Until a few months ago, Writers House lit agent Simon Lipskar knew his client David Dow merely as a gifted academic. An expert on death penalty law at the University of Houston who has practiced for almost 20 years as a lawyer in Texas representing death row inmates, Mr. Dow had written several books for academic presses and been published widely in scholarly journals when Mr. Lipskar took him on as a client. In 2005, Mr. Lipskar sold Mr. Dow’s first foray into popular writing, a book called Executed on a Technicality, to the small, Boston-based Beacon Press. In Mr. Lipskar’s description, the book amounted to a very solid work of serious, issue-based nonfiction that was “clear-eyed, lucid, deeply intelligent and persuasive.” For all that, however, it wasn’t exactly riveting. As Mr. Lipskar puts it, “It was a book by an academic on a topic.”
One day earlier this year, Mr. Dow called Mr. Lipskar on the phone and told him he was ready to show him his new book. Mr. Lipskar said O.K., expecting to see another rigorous, semi-scholarly book dealing with some aspect of the death penalty. Soon after, he had an email in his inbox with the manuscript attached.
Upon opening the attachment, Mr. Lipskar was stunned to find a dark, deeply emotional and memoiristic account of Mr. Dow’s experiences as a death penalty lawyer—a harrowing story of bureaucracy and systemic incompetence that centers around one case in particular during which Mr. Dow became convinced that his client was innocent.
“I started reading a manuscript that was immediately one of the most staggering pieces of narrative nonfiction that I’ve ever read in my life,” Mr. Lipskar said Monday. “It was a memoir of beautiful, gorgeously crafted prose, telling the story of what it means to be a human being.”
He called Mr. Dow the next morning. “I said, ‘David, what the hell is this? Where did this come from?’ He said, ‘Well, I guess it’s what I’ve been working on for a while.’”
Mr. Lipskar said he never wanted to see him writing like an academic again. “I told him, ‘You’ve found your voice.’”
The book went out to publishers on March 19, and after returning from the Bologna Book Fair the following week, Mr. Lipskar took it to auction. Last Thursday, he closed a deal with Jonathan Karp’s Twelve imprint at Hachette Book Group USA that several sources said was worth approximately $250,000.
According to Mr. Lipskar, the book will be called The Autobiography of an Execution, and is scheduled for publication in February 2010. Mr. Karp could not be reached for comment.