Crashing the Crash: Business Writers Lay Ground on Lehman

The trouble is, no one has any idea when the dust from Wall Street is going to settle, so deciding how to proceed when, say, the Nocera-McLean proposal lands on one’s desk isn’t wholly obvious. When John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate on Aug. 29, most publishers elected to wait because there was not enough time before the election to do a proper biography, and too great a risk that Ms. Palin would disappear after Nov. 4. The fog had an expiration date, in other words.

With the financial crisis, publishers have no idea how long their competitors will wait, and thus might be tempted to lunge for whatever they’re offered now to avoid getting shut out later.

“You sign up a writer; you don’t necessarily sign up a proposal,” said Will Weisser, associate publisher of Penguin’s business imprint Portfolio (no relation to the magazine). “You find a good writer and say, ‘O.K., follow the story where it goes.’”

He went on: “There are basically two strategies. … You either rush to get the first one and hope to capitalize that way, or you hold your fire and you do something that’s really great. You can try to do the super-crash and ride the wave of national attention, or you can try to find somebody who’s a good enough journalist who can adapt a book to the changing circumstances.”

Adapting, incidentally, is what a lot of publishers are doing right now, as they review books they signed up many months ago, when the subprime mortgage crisis was only just breaking into the public consciousness and the collapse of Bear Stearns seemed like a climax rather than the foothill it has proven to be. Portfolio has a Bear Stearns book under contract from Wall Street Journal reporter (and Observer alumna) Kate Kelly. According to Mr. Weisser, its structure will remain intact. But Charles Gasparino’s forthcoming book, The Sellout: How Wall Street Greed and Stupidity Destroyed America’s Dominance of the Global Financial System, which Collins Business acquired about a week after the Bear Stearns meltdown, is likely to require some re-jiggering, as will the book that Financial Times’ global markets editor Gillian Tett is writing for Free Press. Ms. Tett said in an e-mail that her book (which was originally going to focus on JPMorgan) “is being expanded in light of current events.” And The Journal’s David Wessel, who signed on to do a book on the Fed and the Treasury for Crown after the Bear collapse, said he has been “re-framing the book as events unfold.”

Some publishers, meanwhile—the ones that have general finance books coming out in the next few months—are rejoicing at their prescience and good fortune. Among them are Penguin Press, which will publish Charles Ellis’ history of Goldman Sachs next month, and Norton, which has Michael Lewis’ Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity coming out in December.

lneyfakh@observer.com