to revamp, Collins -- and his job -- disappear. Now, Ross's replacement as Crown's president and publisher, Jenny Frost, is leaving, a casualty of the latest company restructuring by Random House CEO Markus Dohle.

Frost, a 25-year veteran of Random House, told The New York Times she was "surprised" by the decision. "I think that Markus has a different strategic vision," she said, adding that planning her next career move was "certainly was not what I was anticipating doing."

Meet the New Boss, Eh

Her replacement is Maya Majvee
, who starts at Crown on January 1. Her hiring, too, is unusual: She's a veteran of the Canadian publishing scene, most recently executive publisher of Doubleday Canada. In a statement, Dohle said, "There may be no one better qualified within or outside Random House worldwide to lead these Crown Group publishers and our colleagues who work for them in a fresh, content-focused direction."

Through a representative, Mavjee said, "I am very excited to have the opportunity to work with the excellent team, authors, and publishing programs at the Crown Group, and with many people I admire in the U.S." She will be replaced by current associate publisher Kristen Cochrane.

A year ago, Random House shocked publishing circles with a set of sweeping changes (and significant layoffs) that merged five divisions into three, ousting Doubleday publisher Steve Rubin, who's now at Holt, and Bantam Dell president Irwyn Applebaum. Literary-leaning Knopf merged with Doubleday; "Little" Random partnered with Bantam Dell; and Crown ended up absorbing a slew of leftover imprints, including Broadway, The Princeton Review, and Sylvan Learning.

Now Crown is being split in two: Trade imprints like Broadway, Shaye Areheart books (fiction) and Harmony (non-fiction) stay with Crown, and more information-minded imprints like Sylvan Learning and Fodor's Travel Guides, as well as the audiobooks division, will be merged dinto Random House's Information Group.

Merging into Digital Publishing

"One of the rationales for the reorganization is to give our Random House Information Group publishing lines an even greater opportunity to expand on their digital publishing options," a Random House publicist told GalleyCat. Certainly Fodor's is faring well, especially as a digital destination, and the prospects are promising for information-based imprints to fare even better as digital reading becomes more widespread. But singling out Crown for further restructuring points also points to a simpler bottom line: money, or lack of it.

Their days as Random's top profit-producer are long gone. Backlist sales of Obama's Dreams From my Father and The Audacity of Hope can only make up for lesser sales of new books by established and emerging writers. Bookscan, which accounts for some 75% of retail sales, reports 123,000 copies sold of Ann Coulter's recent Guilty, an underperformer compared to her earlier books. The reissue of Michael Jackson's 1988 biography Moonwalk has sold 28,000 copies.

Sales of literary stars like Alice Hoffman, whose recent novel The Story Sisters has sold 22,000 copies per Bookscan, have also fallen below expectations. The thriller writer Scott Sigler, who was supposed to bring in a large audience based on his podcast fan base, has sold a combined 32,000 copies of his much-hyped novel Infected -- respectable for a debut novelist, but disappointing in light of the mid-six-figure advance Sigler received for it and a follow-up, Contagious.

Bush to the Rescue?

Despite the less-than-stellar outlook, Crown may have a couple extra tricks up its sleeve. One comes in the form of Diane Salvatore, the former magazine editor brought in to shape the Broadway imprint into a haven for more serious non-fiction. Some of her recent acquisitions include Current TV journalist Euna Lee's memoir of her five-month detainment in North Korea this year, and David Lipsky's short biography of the late author David Foster Wallace.

And the other? The forthcoming memoir of former President George W. Bush. There's no firm release date for the book, but based on the recent success of Sarah Palin's million-selling memoir Going Rogue, from News Corp.'s (NWS) HarperCollins, and Glenn Beck's books for CBS's (CBS) Simon & Schuster imprint Threshold, Crown has good reason to believe bigger profits are just around the corner.

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