The Babe Went Out With the Bath Water
Judith Regan, a 53-year-old self-proclaimed hottie, has been called by Vanity Fair “the Angriest Woman in Media.” She reportedly cussed out employees on a regular basis with the “f” word, the “s” word and, in doing so, routinely alluded to male and female anatomies—her own included—with various “c” words. According to one former editor, Regan went through 18 personal assistants in 2005.
“Say what you want about the fearless, foul-mouthed former publisher of ReganBooks,” wrote Steve Kettmann in the San Francisco Chronicle, “it would be hard to deny she has probably been the single most influential force in publishing over the past decade.”
She was also hugely successful. In 2001-2002, ReganBooks had 18 titles on the best-seller list. In August 2004, three of her titles were on the best-seller list at the same time—which was unheard of for a small publisher.
ReganBooks regularly brought in between $80 million and $120 million in annual revenue with 22 percent pre-tax earnings—in an industry that was lucky to eke out six percent. Her imprint was responsible for a reported 25 percent of the bottom line of HarperCollins, of which she was a subsidiary.
And she did it with just 40 employees. That’s a stunning $2 million to $3 million per employee—the equivalent of the #2 ranking in Fortune’s 2006 list of 100 Fastest Growing Small Companies.
Regan’s boss was Jane Friedman, CEO of HarperCollins, a division of News Corporation that is comprised of Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Television, DirecTV, 27 newspapers on three continents and a bunch of Web sites including myspace.com. In 2006, News Corporation had annual revenues of $25.3 billion.
But Judith Regan—with her $100 million revenue in the context of a $25 billion corporation—was in reality, a flea on the elephant.
So when Regan pissed off Jane Friedman and News Corporation’s Big Boss, Rupert Murdoch—I mean really pissed them off big time—they summarily fired her, shuttered her company and left a bunch of authors twisting in the wind.
It is the tale of an idiot savant—full of sound and fury—signifying much in terms of how big business deals with a rogue entrepreneur.
Regan was the third of five children. She spent her childhood on a Massachusetts farm with her mother’s parents, who had emigrated from Sicily. At the age of 10, she moved to Bay Shore, a middle-class town in the middle of Long Island, where she graduated from Bay Shore High School at the top of her class and won a scholarship to Vassar College.
“Twenty-five years ago, at Vassar, where we met, she was a pretty, plumpish hippie girl, with a soft-focus interest in music, painting, creative writing,” recalled Michael Wolff in a 1999 story for New York Magazine. “Her focus was sharpened by the fact that her family, from Bay Shore, wasn’t rich, and she resented those whose families were.”
Living in Boston in the late 1970s, Regan took a job as a secretary at Harvard and in 1978, went to work for the supermarket tabloid, National Enquirer. During this period, she connected with a psychiatrist with whom she had a son in 1981 and who was subsequently jailed for drug dealing.
Regan moved to New York, and after a brief stint as a producer for “Entertainment Tonight” and “Geraldo,” she went to work for the book publisher, Simon & Schuster in 1981 and flourished. “It turned out that she wasn’t just good at publishing books,” Michael Wolff wrote, “she was better than everybody else. Her resentments, her tabloid training, her victimhood, her attack mode, coalesced into some new model of popular taste. But she fought pitched battles at Simon & Schuster. Ranted. Raved. Attacked.”
And she prevailed, bringing in a string of big-money, best-sellers by celebrities including “Little Girl Lost” by Drew Barrymore and Kathy Lee Gifford’s “I Can’t Believe I said that.”
In 1991, Regan married a money manager with whom she had a daughter. They separated the following year and went through six lawyers and three separate trials during a vicious six-year legal battle. Finally, after more than a million dollars in lawyer fees, a divorce was granted and her instinctual distrust of men and sense of victimhood was exacerbated. In this week’s New York Magazine, Vanessa Grigoriadis, writes:
In her office the day before she was fired, she had a meeting with Anna David, the author of the book Party Girl—You’re so gorgeous you should be on the cover of your book!—and chatted in the corridors with some of her staff: One of the moms told her about her ex-husband, who seemed to be ignoring their kids at Christmastime and reneging on special presents. “Of course he doesn’t have to get them presents,” she fumed. “He’s a man—the only thing they’re good for is semen. They’re inseminators! That’s all they are!”
A stray male walked down the hallway.
“Not you,” she called after him, dissolving in laughter. “Every man except you!”
The Murdoch Connection
In 1994, Rupert Murdoch offered Regan her own imprint, with virtual publishing autonomy under the HarperCollins umbrella, and she accepted. Three years later, former Random House book publicist Jane Friedman was hired by Murdoch as the CEO of HarperCollins, becoming Regan’s boss and signing off on her budget.
Regan’s Lone Ranger, let-it-all-hang-out persona was 180 degrees apart from Friedman’s buttoned-up, corporate style. They were cordial to one another, but in the words of a News Corporation insider, “They were blinded by their hatred of one another.”
Regan had contempt for traditional book publishers, whom she considered snobs. “I don’t have anything to do with the New York publishing world,” she told a reporter after her firing. “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?”
What Regan had was an intuitive insight into the American psyche and culture—a real sense of what made people tick and what they wanted to read. She came up with book ideas and often sought out writers that were not established so that she would not have to pay large advances. “Gut feeling is what I go on,” she told Dyan Machan of Forbes. “I could tell my husband cheated on me by the way he walked in the front door.”
In her dozen years with Murdoch, Regan published a string of hugely successful, often salacious best sellers. Among the titles: porn actress Jenna Jameson’s “How to Make Love like a Porn Star” and “She comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman.” Other titles include Jose Conseco’s “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big,” New Jersey gay Governor Jim McGreevey’s “The Confession” and “The Other Man: John F. Kennedy, Carolyn Bessette and Me” by Michael Bergen.
“It was Regan who first realized that talk-radio audiences and others who seemed entirely outside the reach of literary culture would, in fact, buy books,” wrote Judith Newman in the January 2005 edition of Vanity Fair, “and signed up Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and the guys from the World Wrestling Federation, all of whom became best-selling phenomenons.”
Her nine World Wrestling Federation titles sold a reported 3.5 million copies, which brought in $40 million in retail sales.
ReganBooks also published such well-known national figures as Ralph Nader, Arianna Huffington, Alan Colmes, Sean Hannity, Midge Decter, Susan Estrich, General Tommy Franks and Neil Cavuto. In addition, ReganBooks had a well-balanced list—books on cooking, decorating, health, self-help, politics, general non-fiction and fiction.
What made Regan unique—utterly different from every other publisher—was that her books automatically generated buzz. When a Jiffy bag with the ReganBooks logo on the label landed in a newspaper’s book review department or on the desk of a retail or wholesale book buyer, the effect was electric. It went to the head of the queue. It got opened. “What is that wild woman bringing out now?” they would say to themselves.
No other book publisher had a name that would create such immediate titillation—not Random House, not Simon & Schuster, not HarperCollins, not Doubleday. These behemoths are in the business of throwing hundreds of literary eggs against the wall and hoping a few of them stick.
The Yin of Judith Regan
feminine principle: the principle of darkness, negativity, and femininity in Chinese philosophy that is the counterpart of yang. The dual, opposite, and complementary principles of yin and yang are thought to exist in varying proportions in all things.
—MSN Encarta Dictionary
Judith Regan was a polarizing figure. In her 2005 Vanity Fair article, “The Devil and Miss Regan,” Judith Newman quoted an editor as saying that if you worked for Regan, “she would give you all sorts of responsibility that would take years to get at a normal company. Of course, you would probably fail, because you didn’t know what you were doing, but at least she gave you the chance.”
Along with generating best-sellers, vast profits for HarperCollins and yummy royalties for her authors, Judith Regan presided over what most observers suggest was a horror show—a simply dreadful work environment.
For example, one former editor told Steve Kettman that Regan went through 80 employees in 2005. If true, that is a 200 percent turnover. In the words of Vanity Fair’s Judith Newman:
Many staffers—and other colleagues—had epithets according to their sexual orientation or ethnicity: “I was the lesbian c**t,” says one former competitor. “Then there was the black c**t.” When she got mad, people were called “f*****g retards” and “f******g idiots;” if she got really mad, she’d accuse people of being either “fags” or “on drugs” or, preferably, both.
Over the Top with O.J. Simpson
In 2005, Regan moved her offices to Los Angeles, claiming she preferred the quality of life and creative atmosphere. On May 6, 2006, Judith Regan and Jane Friedman jointly signed a contract with Lorraine Brooke Associates, Inc. for an O.J. Simpson memoir in a deal that included a $1.1 million advance for a book—eventually titled “If I Did It”—and a television interview. All income from the project was slated to go to Simpson’s children, which would keep it out of reach of the Goldman family to whom Simpson owed $33 million for the murder of their son, the result of a civil judgment against him:
UNTITLED CONFIDENTIAL PROJECT by O.J. Simpson, being a first person narrative in the voice of O.J. Simpson, which offers a hypothetical account of how Mr. Simpson could theoretically have accomplished the murder of his wife and Ronald Goldman had he, in fact, committed the crime, containing details concerning the events leading up to the crime, what Mr. Simpson’s thoughts, feelings and motives would have been, and characters and situations involved that would only be known to Mr. Simpson, and debunking the various flawed theories proposed by L.A. prosecutors and others about the crime, …
The Goldman family immediately filed suit, claiming that Lorraine Brooke Associates was a dummy corporation formed to hide the transaction and that Lorraine and Brooke were the middle names of Simpson’s two children.
Last week a federal judge dismissed the suit, saying that he had no jurisdiction.
The deal provoked a tsunami of outrage in the media. The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz called it the “most appalling, shameless, exploitative thing I have heard of in the history of television, maybe the history of recorded civilization.”
Barbara Walters was approached to do the television interview with Simpson but turned it down. Regan, who had hosted a late-night television show and currently had a program on Sirius satellite radio, wound up interrogating the acquitted killer.
The interview was DOA. Everything about O.J. Simpson was poisonous, just like Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan and Michael Jackson. Advertisers would not touch it. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly went ballistic. “I’m not going to watch the Simpson show or even look at the book,” he said. “If any company sponsors the TV program, I will not buy anything that company sells—ever.”
Fox News star Geraldo Rivera joined the insurrection saying, “I will bash this project every minute I have the opportunity to bash this project.”
On November 17, Regan delivered a truly weird 2,200-word apologia on her Sirius radio program, a classic of inner-directed nuttiness. From the transcript:
I had never met him and never spoken with him until the day I interviewed him. And I was ready. Fifty-three years prepared me for this conversation.
The men who lied and cheated and beat me—they were all there in the room. And the people who denied it, they were there too. And though it might sound a little strange, Nicole and Ron were in my heart. And for them I wanted him to confess his sins, to do penance and to amend his life. Amen.
Four days later, Murdoch ordered the project quashed. “I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project,” Murdoch said. “We are sorry for any pain this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.”
Regan went on the attack. In a phone conversation with corporate attorney Mark Jackson, she reportedly claimed that Jackson, Jane Friedman, HarperCollins executive editor David Hirshey and literary agent Esther Newberg “constitute a Jewish cabal against her.”
“‘Of all people, the Jews should know about ganging up, finding common enemies and telling the big lie,” she said, according to Attorney Jackson’s notes.
On December 15, Jane Friedman issued the following statement:
Judith Regan’s employment with HarperCollins has been terminated effective immediately. The Regan publishing program and staff will continue as part of the HarperCollins General Books Group.
On January 17, it was announced that HarperCollins was shuttering the company for good with most employees being reassigned to jobs in HarperCollins. Existing titles would be available through retailers and wholesalers. Forthcoming books would be published under the aegis of HarperCollins.
Stephen Kettman’s year-end piece in the San Francisco Chronicle—following Regan’s being axed but prior to the killing of her company—perhaps best sums up Judith Regan:
“If she folded up her tent now and said, ‘Forget it, I’ve had enough,’ and didn’t work anywhere else, I think publishing learned from her that you have to appeal to the masses,” said one former Regan Books editor. “Enough of being too high-brow. She was the one who said yes to wrestling when everybody was turning their noses up at it. Bang, No. 1. She had an ear to the ground and it worked for a long time.
“There is so much fear in publishing,” the former editor continued. “Everybody is so afraid to make a mistake. Everybody is so afraid to do something that’s not derivative. She looked around and said, ‘What kind of book needs to be made?’ Other people look around and say, ‘What are other people doing and how can I do a book like that?’ So many people were looking to her to see what she was doing that was working, and to adapt that. She was a maverick and she had no problem stepping out and doing something that nobody else would even have thought of. She was completely fearless.”
- Alan Colmes
- Anna David
- Arianna Huffington
- Carolyn Bessette
- Drew Barrymore
- Dyan Machan
- Geraldo Rivera
- Howard Stern
- Jane Friedman
- Jenna Jameson
- Jim McGreevey
- John F. Kennedy
- Judith Newman
- Kathy Lee Gifford
- Michael Bergen
- Michael Jackson
- Michael Wolff
- Midge Decter
- Modest Beginnings Regan
- Neil Cavuto
- Nicole Brown Simpson
- Ralph Nader
- Ronald Goldman
- Rupert Murdoch I
- Rush Limbaugh
- Sean Hannity
- Senator Hillary Clinton
- Simon Schuster
- Steve Kettmann
- Susan Estrich
- Tommy Franks
- Vanessa Grigoriadis