Save a tear for America’s premier rogue publisher
One of the great rogue publishers of the modern era died over the weekend. Michael Viner, lately of Phoenix Books, is credited with popularizing the audio book, but he’ll be most remembered for publishing the sleaziest books possible. No less than O.J. Simpson to once call him “a new kind of pimp. The pimp of a culture that makes whores out of celebrities.”
It may seem to most of us that celebrities never really needed much help with that particular transformation, but if they did, then Viner stood ready. Phoenix Books current titles include The Price: My Rise and Fall as Natalia, New York’s #1 Escort; Interview with a Cannibal: The Secret Life of the Monster of Rotenburg; and, for family values, My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem: Setting the Record Straight on My Life As Eminem’s Mother. And who says literature’s not uplifting?
Viner’s contribution to audio books was genuine. He started Dove Audio in 1984 with wife Deborah Raffin, an actress, in the garage of their Hollywood home, according to this New York Times profile from 1993. Dove books won Audie, Grammy and People’s Choice awards. Before that, Viner produced records for MGM, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s hit “Candy Man” among them.
Even at Dove, though, Viner was a shady operator, frequently sued and frequently suing. In 1997, Dove was sued by William Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, for copying Bennett’s best-selling Book of Virtues (1994) for a series of Dove knock-offs. Viner not only lost the case but received a tongue lashing from Federal Court Judge Leonard Sand, who said his testimony was “difficult to accept as fact.”
Viner, who also worked as movie and TV producer, founded New Millennium after losing control of Dove in a “boardroom coup,” but his second company was forced into bankruptcy in 2004. That’s after a court ruled the New Millennium owed famed mystery bookstore owner and publisher Otto Penzler $2.8 million for breach of contract. He founded Phoenix in 2005.
Over the course of a speckled career, Vine — who was 74 or 64, depending on the news source — published books by such paragons as Rod Blagojevich, Jayson Blair, Gene Simmons. He virtually invented the quickie O.J. book when he published Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted, by Faye Resnick, Brown’s self-described best friend.
In fairness, Viner published good books, too. I listened to many Dove audio books in the ’80s and ’90s, including Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time. Dove hired Paul Scofield to read Dickens and Poe, and Elliott Gould to read Raymond Chandler, and I listened to those, too, with more than a little gratitude as I made a grueling daily commute between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
Still, it’s Viner’s combination of energy, creativity and moral ambiguity that makes me pause and offer a salute today. He may not exactly have been a force for good, but he was a venerable American archetype — the self-made trickster-hustler-huckster. The world is a little less colorful with his passing.