Publishing’s Prodigal Son

Ben Loehnen was just a rookie editor at Random House when he convinced Professor Chip Heath of Stanford Business School to write a trade book based on his academic work on organizational behavior in business. When Mr. Heath agreed, Mr. Loehnen bought the rights to the project in what turned out to be a very shrewd preempt. Appealing to the same species-wide impulses satisfied by Freakonomics and The Tipping Point, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die has shipped 200,000 hardcover copies to date. The book, co-written by Mr. Heath and his brother Dan, was a slow burner, according to industry observers. But it strengthened the young Mr. Loehnen’s reputation—already in good shape thanks to Ross Douthat’s Privilege, which he published as an even younger editor at Hyperion. Big paws on that puppy, as they say.

In light of such success, one might assume that Chip and Dan Heath (and their literary agent, Christy Fletcher) would have returned to Mr. Loehnen for their next project. And yet, their follow-up—a book about personal and organizational change tentatively called Switch—was at the center of a ferocious auction earlier this week, one that Mr. Loehnen ultimately lost to Roger Scholl at Currency, the business imprint of Doubleday.

How did Mr. Loehnen lose the Heaths? Truth is, he walked away from them by quitting his job at Random House well before Made to Stick saw the light of day. In fact, he left New York altogether, and moved to L.A. He bailed, in other words, and Random House had to reassign the authors to a different editor.

But now, Mr. Loehnen is back in the city and again working as an editor, this time at the Collins unit of HarperCollins. When the Heaths’ proposal went out, he apparently decided that he wanted his baby back. According to several knowledgeable sources, Mr. Loehnen was one of the top bidders on Switch, though it’s unclear if he and Mr. Scholl were at any point head to head.

Opinions are divided over whether or not Mr. Loehnen deserved to win.

“He ought to get it,” said Twelve publisher Jonathan Karp, who worked with Mr. Loehnen when they were both at Random House. He spoke to the Observer on Monday, before the auction had ended. “If there’s any justice in the world, he’ll get it.”

Others were less generous. “Random House didn’t fire him—he left!” said one A-list publisher from a different house, who agreed to speak candidly only under the condition of anonymity. “People have brilliant ideas all the time, and happily, a good portion of the time they get to execute them. He had a brilliant idea and he should be given full credit for acquiring that book, but he left! … If he’d been fired, it would be a different story.”

Publishing’s Prodigal Son