The moment I saw Michael Viner’s name in print again the other day, my brain went into a spasm of free association.
Michael Viner ... O.J. ... Faye Resnick ... Fleiss ... Menendez
It was as though I had been instantly transported to an otherwise dimly remembered age, when the world was full of tawdry scandals and Viner seemed to have a piece of every last one of them.
Historians of the recent past will recall that the 59-year-old Viner (the name is pronounced “VEE-ner”) reached prominence in the early ‘90s as the head of Dove Entertainment Inc., a publisher chiefly of audio books that he had founded with his wife, actress Deborah Raffin Viner, in 1984.
During the O.J. Simpson trial, Dove brought out a slim memoir of Nicole Brown Simpson, written by her friend Faye D. Resnick. The book became a bestseller, demonstrating that it was possible to make money not only off the main figures in high- profile celebrity trials but peripheral characters as well. The discovery revolutionized a certain segment of the publishing world.
It also shot Dove and the Viners into the stratosphere. The Resnick volume registered $5 million in gross sales, Viner told me from the Beverly Hills office of his new company, New Millennium Entertainment, and set the foundation for a string of other hot-button volumes. Among them: “You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again,” the joint memoir of a troupe of Heidi Fleiss’ call girls that became a publishing hit in 1996.
It was a time when every courthouse in Southern California seemed to come equipped with its own fleet of satellite TV trucks. Quickie books keyed to the trials and scandals that were burning up the broadcast spectrum abounded. East Coast publishers referred to Viner in terms that suggested they considered him no Alfred A. Knopf. As one Random House editor remarked to the Wall Street Journal about Dove’s “tabloid” style of publishing: “The books are timely and vulgar, in a way they haven’t been before.”
Not all of Dove’s ventures were hits. Among the disappointments was “The Private Diary of Lyle Menendez,” which was drawn from taped telephone interviews and correspondence with the convicted parent killer. A deal with Kathleen Willey, one of Bill Clinton’s purported sexual harassment victims, fell through. (Viner later maintained that the marketability of Willey’s story evaporated after she appeared on “60 Minutes.”)
Throughout this period, the Viners basked in publicity, although a casual reader of news files might be forgiven for concluding that the couple made the papers chiefly on two sorts of occasions: when they attended a star-studded Hollywood affair and when they were engaged in litigation.
The latter category of coverage brings us back to why Viner’s name has appeared in print again recently -- in this case, in a brief item last month in the New Yorker about how crusading litigator David Boies has agreed to represent, pro bono, the target of a Viner lawsuit.
A Busy Litigant
Visits to the courthouse have always seemed to be part of Viner’s business routine. After the publication of “You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again,” Viner was sued for alleged sexual harassment by two of its authors. (One claim was dismissed by a judge, and the other was settled in Viner’s favor.) Another of that book’s authors claimed she had been stiffed on royalties; that claim led to a jury award in her favor.
Around the same time, Viner announced he was bringing out a book about the O.J. Simpson trial written as a parody of “The Cat in the Hat.” The Seuss estate sued to enjoin that book, which never came out.
During the bestselling heyday of William J. Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues,” Viner announced an audio book to be titled “The Children’s Audiobook of Virtues.” Bennett’s publishers successfully sued to enjoin that project, which a New York judge called “a blatant and ill-conceived effort to piggy-back on the goodwill associated with Bennett’s bestselling title.”
In 1996, Viner drew a complaint from physicist Stephen Hawking, a sufferer of Lou Gehrig’s disease who communicates painstakingly through a voice synthesizer. Dove was bringing out an audio book of the Cambridge University lectures Hawking had used as the basis for his bestselling “A Brief History of Time,” and Viner asked the author for a transcript to include with the tapes to help listeners comprehend Hawking’s computer-generated voice.
But Dove then brought out the transcripts as a book, for which, Hawking maintained in arbitration, it did not have permission -- and which he feared would annoy buyers who thought they were acquiring a new Hawking work. That complaint was settled by Dove’s owners, after the Viners left the company, with a promise to cease publication.
Viner is charming in person, but his truculence in court has earned him a fearsome reputation that may well have dissuaded other potential litigants. “I didn’t mind having the profile of someone who’d fight,” he says. To a certain extent, that profile was based on what one lawyer who tangled with him calls his occasional “spooky success.”
One such success was his malpractice lawsuit against Williams & Connolly, an enormously prominent Washington power-brokering law firm. The firm represented the Viners in their departure negotiations with a group that took over then-struggling Dove Entertainment in 1996. The Viners turned around and sued their own lawyers, winning a judgment of more than $13 million against the firm on the claim that it should have gotten them a better deal. A California appeals court upheld the verdict but cut the judgment to about $8 million. The Williams firm has appealed the matter to the California Supreme Court.
After leaving Dove, the Viners started New Millennium. Like the earlier company, New Millennium relies heavily on audio books, which accounted for about half the company’s 2002 revenue of $7 million, Viner says. (Among the more prominent offerings in its latest catalog is the audio book of Robert Evans’ Hollywood memoir “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” narrated in a hypnotically listenable style by the author himself.)
Case Attracts Boies
In their new corporate guise, the Viners seem no longer to be in the forefront of what the Random House man once denigrated as “tabloid publishing.” Viner describes his strategy now as one in which “we look for where holes are in the market” -- particularly West Coast- oriented material that might be overlooked by the East Coast publishers.
But he’s still litigating. The case in which Boies’ firm is involved centers on a project Viner undertook with a New York mystery book editor and bookseller named Otto Penzler. The idea was to publish a series of seven original anthologies, each comprising murder mysteries devoted to a single sport. The baseball and boxing volumes were published in 2001 and 2002, and the football book was up next.
Among the stories that Penzler lined up for “Murder in the End Zone” was one by David Baldacci, a hugely popular mystery writer with numerous bestselling novels to his name. After he delivered the manuscripts, he discovered that New Millennium was planning to bring out a book whose cover bore Baldacci’s name in such huge print that buyers were likely to mistake it as the author’s new novel. Baldacci sued New Millennium and won an injunction from a New York judge who concluded that the company was “attempting to deceive the public into buying a misrepresented book.”
Viner eventually issued the volume, with Baldacci’s name slightly more demure than before but still prominent. Then he sued Penzler.
Viner contended in his lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles that Penzler all but wrecked the mystery series by delivering the football manuscript late and by reneging on the remaining volumes after the football book ended up in litigation. Penzler countersued for withheld royalties and other damages but evidently quailed at the cost of fighting Viner in court. At that point, some friends of his persuaded Boies to take the case as a favor.
“It was really a matter of my firm’s belief that in this situation, Mr. Penzler was 100% in the right,” says Nicholas A. Gravante Jr., the Boies partner who is handling the matter.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson spent 36 closely reasoned pages unraveling all the intertwined claims, finding in Penzler’s favor on eight claims and counterclaims and leaving a handful of others for trial, which is likely to commence within a month.
Meanwhile, New Millennium seems to be proceeding the way it always has. Among the gems in its latest catalog is yet another book edition of the same Cambridge lectures that Stephen Hawking thought he had shut down years ago. (Viner says he acquired legitimate publication rights from the bankruptcy estate of his old company.)
Hawking’s Los Angeles lawyer, Robert Dudnik, says he asked the physicist if he wished to sue. Hawking rejected the option on grounds that, in effect, life is too short. Instead, he filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which said it wasn’t a big enough issue to pursue.
“I just don’t have the financial resources and energy to take on this guy in court,” Dudnik recalls Hawking telling him. “I just know he’ll drag it out and make it as difficult as he can.”
Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. Michael Hiltzik can be reached at golden .email@example.com.