Shock and Awe at HarperCollins! Judith Regan Ousted 21st Century-Style—Frog-Marched!

The publisher arrives at her office and boots up her computer. Her password doesn’t work. No big deal she thinks, those security-obsessed IT guys must be making everybody change passwords yet again. She reaches for the phone to tell them she is being denied access. Strange, she thinks, that she should have to leave a voicemail message. She’s so important and no one is responding to the neon flashing of her name in Caller ID.regan jewish question.JPG

She shuffles around her office, sipping her latte, fairly paralyzed without access to her computer and fuming because she can’t get to her email. At some point she notices the sound of cardboard boxes being dragged across carpeting and down the corridor between the cubicles. The sound grows nearer and louder.    Ah-hah, she thinks, at last they are getting rid of that #$@%^ down the hall. But no, the sound of sliding boxes inches ever closer. Good heavens, she wonders, why in the world are they are stopping outside my door?

Yep, it’s Judith Regan’s turn to be frog-marched to the curb. 

Frog-march: to seize from behind roughly and forcefully propel forward –Merriam Webster Online Dictionary.
In the Wicked Witch’s experience frog-marching usually involves two hulking guys on either side of you, practically lifting you off the ground by your elbows while your feet go through the motions of walking. Not unlike the frantic paw action of the family dog being lowered into the swimming pool.
Did Judith Regan make anti-Semitic cracks? According to The New York Times yesterday, Rupert Murdock personally ordered Judith Regan’s ousting. Not, evidently, because of the O. J. Simpson book debacle over If I Did It, but because of comments Ms. Regan made in a phone conversation “with a company lawyer on Friday that…were deemed anti-Semitic….” Slurs are never justified, but are utterly incomprehensible in a milieu where many of your colleagues, not to mention most of your bosses, are Jewish. (Here, let me hand you your own gun to commit professional suicide.) 

Actually, her surprise suggests to me that Regan didn’t consider her comments anti-Semitic. Or at least didn’t intend them to be. It seems hard to believe that somebody could have gotten as far as she has without being politically astute enough to know better than to offend her bosses. And in today’s New York Times (Tuesday, December 19th, 2006), she defends herself, saying that her comments were misinterpreted and that an attorney for HarperCollins, Mark Jackson, who took contemporaneous notes during their conversation, got it wrong. (Watch out for those contemporaneous notes! In the ghastly Bela Szigethy v. Lynne Scanlon three-week trial that took place at this time last year in New Jersey, all my personal emails and contemporaneous notes, even those written in pencil in the corners of documents over a TWENTY year period were considered evidence and subpoenaed. They held enormous weight. Luckily, they supported my position. No smoking gun there! Whoops, there I go again! Sorry!) 
Quick to insert the deadly shiv, Jackson conveyed details of the conversation to Judith Regan’s boss, Jane Friedman, HarperCollins’ president and chief executive, and a woman with an already “testy” relationship with Regan. (Testy? How polite!) I’m sure Friedman’s toe began to tap under the desk as Jackson related the “heated conversation” between Regan and himself, and the just-this-side-of “hateful tirade” as it was described in yesterday’s New York Times (Monday, December 18 th, 2006).  I’ll bet Jane Friedman smiled to herself while sharpening her shiv. “Dead man walking.” Friedman picked up the phone and called her boss, Rupert Murdoch. (No surprise there.) Let the frog-marching begin.
Who was that person cartwheeling through the halls of HarperCollins today? Jane Friedman? 

Whatever Happened to Two Weeks Notice? No can do. Not anymore. In this electronic age, cordially firing (or, euphemistically, “letting someone go”) and allowing that person to take two weeks to “tie up loose ends” is a huge mistake. That’s why frog-marching is de rigueur these days. You have to stun the employee and toss her out before she regains control of her faculties…and weapons.

If you allow a cashiered employee to build up a head of resentful steam while still on the premises and while still having access to a computer, free postage via the mail room, and access to the company’s internal computerized address lists, you’ll find the company underwriting a scorned viper who can, and mostly likely will, spew venomous lies (not to mention a few truths!) about the company, its employees, vendors and clients. And let’s not forget about having to watch the employee steal as many office supplies as she can hide under her coat or pack into those cardboard boxes that she will be dragging down the hall over the course of two whole weeks.

True anecdote: A friend who worked for a Fortune 500 company in Connecticut arrived late for work one day. While walking from his car, he noticed the name of a vice-president being painted over on his reserved parking space. When my friend met the fellow in the hall a few minutes later and asked him what was going on, my friend realized that that was the first the poor sap knew that he was being fired. The guy was gone within the hour.

The same reason for a preemptive frog-march applies to employees who give the company notice. Throw them out in the nicest way, of course. They’re not happy or they wouldn’t be leaving. No work gets done that benefits the company during that time period AND company loyalty crumbles.

Planning to quit? Better to make all those copies and wipe out your hard drive before you give notice. 

Judith Regan never saw it coming! 

“…a stunned Ms. Regan was confronted by security guards who arrived with boxes and ordered her to leave….” “This came completely out of the blue,” one executive said. “She was completely taken by surprise.” 

Ms Regan is stunned that she got herself summarily dismissed. I can’t believe she didn’t give her office a quick once-over after the O.J. Simpson deal exploded in her face and begin to move out personal items, including that photo of her cat or dog from the credenza behind her desk. Just in case. (How many times have you thought about how fast you might have to pack up? How many times have you sneaked personal items back into the office, having been spared the firing squad?) 

Conventional wisdom is that you can get away with almost anything when you’ve got the numbers. She published political books like Herding Cats by Trent Lott, nose-pinching books like How to Make Love Like a Porn Star by Jenna Jameson and Neil Straus, as well as a National Book Award Finalist, The Zero, by Jess Walter. If you’ve got the numbers, you’ve got the clout – or so it seemed. Turns out that in the end, everyone is expendable, even Judith Regan. Perhaps the News Corporation and Jane Friedman ultimately decided they disliked Regan more as a person than they liked her as a rainmaker. 

When I was at AdWeek AKA A/S/M Communications and occasionally had to let ad space sales reps go, I often took the kind route with a couple of warnings or a difficult lunch or two where I stressed shaping up and getting better numbers. If that didn’t inspire the employee to work harder or better, then I gave two weeks notice to “move on to an area for which they were better suited.” That was then, this is now, as they say. The last time I let someone go, I had him frog-marched — but, hey, he deserved it. Just ask the people who sat in on the meeting where he maligned the president of the company (who was absent, of course, from the meeting.) And was he a little critical of me? Not smart. My toe tapped under the table and I, too, thought happily: “Dead man walking.”

Pass me the stun-gun.

Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): I’ve been running around like crazy all week attending parties (did you see my px with Ron Hogan and Sarah Weinman at the Galleycat party in NYC?), meeting Eric Meola and Barbara Bordnick (fab photographers) at book signings, seeing the movie the Misfits a few rows back from that legend, 91-year-old Eli Wallach, and generally…running amok. I’ll fill you in on the social networking whirl next week!

19 Responses to “Shock and Awe at HarperCollins! Judith Regan Ousted 21st Century-Style—Frog-Marched!”

  1. Bernita Says:

    Am feeling a certain shock ‘n awe myself.


    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Hi, Bernita, thanks for checking in from Ontario!

  2. Andrew O'Hara Says:

    At least they didn’t just set the .45 on her desk and close the door. No one knows what the lass said, but worse for her is that no one really seems to care.

    Pathetically, there really aren’t any losers in these soap operas, anyway. We peons would like to think the sharks are eating sharks but, like Martha Stewart, Ms. Regan is really laughing all the way to the bank (in a frog march).

  3. Bonnie Calhoun Says:

    I personally did the pee pee dance with glee. It couldn’t have happened to a “nicer ” person.

    It just goes to show that no one but the owner is exempt from the shiv! I know Judith’s not hurting for money, so it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

    Is there another publisher out there who is driven enough by the almighty dollar to hire her? Or will she form her own publishing company, and not miss a step? Only time will tell.

    Merry Christmas Lynne!

  4. Dave Newton Says:

    And now we know…what it takes…to get fired by Rupert Murdoch. Of course, there is a precedent. The sensationalist chief programmer of Fox Television was famously sacked after uttering a raunchy line at a ratings victory party with M. and Mme. Murdoch present. His career flourished, and so will Judy’s. And so will Ms. Friedman’s. It’s O.J. who’s gonna hurt. Always the writer….

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Good column…. (although that pink slip was showing right after the Regan/OJ fiasco…). She made a really dumb and tasteless publishing decision there and now she’s paying for it. I reckon the other stuff’s just a “front” to prevent her from suing HC.

  6. Dave Newton Says:

    Smart and tasteless, Anon. Nobody believes shooting low is dumb.

  7. Lynne Says:

    This is pretty funny–in a cruel sort of way!

    Judith Regan wearing her new work uniform:

  8. Bob Marich Says:

    I think the untold story is Regan’s payment for O.J. may have been structured to avoid O.J.’s creditors, involving HarperCollins directly in a questionable activity. This goes beyond engaging in free speech.

    Another lesson is that this proves with the OJ book that there is such a book as a best seller that is better untouched.

  9. Mad Kane Says:

    Great post!

    I just knew her dismissal couldn’t have been caused by the O.J. book brouhaha. After all, she was only giving her employer exactly what it wanted from her.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Madeleine is a humor columnist living in NYC!

  10. Lisa Says:

    Hmm. I read recently that someone had written a Devil Wears Prada-style book about Judith Regan called Because She Can, but it wasn’t slated to come out till summer, when much of the hoopla will have died down. Wonder if it’ll be fast-tracked?

  11. David Thayer Says:

    Lynne, When Bush fired Rumsfeld there was a bizarre little ceremony in the Oval Office. (It created closure for me: I remember crying.) I think Queen Victoria wanted to fire Disraeli in a similar fashion with armored Hussars firing a salute.

    The News Corporation owed Regan a better send-off along the lines of a Steinbrenner-Billy Martin-type news conference where minor injuries required immediate attention. Judith might have headlocked Rupert or at least knocked the podium over.

    The consequences for readers seem serious. What of Jenna Jameson’s literary career? What will we read now?

  12. Robert Says:

    I’ll lay 2-1 that Ms. Regan pops up again soon – perhaps St. Martin’s?

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): I don’t know about St. Martin’s Press. They are quite prestigious and might not like the association. (Actually, they are my old publisher.) 

  13. Therese Fowler Says:

    Hi Lynne,

    I’ve read a lot of Regan news but your post is the best! Made me laugh out loud–AND feel fortunate to be working on the creative side of the industry (i.e. from my writing desk at home) where the only people who could frog-march me anywhere are my husband and teen-age sons. (Probably I’m safe…but I s’pose one never knows!)

  14. Frazer Says:

    Okay, I’ve stopped laughing long enough to point out that St. Martin’s used to enjoy a well-earned reputation for schlock, but that era has largely passed. Ever since St. Martin’s hooked up with VHPS, they’ve been in the company of Henry Holt and (later) FSG, and St. Martin’s now includes well-respected imprints like Picador. Some of VHPS’s recent books include “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson, Ron Rash’s astonishing “The World Made Straight,” Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” Andrea Levy’s “Small Island,” and, oh yeah, “Echo Maker” by Richard Powers, which won the National Book Award this year. Sure, they still print some crap–what publisher doesn’t?–but my bet in the Where Will She Land? sweepstakes goes to Random House, who pretends to be the snootiest and most literary house and yet publishes the likes of Ann Coulter.

    Now excuse me–I have to get back to my riotous laughter (hey, retail in December, ya gotta take your yuks where you find ‘em).

  15. Anonymous Says:

    >>Planning to quit? Better to make all those copies and wipe out your hard drive before you give notice.

    After I gave notice at my last job, in total good faith I reviewed every single one of the ten thousand emails in my Outlook and one thousand documents on my hard drive and filed, forwarded and deleted until there was no stone left unturned and no loose end to tie up — and not one message or document left. What do you think they did the minute I left? Restored them from backup to their original magnificence.

    So, Lynne, I say to your readers: don’t bother wiping out your hard drive. It’ll look suspicious. Better off pilfering office supplies if that’s what floats your boat.

  16. delilah Says:

    The second the OJ deal tanked, Judith should have hit her local Officemax to buy moving supplies. No way was a bigtime publisher — who, of course, would have happily cashed the checks to what I believe, based on the crap the American public wallows in, would have been a runaway bestseller — going to take a direct hit on their image. Judith Regan was toast and everyone, except her (apparently) knew it.

    Or maybe she did know and hastened the inevitable by refusing to change her behavior, a behavior that was tolerable as long as the bucks were rolling in, and then was deemed shocking and unacceptable when things turned south.

    Assuming the stories about anti-semitism are true, her behavior is beneath contempt. But just for a second, let us try to imagine what it takes for a woman to reach the level in the (I’m only guessing since I’m not a publishing professional) dog-eat-dog, male-dominated world of big publishing. Intelligence and great vision are a given, as, do I believe balls to rival those of an elephant. Would she have achieved her lofty position had she been a deferential, feminine woman who feared offending others? And when things were going swimmingly for her imprint, did the big guns ever demand that she turn it down a notch? I have no idea what the answers to these questions might be.

    Like the Mafia always says right before putting a bullet in the back of your head: “It’s nothing personal; just business.” I’m guessing a savvy publishing professional like Judith Regan understands that and will move on.

    Regan, I predict, will land on her feet. Hopefully, when she does, she’ll have a filter installed between her brain and her mouth. She’s obviously talented at what she does, but she ain’t no Howard Stern.

  17. Lynne Says:

    Update: “Regan Books to Shut Down After Firing of Its Creator,” The New York Times, Thursday, January 18, 2007.

    The contract with O. J. Simpson was signed by Judith Regan AND Jane Friedman, president and chief executive of HarperCollins… “Through a spokeswoman, Ms. Friedman declined to comment on the contract or the closing of Regan Books; she has been noticeably silent throughout the controversy. [Having accomplished her mission, no doubt!]


  18. Tana McDonald Says:

    I can’t believe Regan was so autonomous that she could set up this kind of deal with this kind of money without the approval of others. She would have had to consult lawyers to find a way to pay OJ, and she surely would have had to run it by somebody. she wasn’t using her own money, after all.

    They had to find a reason to fire her, lest she find a reason to sue them. She was set up. Methinks that they are hoping that the Goldmans’ and courts will be satisfied by their sacrifice of her body and so won’t demand to know how this project was put together. If there hadn’t been an uproar, Rupert would have had no problems with Ms Regan.

    I’m glad she’s gone. Her tabloid publishing style sickens me. What she does is not really publishing anyway. It’s putting out the trash.

  19. Russell Bittner Says:


    As always, quite amusingly written. You’re a true rainmaker with the prose—not that we need any more of THAT wet stuff this rainy Monday morning in NYC!


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