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Howard Kaminsky, Publisher With a Best-Seller Sense, Dies at 77

Laurence Kirshbaum, who worked at Warner in the 1970s and ′80s, said in a telephone interview that Mr. 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. (Warner Books was part of the company that would become Time Warner.)

“Physically, Howard was a little guy,” said Mr. 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 Mr. Kaminsky dancing with the ebullient Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.


Howard Kaminsky at home in 1987.

Dith Pran/The New York Times

“We have had many commercial best sellers, of course, but this adds another first-rate editorial mind,” Robert L. Bernstein, Random House’s chairman, president and chief executive, said at the time of Mr. Kaminsky’s hiring.

One of the books Random House published during Mr. Kaminsky’s tenure was “The Art of the Deal” (1987), Mr. Trump’s account (ghostwritten by Tony Schwartz) of his rise as a real estate developer. In pursuit of the company’s deal with Mr. Trump, according to The New Yorker, Mr. Kaminsky produced a mock-up cover with large gold block lettering, which pleased Mr. Trump but prompted him to make one suggestion: “Please make my name much bigger.”

Mr. Kaminsky came to be unhappy about having published Mr. 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.”

Mr. Kaminsky’s time at Random House was not long. He was ousted after three years by Mr. Bernstein, who cited management differences. On the day of his dismissal, Mr. Kaminsky boasted that his department “will have the biggest year in its history.”

In “Newhouse” (1994), a biography of S.I. Newhouse Jr., whose family media company then owned Random House, the author, Thomas Maier, wrote that Mr. Kaminsky had approved large advances to authors without getting Mr. Bernstein’s approval.

“What was most galling to Bernstein, however,” Mr. Maier wrote, “was the persistent rumor that Kaminsky was Random House’s heir apparent, the man selected by Newhouse to lead Random House into the future. Bernstein began to believe that Kaminsky, who was not demure in speaking to the press, was the prime source of those rumors about him.”

Mr. Kaminsky would later say that he and Mr. 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 Corporation’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. Mr. Kaminsky resigned to take care of his wife, Susan Kaminsky, who had been found to have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Howard Kaminsky was born in Brooklyn on Jan. 24, 1940. His father, Arthur, was a furrier, and his mother, May (her maiden name was also Kaminsky), was a homemaker.


A novel by Howard and Susan Kaminsky.

St. Martin’s Press

After graduating from Brooklyn College, he attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he impressed a fellow student, Stacy Keach, who was just beginning his acting career.

“He was in Aristophanes’s ‘The Birds,’ playing a servant who gets tangled up in his robe as he made his entrance down a ramp,” Mr. Keach said of Mr. Kaminsky in a telephone interview. “And it was brilliant comedically. He had all the physical skills of a Chaplin or a Keaton. So I went backstage to meet him and praise him. And he never acted again.”

Mr. Kaminsky began his career at Random House selling the rights to the company’s hardcovers to paperback publishers; briefly worked as a screenwriter; and returned to publishing at Paperback Library, as Warner Books was initially known.

“Howard never asked me for favors vis-à-vis climbing up the ladder,” the comic actor, writer and filmmaker Mel Brooks, his older cousin, said in a statement. “He did it all by himself. Before I could turn around, he was the head of Random House.”

In 1979, Mr. Kaminsky began writing novels with his wife, the former Susan Stanwood, who died in 2008. They published two books under the pseudonym Brooks Stanwood (the given name was lifted from Mr. Brooks, who had changed his surname from Kaminsky), one under the pseudonym Arthur Reid and two others under their own names.

“Howard has a great story sense,” Ms. Kaminsky said as she and her husband were interviewed on PBS by Charlie Rose in 2003 while promoting “The Storyteller,” the book that used the Reid name. Explaining how they worked together, she said that Mr. Kaminsky had the idea, from which they develop a scenario, after which “we each write separate chapters, and they’re changed as they’re written.”

She added, “It’s our fifth book, so we’ve really learned to have the same voice.”

On his own, Mr. Kaminsky wrote “Angel Wings” (2013), a police procedural set in Providence, R.I.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by two grandchildren and his partner, Ewa Zadrzynska-Glowacka, whose former husband, the Polish playwright Janusz Glowacki, died this month.

The Kaminskys were paid about $800,000 for the hardcover, paperback and film rights to their first book, “The Glow” (1979), about a young couple in Manhattan who move into a building inhabited by a fiendish cult. Warner Books, which he was running at the time, did not bid for the book; publishing your own book there, he said, was taboo.

“If you did,” Mr. Kaminsky told The New York Times, “people would say things like `Howard is spending all his time on his own book.’ ”

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