A Turbulent Year for Book Publishers

Publishing got a bloody nose this year, from James Frey to Judith Regan. The publisher has made a lot of money for Harper Collins but obviously went off track with the O.J. Simpson book. She now stands accused of bizarre anti-Semitic conduct and speech, apparently tolerated by Harper Collins until her recent firing.

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It has been a year of scandal in the publishing world. First came news of fabrications in the memoir “A Million Little Pieces.” Then, a teen author was found to have plagiarized parts of her novel. Finally, came and went the O.J. Simpson book called “If I Did It.”

NPR's Kim Masters picks through the debris.

KIM MASTERS: From the spectacle of Oprah Winfrey delivering an on air paddling to James Frey to the abrupt firing of Judith Regan earlier this month, this has been a year to get people talking about the publishing business. Sara Nelson is editor in chief of Publisher's Weekly.

Ms. SARA NELSON (Publisher's Weekly): It brought the book business very much into the public eye, I think, in a way that I don't remember in recent memory. I don't have any sense of this being a kind of topic.

MASTERS: First it turned out that James Frey had fabricated many details in his memoir of addiction and redemption. A few months later, author Kaavya Viswanathan said she unconsciously plagiarized parts of “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life.” This after snagging a $500,000 advance as a student at Harvard.

Finally, there was Regan, publisher of high brow and very low brow hit books, including the notorious “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star.” Her plan to publish the O.J. Simpson book with an accompanying television special ended when Harper Collins pulled the plug in November.

A few weeks later, Regan was fired. Her employer released notes purporting to show that she had made anti-Semitic comments. In a conversation with an attorney for Harper Collins, Regan allegedly said of all people, the Jews should know about ganging up, finding common enemies and telling the big lie.

Her lawyer, Burt Fields, said that comment wasn't anti-Semitic. Regan also allegedly claimed she was the victim of a Jewish cabal. She might have said cabal, her attorney said, but now a Jewish one. Sara Nelson of Publisher's Weekly has spent some time with Regan in recent years.

Ms. NELSON: She says outrageous, insulting, difficult and inappropriate things. Do I think she's walking around as a raging anti-Semite? No. I think she's an angry woman and I think that she doesn't have a lot of impulse control. She says whatever she wants to say.

MASTERS: Rachel Sklar is media editor for the Web site Huffington Post, but before that, she was a lawyer and she wonders whether that well-established reputation for misbehavior might not help Regan.

Ms. RACHEL SKLAR (Huffington Post): What could work in her favor is if she can demonstrate that she was operating under the assumption for years at Harper Collins that this was acceptable.

MASTERS: Once the anti-Semitism allegation emerged, the story went from distasteful to bizarre. Unnamed Harper Collins executives told the New York Times that Regan had been reprimanded in 2003. The company said she boasted to colleagues about removing the scrolls from her neighbors' mezuzahs and replacing them with torn dollar bills. A mezuzah is a small case containing a prayer. Many Jews hang them on their front doors.

Regan's lawyer said she'd never been reprimanded for making anti-Semitic remarks at work. He said this whole thing was cooked up because Harper Collins wanted an excuse to fire Regan and he promised to sue for breach of contract. Rachel Sklar wonders whether Fields might have a point. She observed that Harper Collins, which is set to publish her own book next year, could not fire Regan over the O.J. Simpson episode.

Ms. SKLAR: She didn't go forth and green light this O.J. special and book in a vacuum. Her higher-ups did know about it. There were approvals.

MASTERS: Whatever happens in court, Sara Nelson says Harper Collins has put itself in an awkward spot. Having painted Regan in such unflattering colors, the question becomes why did the company put up with Regan for so long? Was it all about the money?

Ms. NELSON: You kind of can't win, because either she did make that much money for the company and you were, you know, you put up with unbelievable amounts of stuff because she was making them money, or she didn't make that much money for the company, and you put up with amazing amounts of stuff - why?

MASTERS: When it comes to lesson that might be drawn from this year of scandal, Nelson isn't sure there are many. Certainly, those writing memoirs are being held to a higher standard. But in terms of Regan, Nelson thinks most publishers considered her too far out of the mainstream to have any relevance. She says many have taken great pleasure in Regan's fall and almost seem to feel that her exile has made the publishing world pure again.

Ms. NELSON: And that's a bunch of bologna. I mean, the truth is that there's a lot of publishing that a lot of perfectly reputable people do that is, you know, what you would call the lowest common denominator publishing. That's what happens when you have a corporate, commercial publishing culture.

MASTERS: As for Regan, whatever a possible court fight might do to a reputation, she has a different kind of trial ahead. In February, Warner Books will release “Because She Can,” a novel by former Regan employee Bridie Clark. The author says her work is fiction. There's no word yet on whether the foul-mouthed, abusive publisher in the book happens to use bigoted language.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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