New Yorker Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza finalized an agreement Monday with Vanessa Mobley of the Penguin Press to write a book about President-elect Barack Obama’s first year in office. Mr. Lizza’s contract, worth a sum in the mid-six-figures, was negotiated by his D.C.-based literary agent, Gail Ross. It is, to date, his second book deal, and everyone involved is hoping it goes better than the first one, which he cancelled during the summer of 2007 to focus on his day job.
The way he tells it, Mr. Lizza had a contract sitting in his drawer waiting to be signed when a phone call from David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, moved him to tear it up. Mr. Lizza was 32 and covering the presidential race for The New Republic. Having proven himself one of the brightest stars on the political beat, he had secured a deal to the tune of $250,000 from HarperCollins to write a Teddy White-style ticktock of the year ahead. Then Mr. Remnick called to offer him a job covering the election for The New Yorker and that was pretty much that.
“I needed Ryan’s complete, full attention on the campaign, and he knew it,” Mr. Remnick said in an interview yesterday. “He was a new writer for us, and learning to write for us, like learning to write for any new publication, is an extra added burden in addition to the story. I just said, ‘I really need you now. I really need you to be focused. And I don’t doubt that at some point you’ll write a book and it may even be soon, but I just need you now.’”
David Hirshey, Mr. Lizza’s editor at HarperCollins, was so heartbroken when Mr. Lizza cancelled on him that when asked months later whether he had considered replacing Mr. Lizza with another reporter so that he’d still have a campaign book on his list, he vowed not to because it just wouldn’t be the same.
“I’m not doing a campaign book after Remnick broke my heart and told Lizza he had to make a Sophie’s Choice,” Mr. Hirshey said in January. “Lizza made the right choice, but a reporter of his caliber is still where I set the bar.”
Thing was, Mr. Lizza didn’t stop wanting to write a book after his first one was aborted, and at the time, the plan was that he and Ms. Ross would revisit the possibility once the election ended. They told Mr. Hirshey that they would come back to him if they drew up a new proposal.
In the meantime, though, Mr. Hirshey’s boss at HarperCollins green-lighted the seven-figure acquisition of a book by Time’s Mark Halperin and New York’s John Heilemann that would tell the story of the election and cover the first few months of the new president’s administration.
Which meant, of course, that HarperCollins already had their post-election book and wouldn’t be needing another. Ms. Ross knew as soon as she heard about it that Mr. Lizza’s book—if it happened—would have to be published by somebody else.
Around the same time, Ms. Ross got a phone call from Ann Godoff, the distinguished publisher of the Penguin Press, who said she was looking for a big political book to publish after the election. Ms. Ross told her about Mr. Lizza, singing his praises but warning that unless he thought he could keep up with his beat at The New Yorker and write a book at the same time, he would not be able to commit to it.
Ms. Godoff expressed interest on the spot, and told Ms. Ross that if Mr. Lizza decided to write the book, Penguin Press would publish it.
That decision depended in part on whether Mr. Remnick thought Mr. Lizza could do it without compromising his work for the magazine, which is what the two of them talked about on the phone this past Monday shortly before the Penguin Press deal closed.
“It was a ten or fifteen minute conversation,” Mr. Remnick said. “As mean a human being as I ordinarily am, I was nothing but supportive. The campaign’s over and there are other people here and we’ll find a way to do it.”
As Mr. Lizza put it, “He gave me his blessing.” And that other book? The one he never wrote? “In hindsight, it would have been insane,” Mr. Lizza said. “It was without a doubt the right decision, and I can thank David for that.”