Noam Scheiber, the columnist and senior editor at The New Republic, is writing a book about the Obama administration’s handling of the economic crisis. It will be published by the flagship imprint of Simon & Schuster and overseen by editor in chief Priscilla Painton, who acquired the book at auction last month. According to Ms. Painton, the book will take as its subject the key players in the new administration’s economic agenda, including Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers, Peter Orszag and a handful of others, and will provide biographical portraits of each.
This is the second book Mr. Scheiber has sold and started. His first, a biography of Hank Greenberg, burned up in the fire that was last fall’s federal takeover of AIG. Mr. Scheiber at the time was about a third of the way through the book, but decided when the insurance giant failed that an interpretive biography of its former CEO no longer seemed like such a great idea.
The timing was particularly punishing because Mr. Scheiber might have been able to finish the book a lot sooner and have it on shelves in time for the meltdown if he hadn’t been so busy covering the election for TNR. Doing that took up all his time starting in August 2007, and by the time AIG crashed into the headlines last fall, he was already unsure as to whether he wanted to continue with it.
The book, originally, was acquired by Random House in May 2005, not long after Mr. Greenberg’s ouster from AIG over an accounting scandal. When Mr. Scheiber told his editor there, Tim Bartlett, that he didn’t want to write the book anymore, he did not face much resistance. Figure out another book and move on, Mr. Scheiber was told, and when you have a new proposal ready, just give Random House the right of first refusal. If Random wanted to publish it, great—if they didn’t, Mr. Scheiber could sell it to someone else and pay back the Greenberg advance when he got his new one.
“My feeling was that if he didn’t feel he wanted to do it or could do it, I wasn’t going to push him,” Mr. Bartlett said. “It was an obvious time to say, ‘If we’re going to do it, we should try to do it quickly.’ But I think by that point, he had realized it wasn’t the book he was going to write.”
Indeed, reporting on the election had prepared Mr. Scheiber to write a very different kind of book—one that would align with his day job covering economic policy for TNR rather than distracting him from it.
But when the proposal for the new book was completed last month and submitted, Random House passed.
“It was a very good proposal and I’m sure it’s going to be a good book,” Mr. Bartlett said. “It really came down to a concern that there were going to be too many books on the economic crisis.”
Mr. Bartlett had learned the hard way that entering such a competition can be frustrating, having published a book he loved about Hurricane Katrina by Pulitzer Prize winner Jed Horne that ended up being obscured by the stack of other titles on the same subject.
That experience, Mr. Bartlett said, “makes you look very carefully at projects like this.”
The field is indeed crowded: Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter and Mr. Scheiber’s former TNR colleague Ryan Lizza, for instance, are both writing books about Obama’s first year in office, and One Percent Doctrine author Ron Suskind is said to be in the early stages of reporting a book on the economic crisis as well. (Mr. Suskind did not respond to an email asking about his plans, but the publicity director at HarperCollins, his publisher, confirmed that he is under contract for another book.)
Mr. Scheiber’s book can be expected to focus more narrowly on Obama’s economic team and their agenda than Mr. Alter’s or Mr. Lizza’s.
“Noam’s book will be reported from inside and out of the administration and will ultimately make a judgment about how well it has succeeded,” said Simon & Schuster’s Ms. Painton, who spent most of her career in journalism before entering book publishing last year.
Asked whether she has found that the skills required to edit books are different from those she learned in journalism, Ms. Painton said in an email, “I think many of the basic skills between long form journalism and book editing are the same—the metabolism is different. You have to respect the voice of the author, love the arc and rhythm of the story, test the evidence, construct an argument, know where to go deep and how to make the writing seductive. Those qualities are essential in both long form journalism and book writing. But it takes a lot of endurance to get there when you’re telling a story at book length. Less sprinting, more marathoning.”
Mr. Scheiber, who declined to comment for this article because the book is a work-in-progress, is aiming to complete his marathon in time for publication in early 2012.