Read an Excerpt from Turning Pages

Go behind the scenes of the publishing industry.

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You may not know the name John Sargent, but you certainly know the books he's published. Sargent spent 40 years in the publishing business, and 24 of those years running one of America's largest publishing companies. From publishing controversial titles to warring with Amazon and President Donald Trump, Sargent has endless incredible anecdotes about some of the biggest moments in publishing.

One of the many memorable moments in Sargent's career was the decision to publish Monica Lewinsky's book, Monica's Story. Click below to read an excerpt about his contentious choice.




Turning Pages: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Publisher

By John Sargent


Monica and the Ever-Changing Tide

In the late nineties the country was prosperous, and Bill Clinton was a generally admired president. He was plagued by a series of scandals, though, and a special prosecutor was named to investigate the Clintons’ real estate dealings. That investigation led in turn to a series of allegations about sexual harassment, and eventually ended with charges against the president for perjury. The Republicans were righteously offended, while the Democrats and most of the press called it a witch hunt.

The perjury charge was based on Clinton’s responses to questions about sexual relations with a twenty-four-year-old White House intern. When her name surfaced, Monica Lewinsky was taken away to a safe house by the FBI. The country was appalled and fascinated. Nobody knew who she was, or what she would say, but public opinion was brutally negative, and she was scorched in the press. 

Monica decided to tell her story in a book, and she chose Andrew Morton to write it. Andrew was a charming guy and a good storyteller5. Armed with Andrew and heavy security, Monica came to New York to meet with publishers.

Sally Richardson, the president and publisher of St. Martin’s Press, Bob Wallace, the editor in chief, and I went to meet Monica in a midtown conference room. She was full of energy, smart, and earthy. But what was astonishing was the fact that she was there in the first place. All of America was wondering who she was, and we were sitting across the table talking with her. She had some good stories about the president, and as she talked, I wondered if she had been in love with him, and more importantly, if she still was. It dawned on me that I could ask her. “Do you still love him?”

She paused, tears welled, and she replied, “I think so, yes.” Oh my.

We took a cab back down to the office, full of excitement and plans. Monica had been clear that she needed the book to be a financial success; she would need money for what lay ahead. But it was more than that: she wanted people to know her side of the story. She had promised to do whatever she could to promote her book, and herself. We discussed a Barbara Walters special, the ratings champion of the day. Bob, before coming to work at SMP, had been a journalist and a producer for ABC News. I asked him if he thought Barbara would do the show, how he thought it would go, and what sort of lift it would give this particular book. His reply was succinct: “She will do it, the ratings will be huge, and if Barbara gets her to cry on air, we will sell tons of books.”

A few days later the agent ran an auction for the rights to publish the book. The heavy bidding was between just two publishers, which was a surprise. We lost. But the next day the agent called. Owing to internal pressures based on Monica’s unpopularity, the winning publisher had backed out. Would we still be interested? Yes, we would.

When we announced that we would be publishing Monica’s Story by Monica Lewinsky, the reaction was swift. The president of one of our publishing companies called me to say we should not publish the book. The head of our college textbook company called to say professors were angry, and we were losing course adoptions because of it. Agents called. Employees complained. My neighbors stopped me on the street to admonish me. The guy next door took me to task for several minutes after which he asked, “Have you actually met her?” Hearing that I had, he asked me what she was like, and what was she wearing. I nicely suggested to him that if he thought it was so wrong to publish her book, why was he so curious?

A few days later I flew to Germany for a board meeting. My boss, Dieter von Holtzbrinck, asked me in the politest manner if I would consider not publishing the book. I could see the distress on his face and the tension in his body. I apologized for the embarrassment I had obviously caused, but I was unequivocal that we would proceed. Dieter took measure of my response, nodded his head, and we went on to the next topic.

Sally and Bob were determined to go forward, and so was I. But the questions and complaints just kept coming. Going against public opinion is lonely when you hold the final decision, and I began to feel it. Looking for another point of view, I called Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and asked him what he thought. His response was immediate. “She will be a historical figure, and her book should be published.” We kept at it. 

Monica and Andrew Morton wrote a good book, and St. Martin’s did a good job publishing it. Barbara Walters wanted the first interview, and she cleared network airtime on the last night of January 1999, just hours before the book would go on sale. Halfway through the interview, Barbara asked a sentimental question, and Monica teared up briefly. Bob was right. The interview won Barbara the highest ratings of her career; with seventy million viewers, it was one of the most watched interviews of all time. The next morning there were lines in front of bookstores across the country. The morning news showed the lines and talked about the book that caused them. The phones were ringing off the hook. Monica’s Story sold out across America that day and would go on to be one of the biggest books of the year.

Monica stayed in touch for a bit. She was constantly hounded by the press and tormented by an angry public. She led a strange life that year. The stories she told me about going on a few hard-to-get dates, and what would happen, were funny. They were also so very sad. She was proud of her book, and we were proud to have published it. Love her or hate her, she got to tell her story, and that is how it should be.

In hindsight, most people now see Monica in a different light. The cultural view of the events of those days, and her part in them, has shifted over time; it is hard to know how history will judge those who put themselves forward. Independent of lofty First Amendment debate, people, even those who are out of favor, have the right to have their voices heard. At times that makes publishing decisions extremely difficult, and on rare occasions it has made being a publisher a dangerous profession.

5Andrew Morton’s last book, a biography of Princess Diana, had been an enormous success. Only after the book was published did it become clear that Diana had worked with him from the beginning, and the book was in some way a cry for help.

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Turning Pages: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Publisher

By John Sargent