The room is clammy and the food pap at the 2004 PEN annual gala, at the Pierre hotel in New York, which makes it easier to concentrate on the real purpose of the evening: gauging one's place in the literati pecking order. (Where's my seat? Where is it relative to Salman Rushdie's?) After several minutes of M.C.-ing by a tanned and bow-tied Tom Brokaw, the writer A. E. Hotchner announces this year's winner of the PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award: Barbara Parsons Lane, one of the writers in Couldn't Keep It to Myself, a collection of testimonies by women prisoners, edited by best-selling author Wally Lamb. "It is published by HarperCollins," Hotchner begins.
A glowering brunette looks like she is going to leap out of her seat. "ReganBooks!" she shouts. Judith Regan fumes. "Every fucking time we do something prestigious, they overlook us. But God forbid we do a piece of shit … " The people at her table laugh weakly and follow the standard protocol recommended by veteran Regan staffers: Just don't look her directly in the eye.
Which is not to say she doesn't have a point. Judith Regan, quite possibly the most successful woman in publishing, is also the industry's Rodney Dangerfield: she gets no respect. Fear, yes; loathing, certainly. But no respect. This year, the company that bears her name generated more than $80 million in revenue and in August had three books on the New York Times best-seller list, an extraordinary achievement for a small imprint. ReganBooks has the highest profit ratio at its parent company, HarperCollins.
"She has an incredible hit rate—she had 13 books on the best-seller list this year," says Michael J. Wolf, the managing partner of McKinsey & Company's media and entertainment practice. "Some of her success becomes this urban legend. But I do think she probably knows better than anybody today how to promote a book."
More recently she has begun to have success in the field she's been gunning for for a long time: television and movie production. She's one of the executive producers of Growing Up Gotti and was the executive producer of the docudrama based on Michael Bergin's tell-all, The Other Man: John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette and Me. It was one of the highest-rated specials of the year on A&E. Never one to miss a chance for cross-pollination, after she turned up last season as a guest judge on the finale of The Swan, she is now publishing a book on the series, The Swan Curriculum: Create a Spectacular New You with 12 Life-Changing Steps in 12 Amazing Weeks.
Regan calls herself "an average American with a two-minute attention span." But her thinking about the book world is anything but average. It was Regan who first realized that talk-radio audiences and others who seemed entirely outside the reach of literary culture would, in fact, buy books, and signed up Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and the guys from the World Wrestling Federation, all of whom became best-selling phenomenons. While she professes no personal right-wing leanings (close friends roll their eyes—"She's to the right of Genghis Khan," says one), she has endeared herself to HarperCollins owner Rupert Murdoch with her successful publishing of right-wingers such as Robert Bork and Sean Hannity and tough guys such as former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik and Iraq-war majordomo General Tommy Franks. But she goes where the money and interest are, which means she has also published Michael Moore, left-leaning Alan Colmes, and, startlingly, right before the election, Glenn W. Smith's Unfit Commander: Texans for Truth Take On George W. Bush.
Above all, while she does publish literary darlings such as Wally Lamb—an Oprah favorite—her name has become synonymous with sex, with books like last year's She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, the Jenna Jameson bio, and next year's oral history of the porn-film industry by Legs McNeil. "I don't publish pornography," she recently told The New York Times. "I publish smart books about sex. A lot of people try to imitate what I do, but they don't do it well."
Many in publishing would agree. When it comes to picking books, "Judith doesn't listen to anything or anybody," says brand-identity designer Jeff Stone, who is also the companion of HarperCollins C.E.O. Jane Friedman. "A man has a golden gut. She goes with her golden vagina."
Yet, with her enormous success, and with her company celebrating its 10-year anniversary, Judith Regan is widely known as the Angriest Woman in Media: tormented, and a tormentor—the Scott Rudin of books. As one woman who'd worked in both publishing and television production told me, "She has a pathological personality that's totally appropriate in the film business. But it doesn't exist in publishing." Several prominent agents I talked to will not take their projects to her; even some of her admirers didn't want to talk on the record, because they don't want to be anywhere on her radar.
Her friends, several of whom were prompted by Judith to contact me for this article, argue that it's not so much anger as passion—for the books, for winning—that drives her. Her enemies, who are legion, say she is (as one former friend put it) "the highest-functioning deranged person I've ever known."