The Best Books Of Their Lives: Iraq Deals Rife

When Paul Rieckhoff, a 30-year-old first lieutenant with the New York Army National Guard, returned in February 2004 from a year-long tour of duty in Iraq, he did a number of things: He founded an advocacy group for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan called Operation Truth; he started making media appearances criticizing the war; and he wrote a book proposal for a memoir.

The only hitch was that there were so many other proposals for books about Iraq that it was a struggle to differentiate his own project. Finally, after shopping the book around for a number of weeks through his agent, Laurie Liss at Sterling Lord Literistic, Mr. Rieckhoff sold the book in June to Mark Chait, an editor at Penguin/NAL. (It will be published in 2006 by the company’s military-nonfiction imprint, Caliber.) The book is to be called Sector 17: A Warrior’s Criticism of the War in Iraq.

“I know that when I was submitting my proposal, there was a glut of other stuff out there,” said Mr. Rieckhoff, adding that there was “good interest” in his book, despite all the competition. “Now it seems like everybody coming back is submitting proposals.”

The publishing industry has fiercely embraced Operation Iraqi Freedom, driven in roughly equal measure by profit motives, do-gooder instincts, genuine interest and herd mentality, and the pending books take the “lost American in the desert” theme to new heights. A sort of competition is emerging between the journalists, whose accounts include brushes with death, moments of kinship with Iraqi children, and love affairs ignited at the Palestine or Al-Hamra Hotels in Baghdad, and the soldiers, who are trying to position themselves as the next Anthony Swofford, the former Marine Corps sniper, Gulf War veteran and author of the best-selling memoir Jarhead.

And for some publishing veterans, it’s already too much.

“As a reader and as an agent, I’m not interested in another account of a soldier’s march to Baghdad or a journalist being a fish out of water,” said Larry Weissman, a literary agent who mostly represents authors of narrative nonfiction. “If I want the definitive account of the march to Baghdad, I’ll either read John Burns or Dexter Filkins in The Times, or Jon Lee Anderson’s book,” The Fall of Baghdad, which came out in 2004. (Mr. Weissman said he would, however, be interested in Iraq-related fiction, citing the movie Three Kings as a gem from the first Gulf War.)

“There have been just a tremendous number of what you might call disillusioned-soldier narratives,” said Scott Moyers, senior editor at Ann Godoff’s imprint at Penguin, who edited Jon Lee Anderson’s book and is working on two others-one by Tom Ricks, the Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post, and another by two young slacker Americans who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, called Babylon by Bus. “I think it’s very important that we be publishing books on this important subject. We just have to do so in as clear-eyed a way as we can.”

Some houses are paying up-for the soldier books, at least. Houghton Mifflin is publishing One Bullet Away, by a Marine captain named Nathaniel Fick, which chronicles his time in Afghanistan and Iraq and was reported to have garnered a “mid-six-figure” advance. Mr. Rieckhoff wouldn’t comment on how much he received for Sector 17, but an editor at a rival publishing house who saw the proposal in May said that the project was being circulated with a $250,000 floor on it. Mr. Rieckhoff wouldn’t confirm whether the book sold for that amount, but the proposed “floor” on the bidding indicates the confidence with which it was first submitted.

The rival editor, who requested anonymity, said that Mr. Rieckhoff’s proposal had landed on his desk on the same day as another proposal from a veteran critical of the war-both part of a long march of similar projects he’d encountered, which had left him sounding vaguely disgusted.

“Do people go into the war thinking, ‘Hey, maybe I can get a movie deal’?” he said.

According to Colby Buzzell, a U.S. soldier who managed to satisfy the publishing industry’s dual obsession with bloggers and warriors all at once, publishers and agents started chasing him eight or 12 weeks after he started blogging from the Iraqi front lines in 2004. That led to a write-up about him in Esquire magazine and his present book deal with Putnam, which is releasing his bloggish memoir, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, this fall. (The catalog description of the book reprises a familiar theme, of war as an antidote to aimlessness: “Like many of his generation, Colby Buzzell was jumping from one dead-end job to another … he spent his time skateboarding and killing as many brain cells as humanly possible. Tired of the monotony, he found himself in front of an army recruiter ….”)

“I don’t know anything about agents, which ones to trust, the publishing world, all that stuff,” said Mr. Buzzell, 28, who now lives in Los Angeles, trying to figure out what to do next. “My intention was just to screw around; [writing a book] wasn’t my intention. Once the agents started contacting me, I was like, ‘Shit, when I come back out of the Army, I’m going to be back to what I was doing before’-just temp jobs, screwing around.’ So I thought I’d do it.”

A publishing-industry source estimated that the sum paid by Putnam for his book was a generous six figures. Mr. Buzzell declined to comment on his advance, saying only: “I can afford to super-size my meals.” He added that his wife had put it into perspective by pointing out that if it represented all the money he was ever going to make as a writer, it wasn’t that much (though Mr. Buzzell said that he “would have written it for free”).

Meanwhile, a fleet of Buzzell wannabes-soldiers who have gone, returned or are currently stationed in Iraq-have set up imitator blogs (Mr. Buzzell said he can spot the ones angling for a book contract right away). They also call him for career advice.

“I’m like the guy who went to the war and came back and wrote a book …. Now I’ve got all these soldiers who have gone to Iraq asking me all these questions,” said Mr. Buzzell. “‘How do I secure an agent?’ ‘How do I secure a huge advance?’ I get several per week. It makes me sick. When I went out there, I didn’t think, ‘O.K., I’m gonna get a book, get an agent’-all that stuff. If you have that mentality, your book isn’t going to be the pure thing. I don’t know-that’s not writing. I don’t respond to those e-mails when I get them. I don’t know anything about all that stuff. It all just happened for me without really trying.”

 

Too Dangerous to Finish the Book

For every aspiring Jarhead, there’s at least one reporter trying to be this war’s David Halberstam or Michael Herr.

At The Washington Post, reporters like Anthony Shadid, the Islamic affairs correspondent who won a Pulitzer last year; Rajiv Chandrasekaran, The Post’s former Baghdad bureau chief; and Tom Ricks, its longtime military reporter, all have books in the works. So does Michael Gordon, The New York Times’ military correspondent, and George Packer of The New Yorker. (The missing link is John Burns, The New York Times’ Baghdad bureau chief, who, according to publishing executives, continues to elude their attempts to lasso him into a book contract. “I and many other editors have been chasing him for years and years,” according to Penguin’s Mr. Moyers.)

Then there’s the smaller-scale fare, journalistically speaking, from reporters who spent little actual time in Iraq, such as The Times’ Alan Feuer, who seemed to have crossed Iraq’s border for only three weeks or so, and Chris Ayres, whose War Reporting for Cowards recounts his ineptitude while covering the war for the London Times “from 2002 to 2003,” according to its review in Publishers Weekly.

But there is one advantage that soldiers have over the journalists: Most journalists can’t actually go anywhere anymore to report for their books. It’s too dangerous. One British reporter, Wendell Steavenson, who filed stories from Iraq for Slate, the Financial Times and Granta over the course of about eight months, said that the violence and chaos in the country had become so extreme and unpredictable that it was impossible for her to complete the research she’d planned for her own book, which was due to the U.K. arm of Grove Atlantic Books in June.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Ms. Steavenson said.

She described her book as a “sort of highfalutin’ conceptual idea” looking at the historical circumstances of Iraqi families over the last 25 years, as well as an investigation into the background of the Sunni ruling class, which would involve lots of interviews and a discussion of morality. Ms. Steavenson said that she’d never seen as many journalists as she did during the first few months that she’d spent in Iraq in early 2003: There were literally thousands of them roaming the streets, clustered around the Palestine Hotel. There were two English-language start-up newspapers and documentary film crews on street corners.

“You could drive down any road in Iraq. It wasn’t safe, but it was perfectly reasonable to do so,” she said.

Then, toward the end of the summer of 2003, people just started leaving. It became unsafe to drive down any road in Iraq and almost impossible to interact with the Iraqi people. “And every month after that, it just got a little bit worse,” said Ms. Steavenson. “There were times when you noticed it getting worse, and times when you pretended not to notice it.

“I haven’t been there since February, and I know that there are people who do a much better job than I was managing to do,” she continued. “But I can’t imagine a worse scenario for trying to have an idea of what’s actually happening as a reporter. You can’t calculate a risk; because the violence is so bad and extreme everywhere, you can’t be clever. There’s no way to push the envelope a bit. It’s quite depressing. It makes you feel horrid and useless and stupid. And you’re scared all the time, which is debilitating.”

Her plan for salvaging the book would entail missing her deadline and trying to reorient the story as something “more memoir-y,” Ms. Steavenson said. “There’s a part of me that also feels a bit weird, to write a book about Iraq when we’re still so much in the middle of the story of Iraq. In a year, it might look completely different. I hope it does.”