Skip to content

Disney Book Is Good News for Publishers

Eisner in 2001 about writing a book about the Walt Disney Company , but was turned away. Two years later Mr. Stewart, a Pulitzer-prize winning author, came calling again. And this time, after a dinner in New York, Mr. Eisner did not say no, noting that Disney was on the upswing and he personally had nothing to hide.

“There’s no point in doing something if it’s not fun,” Mr. Stewart wrote in “DisneyWar: The Battle for the Magic Kingdom,” recalling what Mr. Eisner told him as he dropped him near his apartment. “So let’s have fun with this book.”

It is doubtful that Mr. Eisner, Disney’s chief executive, is having much fun now. But for another group of executives, “DisneyWar” is seen as good news. Book publishers hope that Mr. Stewart’s book and the upcoming “Conspiracy of Fools,” a book about the scandal at Enron written by Kurt Eichenwald, a reporter for The New York Times , signal a return of a longtime industry staple: the best-selling business narrative.

In the last few years, business book publishing has been dominated by autobiographies like Jack Welch’s “Straight from the Gut,” and management how-to manuals like “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins. It is a far cry from the 1980’s and early 1990’s, when gripping must-reads about Wall Street, like Mr. Stewart’s “Den of Thieves,” Connie Bruck’s “The Predators’ Ball” and “Barbarians at the Gate,” by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar dominated the best-seller lists.

But books about business scandals have fared poorly among readers in recent years and the reason is twofold, publishing executives said. A hyperactive business media, including television, radio and newspapers, have picked over most of the details of a story well before those books hit stores. And in the case of the 2001 merger of AOL and Time Warner , shelves were saturated with books within months of each other, making it harder for any to stand out.

The first to be published in June of 2003, “Stealing Time,” sold only 9,200 hardcover books, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks 70 percent of hardcover sales. The last, “Fools Rush In,” which was published seven months later, sold only 5,000 hardcover copies. Even the much-anticipated book about Enron, “The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron,” fell short of expectations when it sold 48,000 hardcover copies, according to Bookscan.

“The storytelling hasn’t been at the same level,” said Steve Ross, publisher of Crown Books , a division of Random House. Books like “DisneyWar” and “Conspiracy of Fools,” are “written like novels,” he said. “I think it is a test and has an ability to resuscitate the genre.”

“DisneyWar” uses a novelistic approach to its subject: conversations are recounted as if Mr. Stewart had witnessed them, and other parts of it are written as Mr. Stewart’s first-person account, including a day spent in costume as the cartoon character Goofy at Walt Disney World. Early in the book, he recalls an incident when 7-year-old Michael Eisner stepped into a makeshift boxing ring at the behest of his father, Lester, during summer camp in Vermont. The younger Eisner had never boxed before and was beaten soundly by a boy two years older who seemed twice his size. But he did not cry.

“I’m not a psychologist,” Mr. Stewart said about putting the incident in the book. “But it still lives large in Michael’s memory.”

It is that level of personal detail about Mr. Eisner’s personality and how it affected his management of Disney that has much of the publishing world so excited.

“For these books to work, they have to appeal to people who don’t like business books,” said David Drake, director of publicity of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, which published “Conspiracy of Fools.”

Mr. Stewart, a former reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of insider trading and the market crash of 1987, called his effort “an enormously complex and long book” and “a vast canvas.” This is his eighth book and he has tackled almost every major American institution including Wall Street (with “Den of Thieves,” a chronicle of insider trading), politics (“Blood Sport,” about the Clintons and the Whitewater scandal) and the medical community (“Blind Eye: The Terrifying Story of a Doctor Who Got Away With Murder”).

Mr. Stewart said the focus of the book shifted when Roy E. Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney, resigned from Disney’s board of directors in November 2003, calling for the ouster of Mr. Eisner.

“The ground kind of shook,” Mr. Stewart said. “It gave the book its dramatic structure.”

What ensued after the resignation was a shareholder revolt that left Mr. Eisner stripped of his title of chairman last year, after 45 percent of the votes cast in the company’s annual board election were withheld from him. Mr. Eisner announced last September that he would resign as the company’s chief executive in 2006. Investors were appeased. In last week’s board election, preliminary reports show that 92 percent of the votes cast were in favor of Mr. Eisner’s re-election to the board.

As with Mr. Eisner’s tenure at Disney, the book’s publication has generated its share of controversy. Disney executives got an early copy, which led to the book being shipped to stores last week instead of on March 7. While leaks of books are sometimes seen as a way to boost sales, David Rosenthal, executive vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster, said in an interview two weeks ago that the publisher had nothing to do with the leaks.

“We have a good reputation for keeping books under wraps,” Mr. Rosenthal said.

Still, word of the book got to Disney which, three weeks ago, wrote a letter to the publisher warning it against printing the book with inaccuracies. Mr. Stewart recounted one day when he went to Simon & Schuster to review the book jacket; it had an image of Tinkerbell on it. Mr. Stewart said he was taken aback. Tinkerbell had nothing to do with the book’s contents.

But even more disquieting was the telephone call he got from a Disney executive hours after he left the publisher telling him Disney’s lawyers would protest using the fairy’s image. (A person involved in the book’s production said that Disney saw a copy of the book jacket on Amazon.com .)

Mr. Stewart also said that he learned Disney possessed various chapters of the manuscript because, as a Disney executive later told him, it had received them from multiple sources. “It’s like I’d make myself crazy,” said Mr. Stewart, who quit trying to figure out who was spreading copies. “I complained to Simon & Schuster, who did an internal investigation and found nothing.”

Disney has been publicly critical of the book’s use of unnamed sources, claiming it is biased and that Mr. Stewart relied on scores of former executives – some who had an ax to grind – for his book. Mr. Stewart also talked to people who overheard conversations, but were not participants in the discussion – another issue that upset Disney.

“An advantage of using a narrative approach is that none of the sources are identified,” Mr. Stewart wrote in his notes on sources. The reason? To identify some sources and not others would invite speculation about who had talked.

“I did not go to Disney haters for this book,” said Mr. Stewart. “I just wanted to get to the facts about what happened at Disney. It’s a weird thing at Disney that some of the people they hailed as paragons suddenly, if they left the company, became bitter, lying Disney-hating maniacs in the eyes of management.”

While Mr. Stewart was ultimately critical of Mr. Eisner he also recognized his considerable charm. Mr. Eisner, he said, has a wicked wit and is a good storyteller.

“If you’ve never experienced his charm, you don’t understand him,” Mr. Stewart said. So much so that when the two were arguing over facts in the manuscript, Mr. Stewart said, “He made me howl.”