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The Gathering Storm 

Judith Regan, the world’s most successful publisher, heads for the coast

Thursday, Jun 2 2005

Judith Regan doesn’t want to be photographed, but she is ready to talk. Dressed in a cream pantsuit, an orange blouse, orange bracelets and open-faced orange sandals, the woman reputed to be the world’s most successful publisher looks stylish, feminine and just a little bit scary. Interviewed in her 18th-floor office in midtown Manhattan, she ushers me into a comfortable beige armchair and tells me why she is moving her HarperCollins imprint, ReganBooks, to Los Angeles. Over the last 20 years, she explains, New York has turned into a city that’s better suited to bankers, Wall Street lawyers and the superrich than it is to publishers. Artists are fleeing, creativity is dying, and the rents keep going up.

“People have a very hard time having a life here,” says this single mother of two and recent paramour of ex–New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik. “And because of that, it’s more and more difficult to get staff to stay in this business. It’s not just ReganBooks. It’s everybody in the book-publishing business. They all lie about it, they deceive you, but that is the naked ugly truth. It’s very difficult, because they can’t afford to have a life here.”

But if New York is overly money-driven, then some people, I suggest, might say that Regan’s hypercapitalistic style of publishing — recent best-selling titles include How To Make Love Like a Porn Star, Juiced and Sex, Sex, and More Sex — is part of the problem.

“Then they’re completely uninformed,” she snaps, voice rising, eyes turning steely. “Most of the people who write about the publishing business don’t know anything about the publishing business. And let me just tell you, it’s called the publishing BUSINESS! I’m not running a philanthropic library, okay? If you came in to interview anyone else, in any other kind of business, whether they were selling shoes, dresses or apartments, would you take issue with the fact that they did it successfully?”

Um, er . . .

“I publish every kind of book that there is to be published,” Regan continues before I can get another “um” in. “I publish literary fiction, I publish serious nonfiction, cookbooks and style books, I publish all kinds of political books, I publish very esoteric books. Journalists choose not to write about those books, because they’re trying to do the very thing they accuse me of doing. They don’t report. They’re lazy and sloppy, and they don’t do their job!”

Given the kind of articles that have appeared about her over the years — a 2002 profile in Forbes titled “Trash Sells” is representative, while “The Devil and Miss Regan,” a 6,000-word, slow-motion assassination that ran in Vanity Fair last January, is probably the most vicious — it’s no surprise that Regan looks at reporters the way a tenement dweller clutching a rolled-up magazine looks at a cockroach peeking out from under a leaky sink. And while no one would mistake ReganBooks for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, it is true that she is more than just the publisher of Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Jenna Jameson, Zone Diet books, and the memoirs of assorted WWE wrestlers and steroid-using baseball players.

For instance, though she works for Rupert Murdoch and has been pegged as being “to the right of Genghis Khan” politically, she has published books by Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, Joe Trippi, Arianna Huffington, Mark Green and Alan Colmes, among others. She has also dipped into literary respectability with books by Oprah favorite Wally Lamb, a biography of Alfred Hitchcock and other, less-publicized endeavors. Waiting to enter her office, I leafed through two recent titles: Even After All This Time, a memoir about a family that fled Iran after the fall of the shah in 1979, and Paddy Whacked, a history of Irish-American gangsters that a reviewer for The Village Voice called “captivating.” Both looked like books any “class” publisher would have been happy to bring out.

The news of Regan’s impending move has set off a predictably schizophrenic reaction — inwardly pleased, outwardly blasé — among the bookworms of Southern California. “Be still, my heart,” quipped David L. Ulin in the L.A. Times, noting that this was the first time in living memory a major New York publisher has forsaken the Big Apple for La La Land, but chiding Regan for confusing L.A. with Hollywood, and culture with “the aesthetics of the bottom line.”

There are times when L.A. resembles a haughty beauty who wants to be noticed and feigns indifference the moment she is. The obvious truth is that nothing would delight bookish Angelenos more than if a host of major East Coast publishing houses were to stampede en masse in the direction of Venice Beach, dog-eared copies of Cheever and Bellow in hand. If L.A. were ever to dominate writing and publishing the way it does movies and television, the culture war between the coasts would effectively be over.

  • Judith Regan, the world’s most successful publisher, heads for the coast

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