'When I read something simply wonderful, I see dollar signs'

President and publisher of Henry Holt & Co Stephen Rubin is at the top of the publishing world again with the release of Michael Wolff's Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House.
President and publisher of Henry Holt & Co Stephen Rubin is at the top of the publishing world again with the release of Michael Wolff's Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
President and publisher of Henry Holt & Co Stephen Rubin is at the top of the publishing world again with the release of Michael Wolff's Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House.
Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

Publisher Stephen Rubin finds himself with Michael Wolff's Fire And Fury, that has arguably matched the heights of The Da Vinci Code and The Firm

NEW YORK • "This sounds terrible, but it's absolutely true. 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."

Sitting in his office and grinning, Mr Stephen Rubin, president and publisher of Henry Holt & Co, was recalling the first time he read the draft of the book whose final version now sits on thousands of American nightstands: 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 the top of the bestseller 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 United States President Donald Trump and his once-close ally, former White House official Steve Bannon. It 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 Mr Rubin, 76.

About nine years ago, when he left Random House - where over the years he had made 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 he now finds himself with a book that has arguably matched the heights of The Da Vinci Code and The Firm.

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, including Doubleday, at his peak holding the title of president and publisher of the larger Doubleday Broadway.

It's fulfilling to have published a book that I'm proud of, which has altered the conversation about our presidency.

MR STEPHEN RUBIN on publishing

However, in 2008, Random House, which owned Doubleday Broadway, reorganised some of its imprints and eliminated Mr Rubin's position.

In February 2009, he warily took up the post of "publisher-at-large" at the company. Though he successfully bought former US president 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," he 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 demoralising, really demoralising," he added. "Finally, I said, 'I'm out of here.'"

He soon found an unlikely new home when Mr John Sargent, 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.

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

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

Afterwards, Mr Rubin and Mr Sterling agreed that they should take 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, Wolff had been in contact with Mr Trump and members of the president-elect's incoming staff, including Mr Bannon and Ms Kellyanne Conway. Mr Bannon, in particular, expressed enthusiasm about Wolff having access to members of the new administration in its early months.

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

Before dinner, 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 Wolff could go about reporting it, where it could begin and what kind of timetable it should follow.

"We didn't even go back to talking about this other project again," Wolff recalled. "They said, 'Oh my god, if this is possible, we want to do this.'"

On Jan 3 last year, about three weeks before Mr Trump took office, Mr Rubin sent an e-mail message asking Wolff how things looked. The latter responded that in fact, that night he planned to give a dinner party that would include Mr Bannon and the late former Fox News head Roger E. Ailes, who had advised the Trump campaign. (That dinner would eventually serve as the prologue for the book.)

The next day, Wolff told Mr Rubin and Mr Sterling in an e-mail message that he had the go-ahead from his White House connections and the project was on.

Five days later, 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 want when you're writing a book and you're full of doubts," Wolff said of Mr Rubin. "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."

Wolff would need that. The process of reporting the book proved as chaotic as the Trump White House. There was nothing in the way of formal interviews. Wolff was simply there, a witness to the frenzy of an institution going through seismic changes.

Originally, the plan had been to produce a book called The Great Transition: Inside The First 100 Days Of The Trump White House. Soon, Wolff realised that he would have to stay longer.

Last 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 roll-out - beginning with a 6,700-word excerpt in New York magazine that would appear on the Web on Jan 4 at 12.01am.

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 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.

Within days, the book was a sensation. But all the publicity was not positive. Several critics pointed out some glaring factual errors.

Mr Rubin remains coy about what Fire And Fury means to him personally. "It's fulfilling to have published a book that I'm proud of, which has altered the conversation about our presidency," he said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2018, with the headline ''When I read something simply wonderful, I see dollar signs''. Print Edition | Subscribe