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High-Stakes Publishing

August 7, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Now, high-stakes publishing meets a high octane politician, former President Bill Clinton. Media Correspondent Terence Smith has the story.

TERENCE SMITH: Why would a publisher pay a former president $10 to $12 million for his memoirs? We’ll get an explanation from David Rosenthal, publisher of Simon and Schuster’s trade division, which paid a reported $8 million for the right to publish Senator Hillary Clinton’s upcoming book about her White House years; and from Robert Barnett, the attorney who negotiated the book deals for both Clintons, Mr. Barnett has represented numerous authors and television correspondents, including, on occasion, this one. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. David Rosenthal, from a publisher’s point of view, what would explain these astronomical advances?

DAVID ROSENTHAL: Well, I think there is always the hope that a publisher can do extremely well with the book obviously. The advances are determined in large part by what the market will bear. No publisher is throwing money away, at least not willingly or insanely. And all publishers enter deals particularly at this level very optimistically. I know we feel we’ve made a very good investment with Senator Clinton’s book. I’m sure Knopf feels the same way about the president’s book.

TERENCE SMITH: Given the prices are you disappointed that you’re not publishing the president’s book?

DAVID ROSENTHAL: I’m disappointed that we’re not publishing him because we’ve had a wonderful publishing history with the Clintons. I don’t know precisely what the price is, only what I read in the paper. But I think that I’m sure it is a fair and sane price — again because it was not plucked out of thin air. These numbers do not just float down from on high and suddenly appear to people. Publishers analyze their numbers. They look at what we think we can sell. Already Mrs. Clinton’s book, we’ve been very successful in selling some of her rights overseas and I’m certain Knopf will do tremendously well the president’s book as well.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Barnett, are you in a position to tell us the price?

ROBERT BARNETT: Terry, I’m not. It’s a private transaction by a private individual. All the numbers that you’re seeing out there are speculation. We were very grateful for the wonderful offer that Knopf made just as we were very grateful on behalf of Senator Clinton for the wonderful offer that Simon and Schuster made. In terms of the specifics we haven’t gotten into that. The ultimate test is whether the book will sell. And I’m convinced that in both cases the book will sell big numbers.

But remember, most people don’t understand how a publishing deal works economically. The publisher does not just buy the right to publish the book. There’s also the right to sell pre-publication excerpts for magazines. There’s a right to sell post publication excerpts in magazines. There’s foreign rights. There’s large print rights. There’s audio rights. There’s e-book rights. There’s paperback rights. And all those sales of very different products go into the barrel that makes up the amount of money that the author and the publisher receive.

TERENCE SMITH: How many copies, Bob Barnett, would this book have to sell for Knopf, given all those factors, all those ingredients, how many copies would it have to sell, a million, two million, to make back the advance?

ROBERT BARNETT: I find it interesting and I’m sure David does too how these numbers get thrown about because I’ve seen everywhere from one million to three million and on. It really can’t be determined until one knows what the other rights are selling for. So, for instance, if you get $1,000 advance for a book, let’s say, and the foreign rights sell for $500 and the royalty on a book is $1, then you have to sell 500. If you have no foreign sales, you have to sell 1,000. So until you know what those other sources of revenue yield, there’s no way to calculate right now how many books will have to be sold.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. David Rosenthal, since both Clintons are going to be writing, going to be publishing, do you have any concern that one Clinton may steal the thunder of the other?

DAVID ROSENTHAL: I think it’s a very complementary relationship, I would think. Perhaps if we owned Senator Clinton’s book and Knopf were publishing Ken Starr’s book, we might be concerned with a competing publication. But I think they are very reasonable people. We’re very reasonable publishers. I’m sure we will be able to publish these books with enough spacing between them to give each book the chance to get the attention they deserve.

TERENCE SMITH: So you do intend to stagger them somewhat?

DAVID ROSENTHAL: Well, I would think that will happen. I mean, Mrs. Clinton has started on hers a number of months ago. We signed the book back in December or January, I recall. And I think that she has had a bit of a head start. We’re planning on publishing in the early part of ’03. I’m not sure exactly what Knopf plans for President Clinton’s book. I don’t think that’s a problem. I think the country has also shown that there is no couple that they are more fascinated with, more intrigued with, want to know more about than Bill and Hillary Clinton. So it seems to be for everybody an embarrassment of riches.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Barnett, how candid do you expect the President to be about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, about the impeachment, about the controversial aspects of his presidency?

ROBERT BARNETT: The president has told me– and he’s told the publisher– that he will write a comprehensive and candid book. I’ve spent numerous hours with him discussing the book, and I can tell you there are some wonderful stories that will be included in the book. The precise content of the book? My view is, it hasn’t been written yet and you’ll have to buy it and read it and then you’ll find out exactly what’s in there. But I can tell you it will be a comprehensive and candid book.

TERENCE SMITH: How far did he have to go, Bob Barnett, in persuading Knopf that it would be, in fact, candid and comprehensive?

ROBERT BARNETT: Well, that’s very interesting. The only people who ask me questions about the specifics of whether certain things will be in the book are journalists. I had 14 meetings with Senator Clinton, had dozens of conversations with publishers on behalf of President Clinton and not one publisher inquired about those specific things.

They want to know something very different, and I think that it’s fair to say that what they want to know is whether this man who has lived about a week short of 55 years and had an amazing career in Arkansas, in Washington, on the world stage will tell the reader about his experiences– high and low– his failures, his successes, the people he’s met, the things he’s most proud of, how it felt to be in certain situations, and I think that they’re convinced on behalf of both Senator Clinton and former president Clinton that that will happen in these books.

TERENCE SMITH: David Rosenthal, how do you go about marketing books by former presidents and first ladies? I mean, do you envision a book tour with Senator Clinton out selling her book?

DAVID ROSENTHAL: Oh, I think absolutely. She’s proven herself to be a great campaigner, but I think you must remember Senator Clinton already has done three books for Simon and Schuster including, “It Takes a Village” which was a number one bestseller. And she was out there selling that book. She did bookstore appearances, media appearances. She is in many ways the ultimate pro. She is a wonderful politician. She’s a wonderful saleswoman for her ideas and for what she believes in. So I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. It’s going to be a lot easier selling Hillary Clinton to a public that wants to read her book than frankly selling some new young novelist that we’re trying to break out.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Barnett, historically Presidential memoirs have frankly been a disappointment, often in terms of both history and their literacy quality and sometimes even financially. What makes you think this will be different?

ROBERT BARNETT: Well, I quarrel with your assumption. Several of them have been big sellers. For instance former President Carter has had several major bestsellers. But I take your point. And my response is that Bill Clinton is a person who people are very interested in. I meet people who like him and I meet people who don’t. I meet people who agree with him and I meet people who don’t, but they all are interested in him. They want to know what he thinks, why he does things the way he does, what his view is of certain things.

And I think that it’s not probably an overstatement to say he’s one of the most interesting people in the latter half of this last century. And so I think there will be a lot of people who will want to read the book because, in this one instance and really in the most significant instance and most broad instance, here’s a situation where a former President, former First Lady-now Senator will be telling in their own words what happened to them and how they viewed it.

TERENCE SMITH: David, go ahead and finish briefly if you will.

DAVID ROSENTHAL: I’m sorry. I just don’t think you can underestimate the interest that the American public has for politicians and Presidents generally. We’ve had a big number one bestseller all summer with “John Adams” by David McCullough, which has been phenomenal, and had a bestseller last year with Jimmy Carter’s book, a number one bestseller. For some reason the public has turned and wants to know the truth, the story behind and about the politicians that have created the country.

TERENCE SMITH: David Rosenthal, Bob Barnett, thank you both very much.

DAVID ROSENTHAL: Thank you very much.