Fire and Fury and Us

Once, long ago, we consoled each other about the difficulties of starting out in the writing and publishing business. Back then, I learned the curiously Manhattan term, “unspeakable,” from him. Nowadays we are old hands, but Steve Rubin (the slightly older hand), is at the very top of the game, having published Michael Wolff’s blockbuster, Fire and Fury, as longtime publisher of Bill O’Reilly’s best sellers, and tastemaker (Atul Gawande, for example). As the top guy at Henry Holt, he took some time off recently from counting the company’s money to reunite, to discuss our formative years and the publishing business nowadays about which he has both optimism and a narrative of his own furies. About Fire and Fury, he told me that he and Wolff were bouncing ideas off of each other, but then when the author wiggled his way into the White House (why on earth did the Trumpeters let him do that?), the book possibility became clear. “I would have had to be an idiot not to know that,” Steve said. And yet, though I’ve never thought of him as a particularly modest guy, he confessed that his staff at Holt is responsible for other publishing success. For example, the recent bestseller about the life of prairie pioneer Laura Ingalls came in as a manuscript that he dismissed, until the staff convinced him otherwise. He lamented that a great new book about Richard Avedon may become a commercial failure because so many people have no idea who the photographer was. He told me other stories that reminded me (as if I needed reminding) of the subjective nature of this business, and, in the end, gave me a bagful of upcoming titles, including what will no doubt knock others off the best-seller list, a biography of Robin Williams. As we said our goodbyes, we complained about the odd combination of sharp mental capacity and old bones. Two guys on a park bench comparing prescriptions.

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