In Juiced, his potent syringe of a memoir, Jose Canseco wonders if baseball is making too much of the chemical stuff. After all, steroids make players more competitive and the game more exciting—and can't really be regulated anyway. "The future is here, so why fight it?" he writes.
Of course crack cocaine is here, too, and it's probably a good idea to fight that. But forget his actual argument for a minute. Canseco's message is fitting for another reason: because it could also apply to his publisher.
Judith Regan has built a career on not looking back to a gilded age of books, instead embracing publishing's future—pop-culture controversy—in the breathless tone of Entertainment Tonight.
By now, her publishing method is so widely reputed that having a real conversation about it—let alone detecting in it any subtle shifts—is close to impossible. People already know what they think about Judith Regan, and it's usually one of two things: she's either a bold visionary or a paparazzi-chaser. We asked two prominent insiders what they thought. The first: "She does the lowest-common-denominator stuff, and that's the easiest to do. It's gut, not genius." The second: "You could really make the case that she is brilliant. It's her timing, her eye."
Her track record supports both. There's Marilyn Manson and Tommy Franks, but also Michael "The Other Man" Bergin.
In the week before its release, Juiced achieved a media ubiquity that's rare; anyone can decree an embargo, not everyone can get the media to break it. It would seem to put another check in the pro-genius column. Regan, once again, was willing to go where no other house dared. As one editor put it, "How does Judith do it?"
Not with such singular acumen, it turns out. New reporting provides further details about how Regan wasn't the first to see Canseco's book or to make an offer—in fact, she was in the first group to turn it down. When the book originally made the rounds in 2002, the big sports editors in town all had a look. Bill Chastain, a former Tampa Tribune sportswriter, had hooked up with an agent named Ron Laitsch and sent a summary around. Canseco was rejected by most publishers, but one house, St. Martin's, liked what it heard and asked to talk further. The house has been criticized for paying small advances and overpublishing, but it put in a bid that was reported to be in the solid six figures. As editor Mark Resnick said, "We had an amazing meeting. We knew we had to buy this book."
The lack of a hard proposal didn't worry SMP. Nor did a potential libel suit, or concerns that the author might be written off as a has-been publicity-hound. Those concerns did bother other houses, including Warner, Rodale—and ReganBooks. All turned it down. Not SMP, where Resnick showed aggressiveness and, you could say, out-Reganed Regan.
Many months later, long after Canseco had rejected the St. Martin's offer and decided to self-publish, the deal was revived with the aid of agent Doug Ames. The details get a little cloudy here, but what is clear is that none of the original houses besides ReganBooks were involved, and Regan (who declined to comment on how Canseco's deal evolved except to say, "We bonded") wound up paying a lot less than SMP would have. Regan got the book not by having the boldest gut or the sharpest eye but with a more subdued, un—Regan-like skill: having the right second thought at the right time.
We'll never know exactly why Canseco rejected the first offer and accepted the second, but it's probably not because Regan gave him wider berth. "There's nothing I've heard about this book that wouldn't have been in ours," says Resnick. And it's unlikely Regan's biggest coup—60 Minutes—would have eluded another house either. (She did eventually take a chance on the libel, which scared off others, and perhaps Canseco himself.)
With a sales verdict still out, some competing editors are expecting the last laugh. Rodale's Jeremy Katz remains convinced the book "will generate more heat than sales."
If Juiced turns out to be a winner, some will no doubt again pronounce Regan brilliant. And perhaps she is, but it's a brilliance that's less cutting-edge strategy and more cutting-edge image. It's about a careful crafting of shocking spontaneity. It's about cultivating an aura of fearlessness to attract an author like Canseco, more than it is fearlessness itself.
The future is here, indeed.