Last year's O.J. Simpson controversy was hardly a news cycle-more a news spasm, with development and climax occupying barely a week. Now the elegies have appeared: not for O.J., who was able to pay off some debts, nor for HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, who signed off on the project and was recently named Publisher of the Year by Publishers Weekly. Nor for American culture, which escaped new lows of tastelessness. For once, the consequences fell on the person who deserved them most-Judith Regan, who conceived the project and developed it relentlessly. Her fate is a book-industry cautionary tale, but what exactly does it caution against?
The highlights of the story, in case it went by too fast, are as follows. Last April Regan, president of ReganBooks (an imprint of HarperCollins), began development on a top-secret package called "Project Miami." In August, Regan began shopping an exclusive "blockbuster" interview with an unnamed subject, details available only to those who signed a secrecy agreement. Barbara Walters signed, among others, but all eventually declined the offer.
On Nov. 14, News Corp (owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns HarperCollins) announced an upcoming interview on the Fox Network (a subsidiary of News Corp), conducted by Judith Regan with O. J. Simpson regarding his new book, If I Did It . . .
Immediate reaction: WHAT?!
Fox affiliates refused to carry the interview, booksellers refused to display the book (already in the warehouse), and seven days later, Murdoch canceled both.
Within weeks, Judith Regan was fired.
Barring a comeback, thus ends the career of "the single most influential force in publishing over the past decade," according to author Steve Kettman. Tagged as "foul-mouthed," "completely fearless," and "difficult," Regan gained respect and envy for her uncanny ability to promote "profitable junk." Her titles included Juiced (baseball on steroids, ironically titled) and How to Make Love Like a Porn Star. She was a genius at combining market and media outlets to burn a book into the public consciousness. She made millions. And she went too far.
Purportedly, the lesson is that there are depths to which the public will not go. That's debatable: Only three years ago Katie Couric scored huge ratings with a Simpson "anniversary" interview. But this year John Mark Karr (remember him?) failed to ignite. Anti-heroes are out, while "Heroes" (this season's TV hit) are in. "Thou shalt not misjudge the market" is the rule Judith Regan broke, and she paid dearly.