Making a Killing
An eye-opening view of the book trade from Stephen Rubin
This is the 182nd edition of SHuSH, the official newsletter of The Sutherland House Inc. If you’re new here, hit the button:
You read a couple of memoirs by legendary book publishers, maybe Michael Korda and Bennett Cerf, and come away thinking that erudition and a facility with language are not enough to make it in this business—you must also be gracious, clever, and charming, with an unerring eye for saleable books of the highest quality.
Then Stephen Rubin publishes a memoir and forces you to reconsider.
Author of Words and Music: Confessions of an Optimist, Rubin oversaw the publication of some 4,000 books during a long career at Bantam, Doubleday, and Holt.
He is not erudite, if erudition implies any degree of refinement or profundity. He rates Stephen King the Anthony Trollope of our time and puts John Grisham’s The Reckoning on level with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.
He has no facility with language: “Nobody much really read Thomas Pynchon Books.” Name a cliche—humble pie, shark-infested waters, take your eye off the ball—he employs it.
Stephen Rubin is not gracious or charming. He describes himself, charitably, as “pushy, cheeky.” An inveterate name-dropper, he tells us, twice, that George W. Bush sent him a handwritten note after Rubin published his presidential memoir. He gives himself abundant credit for publishing work by authors—Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan—whose primary relationships are at other firms or with other publishing executives. Contrary to the subtitle, the book boasts more than it confesses.
Even if we accept the author’s view that today’s publishing world is overly sensitive, it is startling to read a management team described as “the lame leading the blind.”
More confounding is the lack of self-awareness. One of his prized authors, Elton John, a year younger than Rubin, is said to be “ravaged” by age and “overweight” and “perhaps living in a time when he was a much bigger star than he is now.”
Rubin tut-tuts about Doubleday’s spending before he got there—“star authors had their own American Express cards” and “florist bills could easily have supported a small third-world nation”— yet can’t say enough about his fat contracts with their “fuck-you clauses” and “glamorous trappings,” his “million dollar bonuses,” luxurious accommodations, his company-provided “midnight-blue Daimler, one of the most beautiful, sleek cars I have ever seen. It came with a chauffeur.” He devotes a whole chapter to his few modest acts of philanthropy.
And for a man quick to share in the publicity generated by his best-sellers, Rubin can be sharp when underlings shine: “Another challenge was a very young editor who got loads of attention because of her work on Lee Iacocca’s multi-million-copy bestseller. Nessa Rapoport began to believe in her own publicity. I was having none if it. Her antics never worked with me.”
He has a chip on his shoulder, particularly with regard to other publishers who discern a difference between Anthony Trollope and Stephen King. For instance, the late Knopf princeling, Sonny Mehta. Rubin was demoted as head of the Doubleday imprint when Random House decided to merge it with Mehta’s Knopf. He accuses Mehta of orchestrating his demise and slights him several times in Words And Music, not least as someone who “famously disappeared when he didn’t want to deal with unpleasant decisions.” Perhaps also unpleasant people.
Rubin does not claim to have an especially good eye for books. Uninterested in the succès d'estime or the prize winner, he concentrated on “middlebrow” bestsellers. He (or others on his staff) acquired a good number of hits, including Grisham’s The Firm, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Laura Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln. But anyone aggressively bidding for anticipated bestsellers, year after year, and backing them with massive promotional budgets as Rubin did, will have a good number of hits 4,000 acquisitions down the road. Along with a good number of bombs. Rubin grossly overpaid for books by Simon Cowell, Mia Farrow, and Edward Snowden.
“Figuring out what to spend for these books is a crapshoot,” he says. “I do not care what scientific method you think will work—it won’t. You sit and ‘do the numbers,’ try to predict how many copies a book will sell, but ultimately it’s a shot in the dark, a spin of the roulette wheel. And you pray that you get more of these dodgy propositions right.”
Give him credit for honesty. Maybe even a bit of modesty. No one in the business is right all the time and one suspects Rubin has a better sense of what will sell than some, if not most of his peers.
The bewildering thing is that he seems incapable of registering qualitative differences among bestsellers. Hence the Grisham/Roth parity. He rattles off titles—The Bridges of Madison County, Watership Down, Lolita, The Grapes of Wrath, The Devil Wears Prada, The Eagle Has Landed, A Brief History of Time—as though they are all the same order of success.
He can excuse any sin in a book (or an author) that sells. Rubin calls James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, one of his chart-toppers, “a book riddled with controversy.” That’s generous for a memoir so egregiously fabricated that the author was dropped by his agent and the publisher hit with a class-action suit on behalf of duped readers.
He takes undiminished pride in Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s chronicle of the Trump White House, and has nothing but admiration for the author “standing up to a lot of intense pressure and some tough personal criticism” when the book was found to be rife with errors and dubious accounts of events. (My favorite Wolff gaffe: he couldn’t keep straight whether Rupert Murdoch called Trump an “idiot” or a “moron.”) Books like Fire and Fury, says Rubin, are “why so many veterans stay in the business.”
And Rubin is still standing by Bill O’Reilly and his popular historical nonfiction (Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus), long after Fox News, tiring of the seven-figure sexual harassment suits, dropped him. “I truly do not care what people think of Bill O’Reilly. I can say with full disclosure that working with him for two decades had been hugely pleasurable, that together Holt and Bill created the greatest nonfiction franchise in recent publishing history, selling 19 million books. Loyalty to Bill goes a long way. So do personal relationship. So does success. Bill is as proud of his ‘Killing’ books as I am.”
I’m at a loss for what else to say about this book, except that having seen the trade through Rubin’s eyes, I’m not surprised it was published.
It certainly breaks new ground in the legendary publisher memoir.
Lend SHuSH a hand
A weekly newsletter like SHuSH is a lot of work. We don’t charge for it or present advertising or ask for donations, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t appreciate a little support. The best way you could help keep us going is to subscribe to our newest initiative, Sutherland Quarterly.
Launched just before Christmas, Sutherland Quarterly is a new series of captivating essays on current affairs by some of Canada’s best writers. Each essay will be published as a stand-alone book and sold at retail in the usual manner; the essays will also be available (at a preferred price) by annual subscription.
These short books will be timely, topical, and highly readable. They will not come from one particular worldview or represent one style of writing. After the inaugural edition, each will contain responses to the previous essay to create a sort of rolling conversation from book to book.
We’re calling them essays but the degree to which each relies on argumentation, investigation, or story-telling will depend on the writer and the subject. While our first two authors are established journalists, we will also be publishing new voices, some of them journalists, others not. We are open to submissions.
The inaugural edition of SQ is Funeral for a Queen: Twelve Days in London, by former Globe & Mail correspondent John Fraser, who is also the founding president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada. From the promotional copy:
On September 8, 2022, an announcement was posted on the gates of Balmoral Castle in Scotland and Buckingham Palace in London that Queen Elizabeth II, the longest serving monarch in British history, had died. That set in motion a remarkable ten days of official mourning and ceremony unlike anything seen in any nation for decades. Members of the royal family gathered—the new King Charles III and his Queen Consort Camilla; the newly-minted Prince of Wales, William and his princess, Kate; Harry the Bolter and his celebrity wife Meghan—along with hundreds of royals and heads of states from around the world. Hordes of people, many from overseas, spent long hours lining up in the rain to pay tribute to the beloved monarch, a presence in their lives for seventy years. On the scene for these events, renowned journalist John Fraser takes the reader from inside St. James Palace where the new King was proclaimed to Queen Elizabeth’s final resting place at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, from deeply moving scenes to the occasional hilarious screw-up, capturing the magic of the occasion with trenchant observations and witty commentary informed by a lifetime’s experience and curiosity about all things monarchical and his own encounters with the royals.
The second edition of SQ, coming in April, will be An Emergency in Ottawa: The Story of the Convoy Commission, by former National Post and Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells, who has recently relaunched himself as a one-man media machine.
Single copies will sell for $22.95 (plus HST); the subscription price is $74.99 (including HST). I hope you’ll consider subscribing.
Our regular reminder to readers to support independent booksellers. Click this link to make the above map come alive.
Or click here to visit the Sutherland House website and order one of our latest:
Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)
Steven Beattie’s That Shakespearean Rag, a newsy blog about books and reading
Art Kavanagh’s Talk about books: Book discussion and criticism.
Gayla Gray’s SoNovelicious: Books, reading, writing, and bookstores.
Esoterica Magazine: Literature and popular culture.
Benjamin Errett’s Get Wit Quick, literature and other fun stuff
Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.
Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.
Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)
Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different
Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion
Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world
Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations
Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice
John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations
Mark Dykeman’s How About This: Atlantic Canadian interviews and thoughts on writing and creativity.
THAT’S IT FOR THIS WEEK. THANKS FOR READING. PLEASE SIGN UP OR CONVINCE SOMEONE ELSE TO SIGN UP, OR SHARE, OR LEAVE A COMMENT: