Michael A. Viner brought Hollywood to the once-staid audio book business -- Burt Reynolds reading best-selling mysteries and Gregory Peck sonorously reciting the New Testament.
Viner also brought a tougher side of Hollywood to publishing, with litigious dealmaking and a fascination with the lower forms of celebrity. He published books about or by O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, and, most recently, indicted former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Along the way, Viner (pronounced VEE-ner) made and lost a lot of money and left a trail of admirers who were at times unsettled by his actions, as well as enemies who freely admitted to admiring his business instincts. Viner died in Beverly Hills on August 8 of cancer. He was 65.
"He was absolutely loved and totally hated," says Julie Chrystyn, president of Phoenix Books, a company that controls many of the assets developed during Viner's publishing career. "He came. He wreaked havoc. He left."
Viner worked as a political operative and a music producer before launching his first spoken book venture, Dove Audio, in the mid-1980s with his then wife, actress Deborah Raffin, and playwright-screenwriter-novelist Sidney Sheldon. Viner often told the story of winning $8,000 from Sheldon at backgammon and persuading his friend to pay off the bet with audio rights to some of his bestsellers.
Viner's verve helped lift the audio book industry to $1 billion in sales. He had a sixth sense for turning headlines into books and used an iron will to rush audio and print volumes to market while the public's interest was still keen. When Viner heard about Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie, his immediate reaction was to try to secure audio rights to Rushdie's offending book, The Satanic Verses.
The audio book business is simple: Obtain rights to an existing book, preferably a bestseller, and hire a golden-throated reader. Viner and Raffin had Hollywood connections. So, Lee Remick, Roger Moore, and Roddy McDowall all read Sidney Sheldon novels. Ben Kingsley read H.G. Wells's work, and Glenda Jackson recited Jane Austen's. Viner also published original print volumes. Faye Resnick's Nicole Brown Simpson was perhaps his biggest seller. "He profited millions off that," Chrystyn says. "He had a sense of what was marketable in a 15-minute time frame."
Viner sold Dove Audio when it expanded too fast and ran into financial problems. A second company, New Millennium, declared bankruptcy in 2003 soon after Otto Penzler, a book editor and bookstore owner, won a $2.8 million judgment against the company. Viner had packaged a collection of short stories, edited by Penzler, so that it appeared to be David Baldacci's latest novel. "I never collected a dime," Penzler says. He had signed up to work with Viner even after hearing of the publisher's reputation for being difficult. Why do it? "He was a really smart guy," Penzler says.