In a new memoir, Steve Rubin, the well-connected publishing executive who started at Bantam Books and spent a large part of his career at Random House before moving to Macmillan, provides a top-down look at the industry. It is a view that filmmakers would likely gravitate to if they wanted to depict the glamorous side of publishing—working with famous authors and celebrities, all while earning a hefty salary. This behind-the-scenes look is combined with an unexpected no-holds-barred critique of some of publishing’s best-known executives, as well as firsthand accounts of various corporate machinations. Publishing insiders will, in turn, be intrigued by Rubin’s account of some of the industry’s biggest deals, and shocked by his frank appraisals of some of its major players.
In Words and Music, out from Rowman & Littlefield’s Applause imprint, Rubin recounts being hired in 1984 by Jack Romanos as an executive editor at Bantam for an annual salary of $55,000, then nine months later getting promoted to editor-in-chief following Romanos’s departure to Simon & Schuster. At Bantam, Rubin worked with numerous publishing heavyweights, among them Stuart and Irwyn Applebaum, Linda Grey, Jack Hoeft, and Alberto Vitale. Not long after landing at Bantam, he acquired paperback rights to Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, which, after a legendary presentation by the author at the American Booksellers Association convention, went on to become a huge hit, cementing Conroy’s reputation as a writer and marking the beginning a 30-year partnership with Rubin.
In 1990, Bertelsmann recruited Rubin to turn around Doubleday, which had been foundering since the German conglomerate bought it in 1986. The company had been wildly overspending, publishing 465 titles per year, and, among other perks, giving authors their own American Express cards. It was something Rubin quickly put an end to. He cut the Doubleday list to 200 titles and focused the publisher on a limited number of categories while downsizing the staff “in the most humane fashion with rich financial packages.”
The shot in the arm the company needed came when Ann Godoff left her position as Doubleday’s executive editor after less than a month on the job, and Rubin named David Gernert to replace her. Gernert had recently signed John Grisham, a new author whose novel The Firm was published by Doubleday in March 1991. It was the first in a series of blockbuster titles by Grisham that Doubleday would release.
With Doubleday on the mend, Peter Olson, who was at that point, according to Rubin, angling to replace Jack Hoeft as CEO of Bantam Doubleday Dell, convinced Rubin to move to London as chairman of Transworld and Bantam Doubleday Dell International. Among his instructions was to buy a U.K. publisher. In addition to a nice salary, Rubin was given a spacious flat, a chauffeured car, and 12 first-class round-trip tickets back to New York.
After several generally unsatisfying years—Transworld never did buy a U.K. house, though Rubin did host Mikhail Gorbachev when he was in London to promote his memoir—Rubin returned to New York in what started out as another effort to boost Doubleday. The job took a turn in 1998 when Bertelsmann bought Random House, which would lead to what Rubin called “the greatest professional betrayal of my career.” Post-merger, the decision was made by Olson to combine Doubleday’s Anchor Books with Knopf’s Vintage Books, with the new unit to be overseen by Knopf head Sonny Mehta.
The Anchor debacle notwithstanding, Rubin had plenty of triumphs at Doubleday—none more important than his decision to green-light the publication of The Da Vinci Code by then-unknown author Dan Brown. The runway bestseller helped Rubin earn a $1 million bonus one year. (It also, according to Rubin, earned Romanos an “extraordinary” bonus thanks to the success of Brown’s earlier book, Angels and Demons, which Pocket published.)
Rubin’s ties to Random House ended when new CEO Markus Dohle combined Doubleday with Knopf and appointed Mehta to head it. For a short period, Rubin served as publisher-at-large, but he left that role, convinced that the merger of Doubleday and Knopf didn’t make publishing sense and bemoaning the fact that some earlier consolidations made by Bertelsmann, in particular combining Bantam and Dell, were bad for the industry.
After leaving the “cesspool” that was RH, Rubin says he was financially set for life, thanks in part to a “bountiful, contractual one-time payment” he received from his former employer. He soon ended up working for John Sargent at Macmillan, who wanted him to revive the struggling Henry Holt, which was losing, Rubin writes, $5 million on revenue of $30 million in 2008. Shortly after joining Holt, following a dinner in his Westhampton home with Bill O’Reilly, Rubin paid $6 million for Killing Lincoln, the first title in O’Reilly’s immensely popular Killing series. The series was so successful that Holt began paying O’Reilly eight-figure advances, because “all of us were making unheard of amounts of money.”
The downside came when Fox fired O’Reilly over a series of sexual harassment charges. Holt continued to publish the series, but as sales plunged, Rubin convinced O’Reilly to redo the original deal. Still, Holt had to take a huge write-off and “people had to forgo their bonuses.”
The election of Donald Trump as president led to another huge success for Holt, and to what Rubin called “probably the wildest experience of my career”: the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, the first book critical of Trump’s presidency. A threat by Trump to sue over the release of the book ensured that Fire and Fury would be a bestseller. In his memoir, Rubin commends Sargent, Macmillan president Don Weisberg, and owner Stefan von Holtzbrinck for standing up to Trump’s threats, and in doing so proving that a book can still spark a nationwide debate on important issues.
Despite a good run at Holt, Rubin’s tenure ended on something of a sour note. The hiring of Ben Schrank to succeed him as president and publisher in 2019 (with Rubin becoming chairman of Holt) turned into a short-lived fiasco, and Rubin never saw eye to eye with Schrank’s successor, Amy Einhorn, who had been picked by Weisberg. An effort to find a new role for Rubin at Macmillan came up short, and he moved on to a consulting publisher role at Simon & Schuster.
Why was Sargent fired?
If Rubin knows why John Sargent was fired as Macmillan CEO by Stefan von Holtzbrinck in fall 2020, he didn’t put it in the final edition of the book (though he did offer up a reason in a galley). All Rubin says is that whatever precipitated the firing is now “off the table” and called von Holtzbrinck’s action “the dumbest move in recent publishing history.”