Publisher of Random House Ballantine Publishing Group
B orn c. 1959 in the United States; married; children: two.
Addresses: Office—Random House Publishing Group, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
C opy editor, Pocket Books, early 1980s; executive vice president and publisher, Pocket Books, 1993-94; president and publisher, Pocket Books, 1994-99; president and publisher, Ballantine Books, 1999-2003; president and publisher, Random House Ballantine Publishing Group, 2003—.
Awards: “Top 50 Women to Watch,” Wall Street Journal, 2004.
D uring her 25year book-publishing career, Gina Centrello made a name for herself as a marketing guru, able to create mainstream bestsellers and transform stagnant imprints into profitable units. In 2003, Centrello became president and publisher of Random House, the world’s largest commercial publisher of English-language books. The appointment was prestigious given that Random House, home to such stalwart authors as William Faulkner, Truman Capote, and Maya Angelou, has rolled out more Pulitzer and Nobel Prizewinning tomes than any other publisher.
Centrello’s rise to the top spot was not without controversy, particularly since her appointment came at the expense of Random House’s highly respected publisher and editor-in-chief Ann Godoff; however, Centrello proved she had a loyal following of her own. “I find her one of these refreshing people in publishing who is not interested in being a publishing persona, but interested in being the best possible publisher, both for the sake of her company and her authors,” author Richard North Patterson told John Schwartz of the New York Times. “It makes her an absolute dream to work with.”
Centrello was born around 1959. She entered the publishing world in the early 1980s and rose rapidly through the ranks. Her first job was as a copy editor at Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster known for its mass-market, rack-sized paperbacks. By 1994, Centrello, just 35, was running the company, having been promoted to president and publisher. At the time, Pocket Books made its money by reprinting literature, mysteries, and popular nonfiction works. Centrello helped the company diversify and become a noteworthy publisher of original works.
Under Centrello, Pocket rolled out a number of profitable bestsellers targeted at a wide range of readers, including books by conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who was popular in the early 1990s. Pocket also picked up publication rights for spinoffs based on MTV’s Beavis and Butthead cartoon series. Centrello boosted profits by publishing reprints from popular novelists such as Larry Mc-Murtry, Mary Higgins Clark, Ann Rule, and Jackie Collins. As a publisher, Centrello had a knack for figuring out what the public would buy. A surprise hot-selling item released under Centrello included the 1998 printing of the report by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, which delved into the Clinton White House. All copies of the book’s initial run were snatched up the first day it appeared in bookstores.
In 1993, Pocket Books scored a coup by obtaining rights to the Amy Fisher story. The teenage Fisher gained notoriety in 1992 when she shot her married lover’s wife in the head. The book, Amy Fisher: My Story, was co-written by Fisher and Shella Winter. Centrello sped up production when rumors began to fly that Fisher’s lover, Joey Buttafuoco, was going to be indicted on charges of statutory rape because of his affair with a minor. To beef up sales, Centrello wanted to roll out the book at the same time the indictment was handed down.
“So this place became Amy central,” Centrello told the New York Times’ Esther B. Fein. “Pocket has done a lot of crash books in paperback, so we have the experience, but it was mad. I wouldn’t say it was a circus. It was more like controlled hysteria, but definitely hysteria.” The work paid off when the book was published and instantly landed on the New York Times’ non-fiction bestseller list.
After 17 years with Pocket Books, Centrello left in 1999, becoming president and publisher of Ballan-tine Books. At the time, Ballantine had been concentrating efforts on reprints and was losing about $7 million a year. Centrello encouraged Ballantine to focus on publishing original works and she helped sign several up-and-coming authors to the label. These included former trial lawyer Richard North Patterson, author of To Protect and Defend, and historical fiction writer Jeff Shaara, son of Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Shaara and author of Gods and Generals. Under Centrello’s direction, Ballantine snatched up rights to books by romance and historical fiction writer Julie Garwood and psychologist and writer Jonathan Kellerman. Buffered by the new work, Ballantine turned a profit of more than $20 million in 2002.
In 2003, Bertelsmann AG, which owned both Random House and Ballantine, decided to merge the two entities. Random House publisher Godoff was served walking papers and Centrello was promoted to president and publisher of the new Random House Ballantine Publishing Group. Random House had a reputation for publishing highbrow, literary works, while Ballantine was more into mass-market thrillers and romances. The appointment caused controversy among those loyal to Random House, particularly from those who viewed literature as an art and not a profit-making endeavor.
Many insiders feared Centrello would water down Random House’s literary focus in pursuit of profits. One agent discussed reservations with the New York Times’ Lynn Hirschberg. “Gina is a marketing person. She does not know writers. Random House is a literary imprint. In the past, and under Ann Godoff, that was the main priority. With Gina, financial success will be the main priority. That scares a lot of people.” At the time, it was no secret that Godoff was forced out partly because her division consistently failed to make profit targets.
Those who had worked with Centrello thought she was a perfect fit for the job. Former boss and fellow publisher Irwyn Applebaum noted that Centrello was refreshing, down-to-earth and not given to the snobbery that pervades the publishing world. Centrello’s actions speak for themselves. She is known as a hard worker. Instead of going out to schmooze agents and other industry insiders over long, expensive lunches, Centrello is more likely to order a pizza and spend her lunchtime at her desk, working through publishing schedules.
Like many women in the corporate world, Centrello has had to balance work and family life. She tries to get to the office before 8 a.m. so she can be home for dinner and read to her two children before bed. After they are tucked in, she works more, this time from the comforts of her home.
After taking over at Random House, Centrello knew she had a job to do—maintain the publisher’s integrity and make money. “Publishing well and publishing profitably are not mutually exclusive,” she told the New York Times’ Schwartz. After three years on the job, Centrello appeared to be on track. According to Random House’s fiscal report, sales grew 6.5 percent in 2006. That year, the North American division of Random House had 201 New York Times bestsellers, including 37 that topped the chart.
New York Post, January 17, 2003, p. B37.
New York Times, April 21, 1993, p. C15; January 17, 2003, p. C1; February 24, 2003; July 20, 2003, p. 28 (Section 6); June 11, 2007, p. C1.
Publishers Weekly, December 12, 1994, pp. 10-11; March 1, 1999, p. 11.
Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2004, p. R5; January 18, 2005, p. B1.
“Random House Sales and Profits Up, According to 2006 Fiscal Report,” Book Business, http://www.bookbusinessmag.com/story/story.bsp?sid=50017&var=story (February 20, 2008).