FOR MANY PEOPLE in publishing, the firing of Judith Regan this month represented a bit of instant karma, cosmic comeuppance at its most profound. Regan, most recently in the news for her part in the aborted O.J. Simpson book fiasco over "If I Did It," is the kind of publisher book people love to hate. Over the years, she's brought out work by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, Jenna Jameson and Jose Canseco. She's made millions by not just tapping into but embracing the very lowest of our enthusiasms, our apparently endless fascination with salacious gossip, with rumor, with scandal and sex.
When she announced in April 2005 that she was moving her imprint, ReganBooks, from Manhattan to Los Angeles, she was widely pilloried (by me, among others) as a mercenary, as someone more interested in an elusive "synergy" with the movie business than in opening up the playing field to writing from the West. In one unfortunate interview, she suggested that she intended to establish a "cultural center" in Los Angeles, as if such a thing had to be imported from the East Coast. By the publisher of "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star," no less.
Since her dismissal Dec. 15 amid allegations that she made anti-Semitic comments, the most common reaction has been good riddance, as if L.A. (and the world of publishing) is better off. Schadenfreude aside, however, it's hard not to feel some regret about the failure of her West Coast experiment.
First, there is the way her firing was done: by fax, late on a Friday, as if the higher-ups at HarperCollins (the publisher that administered Regan's imprint) or News Corp. (the multinational corporation, run by Rupert Murdoch, that owns them all) didn't have the courage to be direct.
Even more, it casts into question the future of her company, which -- whatever else it might be -- is the first major publishing imprint ever to forgo New York for Los Angeles. This is important because L.A., perhaps more than any major American city, has never been a publishing town. Magazines don't thrive here, nor do many newspapers. And although Southern California is home to a handful of independent presses (Angel City, Green Integer, Red Hen), they lack a national presence, a requisite visibility and weight. That's what made Regan's relocation so newsworthy -- the idea that the center was no longer holding, if indeed it ever had.
I don't mean to suggest that Los Angeles would ever become the center of the publishing industry, just that there might be more room for other cities, other regions, that the book business might become increasingly national in scope. It was never about the quality of what she was producing, in other words, but about the fact that she would produce it here.
If that sounds like a contradiction, it's a contradiction that has everything to do with the industry itself. Publishing, after all, is a schizophrenic business, one that loves to frame itself in terms of art and literature, even though everyone understands that this is not what sells. Here we have the dirty little secret of the book world: It's people like Judith Regan, with all their crass commercialism, who support the rest of us.
As Sara Nelson wrote in Publishers Weekly, it is "well known that many Regan books -- from 'Wicked' to Howard Stern to three bestsellers about Scott Peterson -- made a great deal of money for [HarperCollins]. Without her -- and really, without her, will the imprint be able to make and market the books that reflected her uncanny and unseemly taste or lack thereof? -- won't Harper feel the pinch? The marketplace certainly wanted many of these books, which may say more about the marketplace than it does about the morals of editors, but we all live and die by that marketplace."
The same could be said of Los Angeles, which, in its own strange way, stood to benefit from Regan's presence, no matter how superficial or profane. How does a city establish itself as a publishing center? I can't really say. But it doesn't hurt to have a high-stakes publisher, one who draws attention to the community and herself.
Further, despite the infamy of "If I Did It," Regan did publish some decent books. In the last several months, she put out Jess Walter's novel, "The Zero," which was nominated for a National Book Award, as well as Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman's "The Fellowship," a look at Frank Lloyd Wright's years at Taliesin. It's unfortunate, because her departure leaves her imprint rootless, disconnected from this city and the one it left behind. HarperCollins has announced that Cal Morgan, Regan's editorial director, would take over the operation and that, for the moment anyway, the staff would remain in place (as would the name ReganBooks, even without her).
Morgan is an experienced editor who spent 11 years at St. Martin's Press before signing on with ReganBooks in 1999, but let's be honest: Without Regan's personality, her driving ambition, her eye for the commercial jugular, it's hard to imagine that the imprint can survive. And if it doesn't, that would be L.A.'s loss.