Here’s a familiar publishing fairy tale: Bright young writer puts out a few impressive magazine pieces on a buzzworthy topic; masterful agent sends around a brief proposal to panting publishers; seven-figure advance ensues.
In the fall of 1997, New Yorker writer John Heilemann scored a reported $1 million advance from HarperCollins for a book on Silicon Valley. He planned to write the book in twenty months. “You don’t realize how lonely writing a book is,” Heilemann says now of the project he compares to David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be.
As Heilemann worked, an excited HarperCollins, sure it had the book on Silicon Valley, was girding its sales force with feverish descriptions of the unseen manuscript, tour plans, and ad buys. Then the deadline passed. “The book will come out when John’s ready,” says Heilemann’s friend John Battelle, founder of The Industry Standard, “not when the publisher wants it to come out. Until he feels he’s got it right, he’s not going to stop reporting.” Instead of The Valley, the big technology book last fall, when the tech boom was at its apex, was Michael Lewis’s The New New Thing.
But now comes the news that on January 9, Heilemann will publish a book about the Microsoft trial that came out of a Wired cover story. Wired editor-in-chief Katrina Heron says that when Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson’s decision against Microsoft came down in June, “I told John, ‘There’s a great magazine piece here.’ ” So Heron joined Heilemann at a conference in Telluride. “We locked ourselves in a hotel room with a beautiful view, ordered room service, and just worked it out for six hours,” Heilemann remembers. “When we were finished, we were both totally exhausted.” Heilemann says he relied on his three years of Valley reporting to write the piece – and then the book.
The result, Pride Before the Fall, is set to hit stores the same day as Ken Auletta’s book on the same subject, World War 3.0. Meanwhile, all involved insist that The Valley is still very much under way. “Fortunately,” says HarperBusiness publisher Adrian Zackheim, “we don’t have to publish the book about the Valley this week.” So which book fulfills that million-dollar contract? “That sounds like a money question,” says Heilemann’s agent, Andrew Wylie. “And we don’t talk about money.”