As David Stockman sits and scrawls on his yellow legal pad all his tart recollections of how things really work in the Reagan White House, he is earning about $2,200 an hour. Figuring, that is, that the departing Budget Director is toiling away eight hours every day to produce by his Dec. 1 deadline the blockbuster book for which Harper & Row has just given him a prodigious advance of $2 million plus. A handsome sum indeed, enough to pay about five minutes' worth of the deficit in the Administration's own federal budget for this year. It would have taken Stockman more than 26 years to earn that kind of money at his White House salary of $75,000. But the big question among publishers is: Will Stockman's The Triumph of Politics ever earn a profit on Harper & Row's huge investment, the biggest in its 168-year history?
Yes, says Brooks Thomas, president of Harper & Row. "We think it will be an extremely important book. There are a lot of people out there who are extremely curious about David Stockman. It's going to be very candid because he is very candid."
No, says Morton Janklow, an attorney-agent who has shepherded such high-price talent as Judith Krantz and Sidney Sheldon. "Political figures don't create big books. Elvis creates big books. Stockman is a bookkeeper, and political figures are not famous for their candor. They're busily engaged in rewriting history."
All publishing is to some extent a gamble. If political figures really "don't create big books," a number of publishers are soon going to be surprised, sorrowful and even stricken, because the most notable fad in the book business this season has been the wild-eyed flinging of dollar bills in the general direction of Washington. Bantam has paid "about" $1 million to Geraldine Ferraro for Ferraro: My Story, due in October; Simon & Schuster "more or less" $1 million to Jeane Kirkpatrick for her U.N. memoirs; and Random House $1 million to House Speaker Thomas P. ("Tip") O'Neill.
Though big-name autobiographies have always been reasonably popular, the boom in megabuck success stories--political, financial, sporting and otherwise--started with Bantam's astonishing sales of Iacocca, more than 2 million copies in hardcover and still the No. 2 nonfiction best seller after eight months as No. 1. Indeed, the only hardcover that is selling better is another autobiographical success story from Bantam, Yeager, by Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos.
"We think there is a wide audience for these books," says Linda Grey, Bantam's vice president, publisher and editor in chief. "Ferraro, Yeager, Iacocca all have stories that are unique, and that no one else can tell. Each of these touches on things that many people want to know. In each case, the readership extends beyond the normal book-buying public."
A lot depends on who actually writes such autobiographies. Linda Bird Francke was signed up for the Ferraro story partly because of her success in working on the best-selling memoirs of Rosalynn Carter. The O'Neill project is in the hands of William Novak, who wrote Iacocca. "A publisher would pay a lot for Novak," says one agent. "In a business fraught with insecurity and fear, anything that reduces that fear increases in value."