Quick. Who’s the fastest-selling author of 1995?
None of the above. If you want to talk really big box office, nobody does it better than the outrageous Howard Stern. Here it is, “Miss America” (ReganBooks), Stern’s second book on his favorite subject--Stern--featuring the shock jock coyly posed in eyeliner and falsies on the cover. After one week on the shelves, it crash-landed at the top of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestseller lists; the book debuted at No. 2 in Los Angeles on Sunday.
“He’s the Colin Powell of cross dressers,” says David Rosenthal, publisher of Villard Books, a division of the former general’s publisher, Random House.
Nay, Stern is no mere military man in a pushup bra. In his editor’s eyes, he’s the William Shakespeare of cross dressers.
“I really think ‘Miss America’ is a piece of literature,” says Judith Regan, president and publisher of ReganBooks, a HarperCollins imprint. “I don’t feel there’s a big difference between what Howard Stern says and what Shakespeare says in terms of reflecting their times. In 200 years, when people are studying late 20th-Century thought, they will read Howard Stern’s book to understand how debased the culture has become.”
A historical perspective was probably not the hot selling point for the thousands of Stern fans who lined up on “Miss America’s” maiden day in stores Nov. 7. They boosted sales at Barnes & Noble, the country’s largest bookseller, to a record-setting 33,000. At Book Soup in West Hollywood, 500 books bit the dust by 9 a.m. ReganBooks has already printed 1.4 million copies.
Doubtless more alluring to his admirers is the fact that the adored and reviled Stern has “no lid on his id,” as Regan puts it.
“He does all these wicked things you might like to do but it would be completely inappropriate,” says Dennis Rook, professor of clinical marketing at USC. “It’s like a dirty joke. You can giggle and laugh.”
Stern’s id is so lidless that his mother called in to his national radio show last week to berate him for the first chapter, which explicitly describes his adventures in cyberporn.
“I would like something more on the style of ‘Bridges of Madison County,’ ” she told “Entertainment Tonight.”
Regan says, “I tell women if you want to understand the average heterosexual man in this country, read the first chapter. Then you won’t be so offended by your husband’s fantasies. Granted, Howard Stern is excessive.”
Indeed. Stern, 41, who loudly proclaims his fidelity to his wife of two decades, nonetheless imagines her death in the book and lists the women he’d like to have sex with next.
Stern’s editor says that fantasy had her “on the floor laughing my head off.” When she caught her breath she exercised her editorial prerogative to have him tone it down. “I don’t need this aggravation,” she told Stern.
That’s not all the editing Regan did.
“He wrote 4,000 pages,” she says. “He’s a major overachiever. He wrote 4 1/2 books. He wrote 25,000 chapters. I said, ‘Howard. Stop writing.’ ”
Stern says books are a “more viable” medium for him than radio, partly because people are less likely to take his satirical jabs out of context.
“I think books are a great venue,” he says. “When you’re on the radio you don’t know who’s tuning in halfway through. Most people read a book straight through. They’ll learn what you want them to learn in an orderly fashion. I get more gratification from the book than the radio show. It’s a wonderful experience.”
Much of “Miss America” reads as if Stern is telling his stories on air, although much of it would hardly be radio-friendly. Stern says he’s particularly proud of the chapter detailing his meeting with Michael Jackson in which he pitches the embattled singer the idea of an hourlong TV interview. Jackson, who shows up with surgical tape peeling off his nose and fingers, doesn’t bite, probably because he knows Stern would hit him with questions like the chapter title: “If you love children so much, where are the girls?”
Stern also writes about his aborted run for governor; phone pranksters inspired by his radio verite riffs; the psychological underpinnings of his sadistic streak as a performer and his battles with an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“My concept is, whatever you’re talking about, to totally open yourself up even if it means ridicule, even if it’s not politically correct or it’s embarrassing,” Stern says. “That’s what makes me interesting.” The lavishly illustrated book was designed to be opened anywhere, Regan says.
“This isn’t a memoir with a beginning, a middle and an end,” she says. “It’s how Howard Stern’s brain works.”
That fits in nicely with his fans’ schedules.
“We’re reading it today,” says Bobbi Ballenberg, 35, who with her husband, Jeff, has amassed every Howard Stern product on the market. “We’re keeping it in the john. It’s great john reading.”
It’s all sandwiched between two covers--one showcasing the lovely Miss Stern, the other a photo of the New York-based Stern with O.J. Simpson and the alternate title, “Getting Away With Murder.” Bookstores have been displaying both sides, but the back cover has been hazardous to New York subway riders who’ve been getting into fights over it, Regan says.
"[Simpson] wasn’t happy with it,” she says, “but it’s an opinion openly expressed by other people.”
Probably none as vociferously as Stern, which is a big part of his charm for those who are charmed by the lesbian-spanking radio host.
“It seems to me that people are buying icons,” Rosenthal says. “All the books selling in this number, mainly nonfiction, are all celebrity-driven books. Here’s something that sits on the coffee table. You can’t put your radio on the coffee table and have Howard Stern pop up, but having [the book] on your coffee table makes a statement about who you are to the other weirdos who come into your house. So it’s like wearing a button, and nothing wrong with that.”
Or driving with a dangler--cutouts of Howard in fishnets--festooning your rearview mirror. Stern fans are buying them in New York from his distributors--your friendly local homeless people. Coming soon to a Stern radio affiliate near you.
Stern, who’s credited with being a promotional whiz, lured thousands of fans last week to a New York book signing that featured the author in a dress, strippers in bikinis and a midget in a tuxedo. In Pasadena, he’ll appear at Vroman’s Bookstore on Dec. 1 at noon. And the E! Entertainment network, which carries a televised version of his radio show, is putting together an hourlong special to run in December.
Of course, there’s also that handy promotional vehicle, “The Howard Stern Show,” broadcast mornings to 8 million to 20 million people in 24 cities, including listeners of L.A.'s KLSX-FM (97.1).
“Stern has the most powerful advertising medium going for him,” Rosenthal says. “Howard Stern does an infomercial every day. God bless him for doing that. It’s entertainment, but he changes the equation on a publicity budget or ad budget.”
Even though Stern likes to boldly proclaim himself the King of All Media, publishing clearly has been a particularly effective--and lucrative--kingdom for the self-styled pop culture monarch. His first book, “Private Parts” (Simon & Schuster, 1993) sold 1.1 million copies and backed up his claim to a mainstream audience. The success of his memoirs lured several television networks with lucrative offers, but Stern’s foray into America’s living rooms fizzled after his 1994 New Year’s Eve pay-per-view special, which grossed $15 million but caused a furor over toxic taste.
His latest book is even raunchier and more revealing than the first. Stern had wanted to title it “Sloppy Seconds,” a reference to a gang bang. Regan nixed it.
“I thought that was gross,” she says. “And sloppy seconds is a big put down. He wanted to call his first book ‘Shut Up, Sit Down, You Moron’ because that’s what his father used to say. He’s very drawn to putting himself down because he feels like a worthless human being. He is tragic. No matter how much success he has it’s a hollow victory, because he doesn’t deal with the central issues of his life, which is the humiliation he had as a kid. He still feels like an ugly beast. That’s why he hides his face with his hair.
“He called when the book was successful. He said, ‘For the first time I feel I’ve really accomplished something,’ which was really touching.”