Judith Regan. Photos by Amy Lombard
If you've read a literary novel, listened to conservative radio, or jacked off to your mom's favorite erotica in the past 30 years, you've probably consumed media that's passed through the hands of publishing legend Judith Regan.
Over the past three decades, Regan has revolutionized the book business. The single mother became the first publisher to transform popular radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh into best-selling authors while at the same time editing and publishing books by authors who would make Limbaugh squirm, among them Michael Moore, wild child–era Drew Barrymore, Howard Stern, and Jenna Jameson. In between sparking various controversies, she edited Douglas Coupland's best-selling literary novels and Wicked, the novel that spawned one of the most popular musicals of all time, all the while acquiring a reputation for saying aggressive, blunt, often politically incorrect things and not being afraid of a fight.
Media critic Michael Wolff called Regan "hands down, the most successful editor in the book business" in a 1999 issue of New York magazine. In 2005 the New York Times reported her imprint, ReganBooks, brought in $120 million dollars worth of revenue, or eight to 10 percent of publisher HarperCollins's business. The next year, however, she was fired after giving the green light to OJ Simpson's notorious—and, naturally, best-selling—memoir If I Did It. She sued HarperCollins's Rupert Murdoch–owned parent company News Corporation for wrongful termination; News Corp settled for $10.75 million. Thus ended her contentious and sometimes bizarre relationship with the company, which was documented in an extensive New York piece.
Since then, Regan has stayed out of publishing, hosting a Sirius Radio show and appearing on an episode of Millionaire Matchmaker—that is until last fall, when, out of nowhere, Regan announced her return to publishing and started a new multimedia company under the umbrella of art publisher Phaidon.
For nearly a year, Regan has shrouded the company in mystery. The company's website appears blank except the huge Regan Arts logo and a Kenneth Rexroth quote: "Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense—the creative act." Meanwhile, Regan has poached Simon and Schuster editor Michael Szczerban, the Daily Beast's popular book blogger Lucas Wittman, and former HarperCollins senior art director Richard Ljoenes, who had previously designed Regan Arts's best-selling celebrity memoirs and literary novels.
Rumors have swirled about Regan Art's book acquisitions. Publishing journalist Sarah Weinman tweeted that she had purchased the English rights to Valerie Trierweiler's memoir, but when I spoke to Regan this week, she denied Weinman's claims—"There are so many false things out there," she said.
That shouldn't be a surprise. When you make as big of a splash as Regan routinely does, industry scuttlebutt trails naturally in your wake.
Virtual Reality Beginner's Guide , the first release from Regan Arts
Regan grew up in a middle-class Catholic family in Massachusetts (and later Long Island), reading numerous works of literature, including "dirty" books like The Happy Hooker, My Secret Garden, and Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. Many in the publishing and literary communities put a certain brand of high-brow novel on a pedestal while dismissing celebrity-penned or women-oriented books as "trash," or "chick lit," but Regan made her reputation by turning supposedly low-brow books into best sellers that demanded attention.
"I never associated shame with sex. I always thought it was an interesting subject," she told me. "I thought you could do it in a smart way—I was the first one to publish a lot of erotica. I published 25 years ago Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man, which is still selling [and is now a off-Broadway production]. I did The Surrender by Toni Bentley, which was a memoir of this very twisted relationship and focused on anal sex. I've done a lot of them, but I try to take what people consider to be low culture—and I don't agree with that at all—and elevate it."
In 1993, Regan captured the cultural anxiety of the era perfectly in Howard Stern's Private Parts, which is a beautiful book resembling an expensive art history textbook crossed with a manifesto. Each chapter—"Black and Blue Like Me," My Sex Life," and "Mein Kampf—My Struggles" (about the start of Stern's radio career)—describes part of the comedian and radio host's philosophy; the words are set next to gorgeous images of women that could have come from the golden age of Penthouse. Call Stern juvenile or crass or a pig, but the book is far too well crafted to be merely a sleazy joke.
That's what it's easy to miss about Regan: Far from churning out crappy tabloid fodder, she's aimed for years to build a legitimate no-brow media empire. In 2005, when she moved ReganBooks to Los Angeles, the New York Times wrote that she "would like to create a cultural center," describing a "sort of salon" where her authors would have meetings with Hollywood executives and the public could visit a "bookstore and cafe, space for readings or other cultural events."
That never happened thanks to the OJ fiasco, but with Regan Arts, she seems to have that goal once again within her grasp.
A few weeks ago, Regan Arts finally announced its first release—the Virtual Reality Beginner's Guide and Smartphone VR Tool Kit, TechCrunch writer Frederic Lardinois's history of virtual reality. The 40-page book comes with a cardboard VR kit designed by Regan's son Patrick Buckley, a co-founder of DODOcase. (The idea for the mother-son collaboration came during a "typical Regan family vacation" with the family attorney in Las Vegas to watch a UFC tournament.)
The project may seem like a counterintuitive way to launch Regan Arts, but it fits in with Regan's ambitions to create a platform-agnostic multimedia company, not just a publishing house—and in a world where Facebook paid $2 billion for Oculus Rift, coming out with a VR kit seems like a guaranteed way to generate headlines.
Regan and her son trying out the cardboard VR goggles
This week I visited Regan and Buckley at her New York office, which resembles a high-end art gallery or a tech office. Shelves full of expensive art books line the austere white walls. Regan wore a suit with a pink collared shirt, and her son wore flip-flops, a baseball cap, and a shirt that said #DodocaseVR. Right away, Buckley started assembling a cardboard VR case in front of me.
"It's very therapeutic to tear up cardboard," Buckley said. He turned on an app on his phone, then slid it into the case and Velcroed it shut. The device looks like a piece of retro kitsch—the case is made out of the same material as a Happy Meal box—but the VR viewer is surprisingly sophisticated and supports several different games.
When I put the glasses on to play Dive City Coaster, a rollercoaster game, in the conference room, I looked into a virtual world that looked like an actual theme park. As I moved my head up and down, I felt like I was riding Space Mountain at Disney World.
"It's accessible because it's low-cost, and it's totally hackable," Buckley said, sounding like his mother. "I hope [this project] drags [VR technology] into the mass market."
"I like the cartoon world," Regan said. After her son showed her an asteroid game and Moorente, where you shoot birds, she became obsessed with blowing up virtual targets.
"I got one! Whoo!" she screamed as she fired away. "It's not just for adolescent boys. Do you run out of bullets?" Her son told her no. "This is so satisfying, unlike other things in life," Regan said.
As Regan continued killing virtual objects, Buckley showed me a VR app where you stand in a foreign country and turn around in a circle to get a 360-degree view of the city.
"I'm in a Zen garden; she's shooting things," Buckley said.
"I love shooting people," Regan said. "It's very satisfying!"
For all the talk about Regan being a terror, she came across as pleasant, relaxed, and quick with a joke during our interview. When I asked Regan about the possibilities for what a book could be, however, she turned serious.
"I really believe that virtual reality is going to take over how people consume information, because it's so original and encompasses so much that the possibilities are really endless," she said.
"If you think about it, books were the first form of virtual reality," Buckley added. "The book was the first thing that enabled people to disseminate another form of their ideas and storytelling."
Like Private Parts, the Virtual Reality Beginner's Guide is an appealing physical object. It also suggests that Regan will be focusing her attention on projects that defy traditional logic in a publishing industry she says has been dominated by old ways of shallow, profits-and-losses-based thinking. She's going with her gut, and her gut has a long track record of hits.
"I think it's a difficult world to make noise in because the cacophony is so great. It's difficult to be heard," she said. "I've never been somebody who publishes based on, 'Oh, we need two diet books and two mysteries on the list.' Other people are better at that kind of thinking than I am. I like to find and discover and uncover and create. I think there's real artistry in what we do… I think, more than ever, the need to be creative is urgent."
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