I miss Judith Regan already. I know, I know, we publishing folk can’t stop talking about her. In an industry that’s fairly quiet, this has been a pretty interesting year or so: James Frey admitting on Oprah that he wasn’t quite who he said he was; Kaavya Viswanathan “internalizing” Megan McCafferty’s words and using them as her own. But neither of those scandals really lived up to the Judith Regan-O.J. Simpson fiasco. Only Ms. Regan could come out on top of that heap, even if for all the wrong reasons.
Full disclosure: I’ve never met, nor do I believe I’ve ever spoken with, Ms. Regan. So it’s not really her I miss. What I miss is her presence in the industry which we all felt, if not from her in person then from her books.
With ReganBooks gone, there are many questions: Who else is going to do WWE books? Who’s going to sign the O.J.s of the world (don’t pretend you weren’t at least a little bit curious about that one!)? How else will I know if a book project, no matter how off-color the subject matter, is destined to be a bestseller? Remember, Judith Regan made Jenna Jameson, porn star, a bestselling writer. How many publishers have that claim to fame? Porn not your thing? How about true crime? Ms. Regan published no less than three Scott Peterson books in eight weeks, and all three made the New York Times Bestseller List. Don’t like that either? How about some well-received fiction? Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True were both bestsellers and Oprah Book Club Picks. As she herself was quoted as saying in her Vanity Fair profile: “Every f****** time we do something prestigious, they overlook us. But God forbid we do a piece of s*** … ” She’s got a point.
On the same day that the now infamous O.J. Simpson book was announced, there was a good, but rather overshadowed, piece of news for ReganBooks. Jess Walter’s The Zero was named a finalist for the National Book Awards, a competition that is usually associated with highbrow publishers like Knopf and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I think that this was, by far, the best example of the dichotomy that was ReganBooks; Ms. Regan courted both controversy and acclaim equally well.
It would be an understatement to say that many people found Judith Regan difficult. We’ve all heard the horror stories, and the publishing world is eager to read former-Regan staffer Bridie Clark’s roman-a-clef Because She Can, that doesn’t exactly include a flattering portrait. But, while her office was known as a revolving door, there were many people who were in it for the long haul and made names for themselves while there. Agents have their own stories about the difficulties of negotiating with her (again, I do not), but I don’t think many of them actually stopped submitting to ReganBooks; Judith’s track record was just too good for that.
ReganBooks published a startling number of successful titles — both commercially and critically successful titles. I think the statistics demonstrate Ms. Regan’s biggest asset: her gut. She got it right more than most publishers, and she always seemed to know what the public wanted. Yes, that sometimes meant appealing to the least common denominator, but in this business, our goal is to sell books. And that’s what she did.
In the end, for me, it was especially sad to see the ReganBooks imprint dismantled; getting rid of her name I understand, but why get rid of the imprint itself? Though I’m not sure the beast would have survived without its head, I’d like to think that a new one would have grown in its place, and the tradition of renegade publishing would have continued.