Howard Kaminsky, publisher with a best-seller sense, dies
Howard Kaminsky, who honed his instincts for publishing commercially successful books at scrappy Warner Books and parlayed that sense into high-level positions at Random House and Hearst, died Aug. 26 in New York. Kaminsky, whose authors included Richard M. Nixon and Donald Trump, was 77.
His daughter Jessica Kaminsky said the cause was a heart attack.
Brash and witty, Kaminsky developed his reputation at Warner with best sellers like Never-Say-Diet (1980), by Richard Simmons; Megatrends (1982), by John Naisbitt; sequels to The Happy Hooker, by the former madam Xaviera Hollander; potboiler fiction by Andrew Greeley, a Roman Catholic priest; the paperback edition of Judith Krantz’s Scruples; and novels by Nelson DeMille.
But his best-known deal was certainly the one that Warner made with a recently disgraced former president: Barely six weeks after Nixon resigned in 1974, Kaminsky signed him to an estimated $2.5 million deal to write his memoirs.
Warner subsequently sold the hardcover rights to Grosset & Dunlap, which pub- lished RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon in 1978.
Laurence Kirshbaum, who worked at Warner in the 1970s and 80s, said in a telephone interview that Kaminsky had been an entrepreneurial, risk-taking executive as the company grew quickly from a mass-market publisher of genre paperbacks to one that also competed heavily to sign major hardcovers.
“Physically, Howard was a little guy,” said Kirshbaum, a longtime publishing executive who is now an agent. “And he loved being an iconoclast who didn’t care about corporate politics.”
He recalled Kaminsky dancing with the ebullient Simmons in the publisher’s office, “frolicking” with Norman Mailer in a pool at a sales conference and schmoozing with Nixon at a book party.
Kaminsky was lured to Random House in 1984 and named publisher and chief executive of its trade department — a significantly larger but more sedate realm than the one he was running at Warner. Random House had hardcover imprints like Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon Books and published Ballantine paperbacks.
“We have had many commercial best sellers, of course, but this adds another firstrate editorial mind,” Robert Bernstein, Random House’s chairman, president and chief executive, said at the time of Kaminsky’s hiring.
One of the books Random House published during Kaminsky’s tenure was The Art of the Deal (1987), Trump’s account (ghostwritten by Tony Schwartz) of his rise as a real estate developer. In pursuit of the company’s deal with Trump, according to The New Yorker, Kaminsky produced a mock-up cover with large gold block lettering, which pleased Trump but prompted him to make one suggestion: “Please make my name much bigger.”
Kaminsky came to be unhappy about having published Trump’s book, his daughter said. And when its sequel, Surviving at the Top, was published three years later, he told The Washington Post: “A lot of the yuppies that bought the first book were looking at Trump as, perish the thought, an icon. Now they probably don’t have jobs or can’t afford to buy the book.”
Kaminsky’s time at Random House was not long. He was ousted after three years by Bernstein, who cited management differences. On the day of his dismissal, Kaminsky boasted that his department “will have the biggest year in its history.”
Kaminsky would later say that he and Bernstein had kept disagreeing on strategy. He told Business Week that the situation between them had become like a “compost heap: If it generates enough heat, it’ll catch fire.”
But he recovered quickly. Two months later he was hired by the Hearst’s trade book group, which included William Morrow and Avon Books. But by 1994 the unit had hit a downturn, and some of its top writers, like David Halberstam and Ken Follett, had left. Kaminsky resigned to take care of his wife, Susan Kaminsky, who had been found to have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.