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2018-02-25 11:08:02
With ‘Fire and Fury,’ Stephen Rubin Is Publishing’s 76-Year-Old Comeback Kid

“This sounds terrible, but it’s absolutely true,” Stephen Rubin said, sitting at a small circular table in his office. He was grinning, shaking his hands in excitement. “On rare occasions, when I read something that I know is simply wonderful, I see dollar signs. I saw dollar signs. And I was just luxuriating in the pleasure of reading it.”

Mr. Rubin, the president and publisher of Henry Holt & Company, was recalling the first time he read the draft of the book whose final version now sits on thousands of American night stands: Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.” As of this writing, the book has sold more than 900,000 copies (not including e-book sales and audio downloads), been at top of the best-seller lists for the last two months, provided a strikingly unfiltered view of the inner workings of the Trump administration and helped lead to a nasty break between President Trump and his once-close ally, the former White House official Steve Bannon. It has inspired the beginning of a cold open for “Saturday Night Live,” has been read out loud at the Grammy Awards and reportedly will be made into a television series.

And it has provided the ultimate victory lap for the 76-year-old Mr. Rubin.

Roughly nine years ago, when he left Random House — where over the years he had made the authors Dan Brown and John Grisham into household names — for the less-glamorous perch of Henry Holt, some in the industry speculated that his once-powerful career was all but over. But Mr. Rubin now finds himself with a book that has arguably matched the heights of “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Firm.”

“This is a pretty remarkable time in his career, if not the most remarkable,” said Jane Friedman, the former chief executive of HarperCollins and a longtime friend of Mr. Rubin’s. “This is a moment to be savored.”

This was not the kind of triumph many people expected in 2009 when Mr. Rubin showed up in the rather dowdy Holt offices in the Flatiron Building. He was something of an industry legend, a former freelance writer and magazine editor who joined Bantam Books when he was 43 and stayed in various jobs with its corporate parent over the next 25 years, at his peak holding the title of president and publisher of Doubleday Broadway.

Not long after taking charge of what was then called Doubleday, he learned the imprint was set to publish a young, unknown novelist named John Grisham. The book was called “The Firm,” and it became the first of Mr. Grisham’s more than 30 best-sellers. The publisher and author grew close and remain so.

Later, after a three-year stint in London, Mr. Rubin returned to Doubleday and in 2003 oversaw the publication of Mr. Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” which went on to sell 80 million copies worldwide.

But in 2008, Random House, which owned Doubleday Broadway, reorganized some of its imprints and eliminated Mr. Rubin’s position. In February 2009, Mr. Rubin warily took up the post of “publisher at large” at the company. Though he successfully purchased George W. Bush’s “Decision Points” for its Crown imprint, Mr. Rubin remained despondent. After all these years, he was a nomad, seeking approval for projects — even for book jackets — from heads of imprints who were once his peers.

“I can tell you without any exaggeration that it was the only nine-month period of my career where I was unhappy,” Mr. Rubin said. “Basically I was on the executive floor in a very beautiful office, and I was so bored I would close my door and go shopping on the internet.

“That’s demoralizing, really demoralizing,” he added. “Finally I said, ‘I’m out of here.’ No one can tell you how I felt except for me. And I have to say it was terrible. Terrible.”

He soon found an unlikely new home when John Sargent, the chief executive officer of Macmillan, the parent company of Henry Holt, offered him a chance to run that division. The imprint’s authors included Paul Auster and Barbara Ehrenreich, but it was generally known for being commercially timid and not generating books with large-scale financial success. A common term used to describe the firm back then was “sleepy.”

Mr. Rubin was blunt about what he needed.

“I had said to Sargent early on: ‘Look, you’re notoriously cheap, and I have the reputation of being a profligate,’” Mr. Rubin said. “‘Perhaps neither reputations are true. But you’ve got to guarantee me that you’ll support me if I want to spend a lot of money.’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’”

Mr. Sargent said Mr. Rubin had made an immediate impact.

“He infused Holt with a different energy,” Mr. Sargent said. “Steve was more focused on the big book and was more flamboyant in his pursuit of the big book, which Holt had struggled with for decades. He came in with a plan to make Holt a bigger player than it historically had been.”

Mr. Rubin’s late career resurgence may have surprised some of his peers, but not, it seems, the ones who know him best.

“He is to the book business what Clive Davis is to the music industry,” said Jonathan Karp, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster. “He is the quintessential hitmaker. If you look at his track record: John Grisham in the 1990s. Dan Brown in the 2000s. Bill O’Reilly in this decade. And now Michael Wolff.”

In the fall of 2016, the literary agent Andrew Wylie approached Holt with a book proposal from Mr. Wolff, his client. Mr. Rubin had published Mr. Wolff’s book on Rupert Murdoch, “The Man Who Owns the News,” in 2008, and he and a Macmillan editor-at-large, John Sterling, had wanted to work with Mr. Wolff for some time but had never found the right subject.

After a small auction on a book proposal that remains confidential, the two parties closed the deal on Oct. 31.

Afterward, Mr. Rubin and Mr. Sterling agreed that they should take Mr. Wolff out to celebrate. The first date they set, Nov. 8, was election night. They tried for Nov. 29, but again had to cancel. Later, they rescheduled for Dec. 13 for Vaucluse, the French restaurant on East 63rd Street.

In the meantime, Mr. Wolff had been in contact with Mr. Trump and members of the president-elect’s incoming staff, including Stephen K. Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. Mr. Bannon, in particular, expressed enthusiasm about Mr. Wolff’s having access to members of the new administration in its early months.

Suddenly, Mr. Wylie and Mr. Wolff had a new agenda for that celebratory dinner at Vaucluse.

“I didn’t want to go wide with this book,” Mr. Wolff said in an interview this month. “The last thing I wanted was at the beginning of this to have a lot of having to explain and justify and having people ask me about it. And I wanted to be under the radar, so I didn’t want to do an auction with this.

“And so when Andrew and I were discussing this,” he continued, “we said, ‘O.K., where’s the one-stop shop where we can go in and have a very likely chance that we’ll get a positive response, we’ll get a generous offer, and we won’t have to go anywhere else?’ The answer was Steve.”

Before dinner, Mr. Wolff had mentioned the possibility of discussing something other than the book that the two Holt executives had just agreed to publish. Once the three began their meal, he explained the meetings he had been having, and the possibility of an extended embedded reporting period in the White House. They spoke about how Mr. Wolff could go about reporting it, where it could begin and what kind of timetable it should follow.

Mr. Wolff told them that he would keep the two posted and reach out to them before the Christmas holiday.

“We didn’t even go back to talking about this other project again,” Mr. Wolff recalled. “They said, ‘Oh, my God, if this is possible, we want to do this.’”

On Jan. 3, 2017, about three weeks before Mr. Trump would take office, Mr. Rubin sent an email asking Mr. Wolff how things looked. Mr. Wolff responded that things were beginning to look promising. In fact, that night he planned to give a dinner party that would include Mr. Bannon and the former Fox News head Roger E. Ailes, who had advised the Trump campaign after being forced out at Fox over charges of sexual harassment. (That dinner would eventually serve as the prologue for the book.)

The next day, Mr. Wolff told Mr. Rubin and Mr. Sterling in an email that he had the go-ahead from his White House connections and the project was on. Five days later, Mr. Wolff sent Holt a short proposal for the project. On Jan. 10, both sides came to a new agreement.

“He’s the kind of guy you really want when you’re writing a book and you’re full of doubts,” Mr. Wolff said of Mr. Rubin. “Totally. You’re just looking for someone who’s upbeat and positive and thinks you can do it and doesn’t have doubts, or does and doesn’t express those doubts to you. You want an upper, not a downer.”

Mr. Wolff would need that. The process of reporting the book proved as chaotic as the Trump White House itself. There was nothing in the way of formal interviews. Mr. Wolff was simply there, a witness to the frenzied nature of an institution going through seismic changes. Originally, the plan had been to limit the scope and for Mr. Wolff to produce a book called “The Great Transition: Inside the First 100 Days of the Trump White House.” Soon, he realized that he would have to stay longer.

In August, after Mr. Bannon’s abrupt departure as Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, all agreed it was time to write.

When it came time to publish, Holt had a carefully planned rollout — beginning with a 6,700-word excerpt in New York magazine that would appear on the web on Jan. 4 at 12:01 a.m. When The Guardian, a British newspaper, managed to get its hands on a copy of the book, excerpting some of its most salacious claims in a news article posted online on Jan. 3, all the carefully made publishing plans fell apart.

By now much of the world knows what happened next. Lawyers for Mr. Trump sent Holt a letter demanding that it halt publication or else risk a libel suit that could result in “substantial monetary damages and punitive damages.” Instead, the company moved up the publishing date to Jan. 5 from Jan. 9, working with three printers to get the first run of 150,000 copies into bookstores as fast as possible. (As of this date, no libel suit has been filed against Holt.)

Within days, the book was a sensation, and Mr. Wolff was an in-demand media star, appearing on such shows as “Meet the Press,” “CBS This Morning,” “PBS NewsHour,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “The View.”

But all the publicity was not positive. Several critics pointed out some glaring factual errors, others reminded readers that Mr. Wolff’s book on Mr. Murdoch also had some missteps and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said the book was filled with “mistake after mistake after mistake.”

Later, there was a dust-up when Mr. Wolff seemed to imply on “Real Time With Bill Maher” that there were rumors of an affair between Mr. Trump and Nikki R. Haley, his ambassador to the United Nations, that he was unable to substantiate enough to include in his book. (Ms. Haley later called those rumors “highly offensive” and “disgusting.”) On Feb. 1, the “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski booted him off the program when she accused him of refusing to acknowledge making those insinuations or apologize for doing so.

“If you don’t get what we’re talking about — I’m sorry, this is awkward, you’re here on the set with us, but we’re done,” Ms. Brzezinski said. “Michael Wolff, thank you. We’re going to go to break now.”

Not unexpectedly, Mr. Rubin defends both the work and the man who has been taken to task about its questioned veracity.

“It’s a great read, but it’s very smart,” he said. “Michael’s a classy writer. People would say things like, ‘I walk out of a room with Michael Wolff in it.’ And I said, ‘Well, bully for you.’ I don’t care about that.”

If Mr. Rubin needed training in defending authors, he certainly had practice with his other great financial success at Holt: Bill O’ Reilly. There’s little doubt that Mr. O’Reilly — with whom Mr. Rubin had a publishing relationship at Doubleday Broadway going back almost 20 years — played a crucial role in helping Mr. Rubin help Holt belt out so-called big books. Under Mr. Rubin’s auspices, “Killing Lincoln,” the best-selling book Mr. O’Reilly would write alongside Martin Dugard, soared and created a series of popular (if sometimes deeply factually flawed) history books.

When evidence of multiple allegations of sexual harassment were publicly disclosed in a lengthy New York Times investigation last spring, the ramifications for Mr. O’Reilly were harsh. In the aftermath, he lost his perch on Fox News and was dropped by both United Talent Agency and William Morris Endeavor, his literary agency.

Still, Holt remains committed to publishing his works. It’s a subject that Mr. Rubin and others at the company are understandably wary of. Mr. Rubin would say only: “The corporate stance is that it’s not our job to judge our authors.”

Others defend the decision not to cut ties with Mr. O’Reilly. “Popular authors like me and Bill O’Reilly make it possible for other writers, more literary writers maybe, to get published because we bring in the revenue,” said Mr. Grisham, who remained with Mr. Rubin’s former publishing house after the executive’s departure. “It’s there for other editors to use for books that might not be as popular.”

Mr. Grisham continued: “When the O’Reilly scandal broke, I wrote Steve an email and gave my two cents. I said, ‘If Bill O’Reilly’s books are selling, then he’s got an audience. And if he has an audience, print the books, publish the books. You can’t censor the guy.’ And he said, ‘Thanks.’ He needed some support. But I knew what he was going to do. He was going to publish the books. People have done things far worse than Bill O’Reilly.”

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Rubin was joined by two members of Holt’s senior management team and Don Weisberg, the president of Macmillan, as together they looked over covers and titles for a coming sales conference. The first one in the packet was for a yet-untitled O’Reilly book.

When the group reached a page showcasing a coming book by another author, Mr. Rubin was resigned to the title, but was displeased with its red-and-black visual presentation. “If we use this jacket, I’m going to kill myself,” he declared.

“The title is going to stay,” said Maggie Richards, Holt’s vice president and deputy publisher in charge of sales and marketing. “But we’re not going to use this jacket?”

“Not on my watch,” Mr. Rubin said. “No way.”

The meeting lasted only a little over 10 minutes.

While it’s fair to say Mr. Rubin changed Holt — such quick decision-making was not always part of its DNA — Holt has also changed Mr. Rubin. Often described by many as the best-dressed man in publishing — admittedly, it’s not a high bar — Mr. Rubin has scaled things back. When a visitor expressed surprise that he was not wearing a tie and his customary cuff links when they first met, Mr. Rubin said: “I hope I’m not disappointing you.”

And despite his more casual attire — on most winter days he can be found in Bally sneakers and a zipped-up cardigan beneath his suit jacket — there remains much of the boy from the Bronx who made good and knows it. He proudly displays photographic works by Cecil Beaton, Eve Arnold and Irving Penn on his walls and still maintains a car and driver.

In truth he never let go of the trappings of the pre-Holt life. He still throws sprawling catered parties at the expansive apartment near Central Park West that he and his wife, Cynthia, who represented classical musicians and who died of lung cancer in 2010, purchased in 1998. Last month, one for Mr. Wolff attracted, among others, Ann Coulter, the former Hollywood Reporter editor Janice Min and NPR’s David Folkenflik. Another recent event there was a gathering for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which is home to the Stephen and Cynthia Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.

And he is still a man on the town, retreating to his home in Westhampton every Friday and occasionally to the flat he maintains in London. He has stayed a fixture at the opera and at the best restaurants in the city. On a recent evening, his regular dinner group — consisting of himself, Ms. Friedman, the former Times music critic John Rockwell and the food writer Moira Hodgson — ate at the Beatrice Inn in the West Village. While the food impressed him, the clamor of the hedge funders and oligarchs who have overrun every hard-to-book restaurant in Manhattan did not. A day later he fumed at the bill.

“$932 without tip for four people!” Mr. Rubin lamented. “We’re not going back there again. It was outrageous!”

Mr. Rubin remains coy about what “Fire and Fury” means for him personally, to have this kind of triumph so late in his career. Still he beams at its success and celebrates its cultural relevance.

“It’s incredibly fulfilling for me personally to have published a book I’m really proud of that has permanently altered the conversation about our presidency,” Mr. Rubin said. “And it’s selling a kajillion copies.”