Is it time yet to start pulling together books about last week’s catastrophe on Wall Street? Publishers are uneasy about making plans too soon, but the city’s finest financial journalists—and their literary agents—are eager to get moving.
“There are probably two dozen writers in search of a book, but if you don’t have an idea, you have to wait and watch and see how it unfolds,” said Tim Duggan, VP and executive editor at Harper who specializes in nonfiction. “Maybe there will be a story there in a couple months’ time, when the picture is clearer, but right now the financial climate has been changing dramatically every 24 hours, if not more, so what it will look like in three months’ time could be very, very different.”
Still, getting someone like Wall Street Journal veteran Roger Lowenstein or star New York Times business reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin—both of whom are considering writing books about the crisis—right now means a chance at being first out the door. Moreover, getting them now means no one else will be able to get them later.
“There’s a lot to be said for a timely book, but we don’t know what the book is yet,” said Simon & Schuster publisher David Rosenthal, noting that there are nevertheless writers out there whom he would agree to publish immediately just because he knows they’d do a good job with whatever ends up happening.
At any rate, proposals have started making the rounds.
One comes from Times business columnist Joe Nocera and former Fortune reporter Bethany McLean, who decided to write a book together the day Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch sold itself to Bank of America. Mr. Nocera was visiting Ms. McLean (co-writer of the Enron book The Smartest Guys in the Room) in Chicago at the time—he was there to attend a science conference, what kind he wouldn’t say—and over some white wine, the two of them decided that a definitive chronicle of the stunning financial crisis was in order, and that they were the team best equipped to produce it.
“We want to write the big book, and I’m not afraid of saying that,” Mr. Nocera said. “It will be a book for the ages and—I know this is going to sound egomaniacal, but—between our contacts and our reporting skills and our writing skills, I think we’ll be pretty tough to beat.”
The agency representing the Nocera-McLean book to publishers, Darhansoff, Verrill and Feldman is said to be asking more than $1 million (No one there picked up the phone when Pub Crawl sought comment).
Sloan Harris, co-director of ICM’s literary department, is preparing to circulate a proposal for a quickie electronic book by Newsweek’s Daniel Gross that would be published before the end of the year (with a possible print edition to follow).
“My idea was to try to get a book out immediately—not immediately for immediately’s sake, but rather to fill the void between daily and weekly journalism and the big door-stopper books that will be published a year or two from now,” Mr. Harris said. He ventured further that readers have nowhere to turn for a thorough explanation of what is happening to the economy and how it got that way.
“I don’t think readers can get a unified view by reading 30 articles,” Mr. Harris said. “And because this is unbelievably immediate, the story changes every day, and it sticks its fingers right down into those things that we care most about. I assume there’s a real hunger for a comprehensive understanding of it, which is not well sated by having to wait six months for a book.”
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.