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.
But don’t get any big ideas about that happening, says Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace: “I mostly think any importance or significance to the move was drastically overstated by The New York Times. ReganBooks has had an office in California for a long time, they’ve transacted a lot of business in California for a long time. In many respects, people see this as being about Judith’s non-publishing aspirations. This is about Judith wanting to be a bigtime producer. She wants to be a mogul.”
Daniel Halpern, who grew up in L.A., is editor of the Ecco Press, which is owned by HarperCollins. He points out that Regan is hardly the first big publisher to venture west. “Harcourt’s out there in San Diego already — everyone seems to forget that. And then there’s HarperCollins San Francisco. They have their own list of books, their own editors, they’re very autonomous. I’m always struck by the way people report this, as if it’s never happened before.” That said, Halpern believes Regan and Los Angeles are a perfect fit. “She brings L.A. to L.A.”
Regan says she has no idea whether other New York publishers will follow her example, but of one thing we may be certain: She would never follow theirs. “I don’t have anything to do with the New York publishing world,” she says. “I don’t have time. I came into this business as an outsider. I did very well in it, there’s a lot of envy — what can I tell you?”
As for the sniping emanating from the more rarefied precincts of literary L.A., she says she’s not surprised by it, and not perturbed either.
“La-di-da. Who cares? I don’t care.”
Regan doesn’t know for sure yet when the move to L.A. will take place (next
January is her guess), nor has she decided where her office will be. It may be
in a new building on the Fox Studio lot. She also has her eye on an industrial
space in Hollywood. Wherever it is, it will be cheaper and roomier than her office
in New York.
“There’s been a lot of snottiness about my saying it’s cheaper [in L.A.], but it’s cheaper than Manhattan,” she says. “This office is $58 a square foot. I have yet to see any office in any place in L.A. that’s $58 a square foot.”
Though she’s traveled here regularly on business for 20 years, Regan speaks of the West Coast with the zeal of a brand-new convert. She loves the trees, the flowers, the markets, the architecture, the neighborhoods, the weather, the hiking, the people. Most of all, she loves the creativity. “Because the film and television businesses are in Los Angeles, the number of creative people who live there is greater than it is anywhere else,” she says, adding that about a third of her authors are from L.A., more than from any other city. “Most of our books are designed out of L.A. — really great book designers, they live there. If they come to New York, they realize they can’t afford to live here and they end up leaving. And so, like-minded people find each other and live in communities in Echo Park and Los Feliz. The design community, writers, certainly film and television people, are in abundance there. It’s a great creative community, filled with really lovely people.”
Variety has reported that Regan, who hosted a chat show on Fox for eight years, plans to return to the small screen. But the publisher herself, who looks remarkably youthful for a 51-year-old who has been working 16-hour days since she was in high school, says that while a radio show is a possibility, television is not.
“I’m too old for television. I’m not having a face-lift, I’m not putting Botox in my face, and I’m not injecting my mouth with stuff. I’m not interested in any of that. I think it’s unhealthy and unnatural.”
And what about “synergy,” the much-touted confluence of books, television and film Regan is said to be pursuing? She already has a hit with A&E’s Growing Up Gotti, which she created and produced. She is co-producing the movie version of one of her books, The Dive, with James Cameron, and half a dozen other movie projects based on books she has published are in the works. Old-school publishers may tremble when they gaze into their crystal balls, but not Regan.
“I think that the future is going to be an interesting place. My children get all their information online. My daughter’s IM-ing while she’s doing her homework, on the cell phone, on the other phone, with her Palm Pilot. She’s hooked up to everything. She’s an information junkie. She knows everything about everything, and she’s very savvy, and very techno-savvy, and my son is too. And I think in the future she’ll be watching The O.C. on her cell phone.”
As to how all these technological changes will affect the market for those musty, fusty, dusty old things called books, Regan professes indifference or perhaps just a total lack of fear. Content is content, whatever form it comes in, she believes, and for a publisher she doesn’t seem particularly attached to the mystique of the printed page. Story is all. “We’ll just change as things change, and hopefully we’ll be ahead of the curve,” she says breezily.
In the meantime, she’s still got her nose in a book. “Years ago I would have told
you that I only liked to read fiction, just like every college graduate who walks
in here,” she says to me when asked about her own taste in books. “I was an English
major. Back then, I was into Irish literature — Yeats, Joyce, blah blah blah.
Then you graduate into the real world and have to earn a living and get interested
in a lot of other things. I’m not an elitist about material, and I like reading
different kinds of things. So whether it’s a history or political book or commercial
fiction or literary fiction or true crime, I like to read. I read all the time.
I’m like addicted to reading. It’s a sickness.”