Controversial Eisner bio finds home despite Disney

Was it an angry mouse that spiked Kim Masters' book on Michael Eisner, or was it just her first editor's hubris?

Topics: Disney, Books,

Last Wednesday, publisher William Morrow announced that it had picked up Kim Masters’ controversial Michael Eisner biography, “Keys to the Kingdom.” Masters, a Time and Vanity Fair contributor, has had major difficulties with her profile of the Walt Disney Corp. CEO. Broadway Books editor John Sterling bought the book for a hefty $700,000 advance in 1995, but his firm spiked it under mysterious circumstances last spring.

Like most authors, Masters delivered her manuscript piecemeal, which gave Broadway Books (an imprint of Random House) a chance to peruse its investment on the installment plan. Last spring, however, Sterling left the house to become president and publisher of Henry Holt & Co. leaving the book to another editor, Charles Conrad. Despite the fact that the book had gone through a series of edits, and was praised in Broadway’s spring 1999 catalog as “brilliantly reported,” the publisher suddenly turned on it. William Shinker, then president of Broadway Books, called the bio “unacceptable.” Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum said that his company rejected it “because we found the author’s reporting to be sadly inadequate.”

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But Morrow executive editor Henry Ferris has a different opinion. “The reporting is top-rate,” Ferris told Salon Books. “It’s every bit as good as what she delivers for Vanity Fair, if not better.” Masters’ book is said to include recent material about Eisner’s legal feud with his former protigi Jeffrey Katzenberg.

So why do the two publishers have such disparate takes on “Keys”? One theory holds that Masters’ original deal with Broadway was a classic example of editorial hubris and media narcissism: too much money paid for a book that’s unlikely to interest a general readership. The size of the advance and the aura of Hollywood power surrounding the book’s subject are the kind of things that impress an editor’s colleagues but not the average book buyer. When Sterling left Broadway, cooler heads may have prevailed and the publisher decided to cut its losses.

Another more intricate theory is advanced by Masters, who claims that Shinker admitted to her that he had received a “shot across the bow” phone call from Disney, demanding the book’s cancelation. (Shinker has denied that he received such a call.) The external pressure may have been prompted by the desire to smooth an impending deal between Disney and Broadway’s parent company, Bertelsmann A.G., in which Bertelsmann wanted to buy some German television stations from Disney. (The Bertelsmann/Disney deal is still pending.) Random House has vehemently denied any interference on the part of Disney.

In May, Masters hired Hollywood lawyer Bert Fields to argue that Random House should allow her to keep her advance. “I think we will be able to prove that they are killing it out of deference to Disney,” Fields told the New York Post in May. Random House and Masters settled out of court last week, with the stipulation that neither party discuss the case further in public. “The situation has been amicably settled,” Masters told Salon Books.

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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