Michael Viner dies at 65; tabloid book publisher

Michael Viner, a publisher who specialized in audio books and earned a reputation for quick hits with sensational stories, including O.J. Simpson trial figure Faye Resnick’s book about Nicole Brown Simpson, died of cancer Saturday at his Beverly Hills home. He was 65.

His death was announced by a spokesperson for Phoenix Books Inc., a company that Viner founded in 2005.

Michael Viner obituary: In Thursday’s Section A, the obituary of music producer and book publisher Michael Viner said: “One of his first hits as a producer was Sammy Davis Jr.'s Grammy-winning ‘Candy Man.’ ” In fact, Mike Curb and Don Costa produced “The Candy Man,” as the song is actually titled, which was Grammy-nominated but did not win. —

Viner, a former music and television producer, launched himself into a fledgling audio publishing industry in 1985 when he and his then-wife, actress Deborah Raffin, opened Dove Books-on-Tape in the garage of their Coldwater Canyon home.

The company found success with a mix of high- and low-brow titles, from Sidney Sheldon’s bestseller “The Naked Face” to physicist Stephen W. Hawking’s opus on the cosmos, “A Brief History of Time,” which was Dove’s first big hit.

“He was a hard-driving, dedicated proponent of the audio book industry” who contributed to its early growth, said Janet Benson, president of the Audio Publishers Assn.

But he also was the bull in the china shop of the genteel world of audio publishing, whose aggressive promotion, litigious nature and penchant for turning notorious figures into instant authors made him “difficult to embrace fully,” Benson said.

After Viner (pronounced Veen-er) and Raffin expanded into hardcover publishing, their most sensational releases included “You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again” (1996), which claimed to present the true sexual adventures of four women seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood, and Resnick’s “Nicole Brown Simpson: The Diary of a Life Interrupted” (1994), which opened another sideshow in the so-called trial of the century. Dove also published the diary of a juror on the trial, which brought Viner a summons to a meeting with L.A. County Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, who was concerned that other juror names would be revealed.

Viner’s publishing career began after a backgammon game with Sheldon, who lost $8,000 in a high-stakes game with his longtime friend. Rather than take Sheldon’s money, Viner asked if Sheldon would let him produce two of the author’s bestsellers as audiotapes. Sheldon agreed and became a partner in Dove.

The company grew quickly, becoming a multimillion-dollar enterprise that rivaled the books-on-tape operations of major publishers such as Random House and Bantam Books.

Although it gained the most notice for releases that seemed to spring from the pages of the tabloid press (such as “The Private Diary of Lyle Menendez,” drawn from a series of covertly taped conversations with one of the infamous Menendez brothers, convicted in 1996 of slaying their wealthy parents), most of Dove’s releases were more mundane: Paul Scofield reading Charles Dickens, or Elliott Gould reading Raymond Chandler.

Viner said reading classic literature helped him deal with a lonely childhood.

Born Feb. 27, 1944, in Washington, D.C., he lost his businessman-father to a heart attack when he was 11.

After his father’s death, he was sent to a series of military and private schools, including Chadwick School on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

“Books saved me. I discovered Dickens, Turgenev. . . . I read Twain, Thurber, Dorothy Parker,” he told The Times in 1995.

When he was at Chadwick, Viner began working summers in the mail room at 20th Century Fox.

He majored in English at Harvard University before studying at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. But instead of seeking a career in the diplomatic corps, he wound up working as a personal aide to then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy during the latter’s fateful 1968 presidential bid.

After Kennedy’s death, Viner went to Hollywood and worked in a series of studio jobs, first at 20th Century Fox and later at Universal and MGM, where he ran a record division called Pride. One of his first hits as a producer was Sammy Davis Jr.'s Grammy-winning “Candy Man.” Later in the 1970s, he began working in TV, producing such shows as “Circus of the Stars” and “Touched by Love.”

He married Raffin in 1974 after meeting her on a blind date that year.

Viner became interested in audio books about a decade later, when he was searching for good books on tape to give to an uncle.

Noticing that there wasn’t much choice in titles, he asked Sheldon and his neighbor Norman Cousins if any of their books were available on tape. “They said no,” Viner recalled. “I thought, ‘There’s a business here.’ ”

When they launched the audio book company, Raffin was in charge of production and signing up celebrity readers while Viner focused on business matters.

Their first audio books included actor Roger Moore reading two of Sheldon’s novels, and Jason Robards and William Conrad reading books by Cousins, including the bestselling “Anatomy of an Illness.” Gregory Peck read the Bible.

By the time Dove published the Resnick book, the company’s sales had reached more than $20 million. Its success elicited sneers from executives at major publishing houses, who used words like “coarse” and “vulgar” to describe its books.

Viner and Raffin lost money after some ill-timed expansion efforts and sold Dove in 1997 to Media Equities Entertainment International.

They started another company, New Millennium, which filed for bankruptcy in 2003, a few days after Viner signed a book deal with former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, whose plagiarism and fabrications brought down two top editors at the paper.

The bankruptcy filing came a month after a federal jury in Los Angeles ordered Viner and New Millennium to pay $2.8 million in damages to New York book dealer Otto Penzler for breach of contract over a series of mystery anthologies. It concluded a legal tangle that had begun with one of the anthology’s contributors, David Baldacci, suing Viner and Viner suing Penzler.

When Viner launched Phoenix Books in 2005, the same year his marriage to Raffin ended, he said he planned to focus on “West Coast- oriented books,” including offerings by KISS singer Gene Simmons and talk-show host Larry King.

Viner strayed from that formula this year in a book deal with ousted Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, whose memoir, “The Governor,” is due out in September. Viner defended the controversial six-figure deal on the Huffington Post in March, writing that “I only ask that the public at large give him a fairer trial than the railroad ride he was given out of his role as governor.”

Viner is survived by his and Raffin’s daughter, Taylor Rose Viner. The funeral service will be private.