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A publishing giant talks about Marlon Brando and Monica Lewinsky

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In his new memoir, ”Another Life,” Michael Korda, the editor in chief of publishing giant Simon & Schuster, tells the story of his 40-year career in the book biz. The memoir is full of charming portraits of writers he’s worked with, including Tennessee Williams, Harold Robbins, mobster Joseph Bonanno, and Ronald Reagan. Korda recently spoke to EW Online about today’s celebrity culture, books and the Internet, and Monica Lewinsky.

Is celebrity culture today out of hand?
Not out of hand, exactly, but I do think the celebrity industry is so huge and its need for celebrities is so great that it turns into celebrities people who have done nothing to merit the attention.

What role have books played in doing that?
Less and less. I think the industry has learned that celebrity by itself doesn’t sell books. Whoopi Goldberg is a celebrity, and her book failed. Marlon Brando is a great celebrity, and his book failed. Shelly Winters isn’t as great a celebrity, but her book was a hoot and a great read. The person has to tell something about himself for a book to sell, and readers can somehow tell when it’s not there. Ronald Reagan was as popular as can be, but readers knew his book wasn’t going to say anything.

Are you surprised that the Monica Lewinsky book sold as well as it did?
No. The question isn’t whether you can sell something — you can always sell something — but what price you had to pay to buy it. Is she worth $250,000? $500,000? More? I would think that at $500,000, you could have done quite well. Of course, we were never interested, since we publish Hillary Clinton, and it wouldn’t have looked right.

The Internet is changing the way people buy books. Is it going to change the way writers write or readers read?
No, I don’t think so. There’ve been a lot of changes over the years, but we still read books that were written on papyrus and parchment. It doesn’t get much credit, but the book was actually a pretty smart invention. It’s portable. You don’t need batteries.

How in a culture dominated by television and the Internet does a book manage to matter?
Well, lots of books don’t matter. Only a few every year do. The world has a way of figuring out which ones they are.

When you look at what’s been published recently, what do you see that encourages you about the future of the book industry?
The success of ”Cold Mountain.” The fact that this very literary, very difficult first novel by a completely unknown writer went to No. 1. You know, anyone would be happy to publish the next Danielle Steel novel, but that doesn’t take much skill or foresight. But to take a ”Cold Mountain,” or ”Into Thin Air,” or ”A Perfect Storm,” and to make them work — that’s wonderful.

Who do you wish would write his/her memoirs that has exhibited no interest in doing so?
Cybil Shepherd could write a wonderful book, but I don’t think she really wants to. Claus von Bulow could, but won’t. Probably wisely. A memoir by Jacqueline Onassis would have been fascinating, as would Teddy Kennedy’s, if he could muster the objectivity and personal feeling. Billy Wilder’s memoirs would be savage and funny and smart.

Finish this sentence: ”I try to keep an open mind, but I groan whenever I see a proposal about… ”
The Mafia. I see a lot of them. Unless it’s by Nick Pileggi, I’m not interested.