Regan’s fate is unwritten

Firing not the end of editor's tale

A correction was made to this article on December 19, 2006.

On the heels of HarperCollins’ firing of Judith Regan on Friday, questions swirled around the events precipitating the firing, as well as the exact fate of Regan — both the personality and the imprint — and the future of staffers, many of whom relocated to the West Coast within the last year.

In at least some way, the firing was a reaction — albeit a delayed one — to the embarrassing scandal involving a Regan tome and TV special with O.J. Simpson titled “If I Did It,” in which Simpson described how he would have committed the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.

The O.J. incident earned across-the-board condemnation and a statement from Murdoch, who called the event “ill-considered” and yanked both the book and the spesh.

In a statement almost as harsh as its O.J.-related rebuke, HarperCollins “terminated” Regan late Friday, providing a coda to one of the more embarrassing publishing scandals in a year filled with them. News Corp.-owned publisher followed Friday’s terse press release with an equally short statement on Saturday saying the imprint would continue in some manner under Regan’s deputy, Cal Morgan.

In announcing Morgan’s promotion, the company was clear that the reporting structure would look very different from the Regan era. Instead of quasi-autonomy, Morgan will report to Michael Morrison, the No. 2 to HarperCollins topper Friedman.

But other aspects of the ankling were murky.

News accounts said Regan’s firing was preceded by a reportedly testy conversation she had Friday afternoon with News Corp. lawyers over her another controversial project — a pseudo-historical novel about Mickey Mantle. Book has been drawing media criticism because of the alleged liberties it takes with real events — suggesting, for instance, that Mantle and Marilyn Monroe had an affair.

News accounts also noted an alleged reference the publisher made to HarperCollins as “backstabbers” at a taping of her Sirius Radio show Thursday. But it remained unclear whether those were actually causes of the firing.

In the past few weeks, Harper topper Jane Friedman had come under fire for her silence about the Regan incident, pressure from which may have culminated in Friday’s move. In wording that certainly was not accidental, the Friday statement began with “Jane Friedman, president and CEO of HarperCollins Worldwide, today announced” Regan’s ouster.

The news took some by surprise: While many believed Regan’s head could be on the block after the O.J. incident, fact that she had survived until now suggested the controversy might blow over.

Timing of the announcement was also strange — or perhaps deliberate –because it came at 7 p.m. on a Friday evening on the East Coast, when much of the media world had already begun its blitz of holiday parties.

In fact, News Corp. execs and staffers were gathering at the company’s annual private holiday bash at the Hilton in Gotham and were pretty much shielded from the media.

“Any future decisions relating to the imprint name or the publication of unpublished books will be addressed at the appropriate time,” the Saturday statement said.

Those “future decisions” will surely include staffing and the fate of upcoming titles form the imprint’s slate.

The few high-ranking editors and execs at Regan who have stayed through its roller-coaster rides are thought to be loyal to Regan and could be wooed to move with her if she formed a publishing imprint elsewhere.

Slate of ReganBooks include the Mantle book and titles from former Fox News personality Catherine Crier and the late U.N. ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a book advocating for the raw-food movement, a novel titled “Sex and the Single Zillionaire” and Kimora Lee Simmons’ how-to “Fabulosity.”

It’s possible, but not common, for a high-ranking editor who departs a company to negotiate to take publishing rights with them. In another messy and prominent ouster, Random House’s firing of Ann Godoff, an elaborate round of horse-trading resulted in Godoff taking more than a dozen projects to her new imprint at Penguin Putnam.

News Corp. also equivocated on the future of the Regan imprint’s name. The statement said until further notice the imprint will be called “Regan,” supporting the biz’s belief that Regan herself owns the ReganBooks name.

But the branding of the imprint is a thorny issue. ReganBooks is one of the few publishing imprints with brand-name cachet, but will HarperCollins really want to retain the name of an exec it fired? More likely it is maintaining the name as a symbolic act that conveys it retains rights to the books and can carry on without Judith.

As for Regan herself, rumors that she was already making the rounds looking for a TV job were counterbalanced by the feeling among industry insiders that she would like to keep a foot in the book world, which has been the most fruitful aspect of her hyphenated public life.

It’s believed in media circles that Regan could try to set up shop outside News Corp. — she has long made noise about such a move — but the O.J. events could make her radioactive to some publishers, who have said privately over the last few weeks that the PR hit wouldn’t be worth the profits for which Regan is known.

Some have speculated she would seek private-equity investment to finance a production and publishing shingle, keeping both in L.A.

When her contract with News Corp. has come up previously, she has shopped her imprint around, with Hollywood lawyer Bert Fields repping her to prospective publishers.

Regan recently moved herself and her staff from Gotham to new headquarters in Century City with the hope of ginning up more TV production deals, but few had yet to materialize.

Move ends a tumultuous but high-flying era at News Corp. and HarperCollins. Regan most notably turned nonliterary personalities into literary bestsellers, a move that was described as brilliant by some and too easy by others.

Less publicized were more high-minded projects from literary authors such as Jess Walter and figures like Gen. Tommy Franks.

Since forming the ReganBooks imprint at Harper 12 years ago, Regan has shown a remarkable tendency to controversy, over either a provocative book or a provocative event in her personal life.

In the last decade she was known for bestsellers by Marilyn Manson, Jenna Jameson and Jose Canseco; a high-profile affair with former N.Y. police chief (and imprint author) Bernard Kerik; and another charged book-television special, this one with the alleged “other man” in the John Kennedy Jr.-Caroline Bessette marriage, which aired several years after the couple died in a plane crash.

Some in the industry were breathing a sigh of relief as news of Regan’s ouster broke — not only because it would eliminate the sometimes awkward clashes between Regan and Harper, but because it would at least temporarily sideline a publisher who’s adept at nabbing spots on the bestseller list.

Whatever Regan does, she won’t be out of the media eye for very long: She is the presumed subject of attention-grabbing roman a clef by former staffer Bridie Clark titled “Because She Can,” skedded for release from Warner Books in February. Trade-press reviews have already noted the unflattering portrait of the publisher and compared the tome to “The Devil Wears Prada.”