Whose Book Is It Anyway? When Journalists Get Book Deals

Last spring, Seth Mnookin landed himself the kind of book deal every journalist who’s honest would admit to coveting: a healthy six-figure deal with Random House for a book about the debacle at The New York Times . A longtime media reporter who had covered The Times at Inside.com and Brill’s Content , Mr. Mnookin, a senior writer for Newsweek ‘s national-affairs desk, found himself with a 12-month deadline and a six-figure contract negotiated with Random House editor in chief Dan Menaker by agent David McCormick. There was just one problem: Could Mr. Mnookin write his book-which would necessarily include some information he’d uncovered during his time on the magazine’s staff-in his so-called free time and thus remain at the weekly, or would he need to take a leave of absence? And what exactly would such a leave of absence entail? Or would he be required to resign from his job?

In Mr. Mnookin’s case, at least, there was no conflict of interest about his jumping off from the research he’d gathered at Newsweek . ” The Times was an institution I was covering from before [I got to the magazine],” he said. “Technically or legally, there was no issue.” Still, when Mr. Mnookin asked Newsweek brass about the possibility of a leave, he was refused-for other reasons. “The most they give in this situation was two or three months,” he said. Besides, most places only grant leaves to longtime staffers, and Mr. Mnookin had been there only a little over a year. The result: He resigned his job.

Or did he? “I’m still writing media pieces for them, and they’re paying me,” he said. Never mind that they’re no longer paying him a salary or benefits and that the magazine is under no obligation to hold his job for him. “They’ve said they’d love to have me back,” he said.

The world is full of journalists who look for-and get-book deals. (In the depth of the recession, a lot of us believe it’s easier to get a book contract than a raise at our day jobs, or even a new staff position altogether.) But who gets permission to do a book, and who gets a leave of absence, and why, and what it all means, varies from case to case and place to place.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why journalists would seek out extracurricular writing projects-“How else can we supplement our not-great salaries?” one asked, rhetorically-but the issues are different for management. “Granting book leaves is a way for companies to reward people they like; not granting them is a way to get rid of people they don’t,” said one former New York Times staffer who was one of the latter. Which might explain why the brass is always so vague about how they make their decisions. “We won’t comment on specifics,” said Bill Schmidt, associate managing editor of The New York Times and the person with whom staffers are supposed to discuss their book plans (along with their department heads), when I try to ask him about two recent Times people: Jere Longman, who wrote Among the Heroes for HarperCollins, and Alex Kuczynski, who is currently at work on a book for Doubleday about women and power. Ms. Kuczynski said she expects to return to the paper by the beginning of the year.

“While we want to encourage people to have rich and full careers, you always want to know what this is going to do to demands on their time,” said Mr. Schmidt, adding that his first concern is conflict of interest: “We’re very leery if a reporter is keen to write a book about an ongoing story that he or she is covering that moment.” As for whether the leave-grantees get to keep their benefits, access to their offices and/or their jobs in the long term (perks I thought were, in fact, the very definition of a “leave”): At The Times , anyway, that’s now “all part of the negotiations,” according to Mr. Schmidt.

Basically, it comes down to this: Sometimes it means granting you a full-out leave with perks, like the kind John A. Byrne got when, in 2000, he took 101¼2 months off from BusinessWeek to write Jack Welch’s autobiography, Jack: Straight from the Gut -and retained his office and his benefits. And sometimes it means offering certain “incentives” intended to help both the individual and the organization. At The Times , for example, authors in search of publishers are encouraged to sit down and negotiate with Times Books-a publishing imprint jointly operated by Henry Holt and The New York Times . Writers who have considered publishing with Times Books say the terms of the leave they’re offered-office access, benefits, sometimes even their salaries or portions thereof-are far more favorable than the ones they’d get if they opted to publish with, say, Simon and Schuster. The problem, said one person close to the Times Books set-up, is that the advances they offer are not competitive.

So sometimes the news organizations have to be even more creative in finding ways to protect their own stories and hold on to the reporters who cover them. Take the case of The Smartest Guys in the Room , Penguin Portfolio’s forthcoming book about Enron. The authors of the book are Bethany McLean, who wrote one of the first stories about the corruption at the energy giant, and Texas-based reporter Peter Elkind, under the guidance of Fortune editorial director Joe Nocera-who, Ms. McLean said, had the original idea for the book and decided “it was the right time” to pitch it. Both Ms. McLean and Mr. Elkind-who had never worked together before-are Fortune writers now on leave from the magazine. According to Ms. McLean, however, they retain their titles, their offices, the use of such facilities as the Time Inc. library and, most importantly, their salaries. (They have contributed only a few small pieces to the magazine since embarking on the project.) They will also share the byline, which doesn’t include any mention of the magazine that employs them, so as to head off any suspicion that the book includes recycled or unoriginal material. So what’s the catch? “This was a deal that was done with Fortune , not with the individuals,” said someone close to the process. Which means, presumably-though neither Ms. McLean nor a Fortune spokesperson will confirm it-that the authors were at least one level removed from the negotiating process, that they didn’t necessarily get any of the advance and may not even be getting future royalties. When I suggested to Ms. McLean that she might have gotten a better deal if she’d struck out on her own in search of a publisher for the story many believe she “owned” from the beginning, she said she was “not necessarily comfortable jumping off and doing the book myself.” She pointed out that had she gone it alone, she would have had to hire her own researchers, find her own place to keep documents, and suffer without double phone lines and high-speed computers-not to mention without the companionship of an office full of helpful (but not intrusive) colleagues.

All of which may not be the best reasons for letting your magazine bosses take control of your book deal, but they’re not inconsequential ones, either. “If I hadn’t been at Fortune , we wouldn’t have done as good a book,” Ms. McLean said.

Spoken by exactly the kind of staffer you really want to keep.