NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Steve Ross

Steve Ross

Posted: November 2, 2009 11:18 AM

The Writer-in-Chief

What's Your Reaction:

"I have an amazing story to tell you," she said, stepping into my office.

"She" was the editorial director whose balanced perspective and judgment made her essential to me as Publisher and to the editorial staff.

"Okay, let's hear it."

One of the editors, she told me, had read a profile written by Scott Turow in Salon.com of a forty-something community organizer and published author in Chicago who had thrown his hat into the Illinois Senate race. Turow, who was also in the Chicago area and had known this man for years, hailed him as "the new face of the Democratic party." The editor had done some further research and discovered that his book--a memoir that Turow called "a beautifully crafted book, moving and candid"--was published nine years earlier, in 1995. The book had received a few impressive blurbs and favorable reviews, but had sold only a few thousand copies, so had been out of print for years. The editor couldn't find a copy through any of the used or out-of-print book sellers on the web, but was able to patch together enough selections through disparate sources to get a sense of the book's quality. The writing is fantastic, she said. "And you're not going to believe who published it."

"Who?"

We had, it turned out. Crown, the division or Random House at which I was working, still owned the rights. The book deserved to be republished in paperback, she said--it was richly textured and elegant and quintessentially American.

"Does the author have a media platform now?"

Not that she could tell.

"Any national platform at all?"

Beyond the senate race, there was no national platform to speak of--but she could see where the conversation was going. So she pressed the case on the editor's behalf: we owned the rights, we wouldn't have to earn back a large advance, we could go out with modest expectations and then, well--it was the caliber of writing that's like a lightning rod, and maybe lightning would strike. And if this man fulfilled the potential Turow saw in him, he just might triumph in his Senate race.

"Can I read what you have of it?"

Getting a whole book in hand had proven elusive, but yes, there was some material she'd bring over.

"What's his name?"

"Barack Obama."

"Sorry. What is his name?"

"Barack. Obama." He'd graduated at the top of his class at Harvard Law School, she explained, and was the first Black President of the Harvard Law Review. His educational credentials were impeccable and I was going to love his writing, she felt confident.

That's how it all started. Or at least that's how it started for us at Crown in early 2004. It had really started almost a decade earlier when an editor named Henry Ferris acquired, edited and published Dreams from My Father before he moved to HarperCollins. And publishing turnover being as active as a diner's griddle at breakfast rush, there was no one on staff with institutional memory dating back that far.

I read the available material, loved it, recognized it posed marketing and sales challenges, but also recognized that the editor was right: it did deserve to be republished and accessible to a wider readership. Dreams from My Father was (and remains) one of the most candid, insightful, stirring, eloquent and inspiring memoirs I've ever read. Why was such a polished writer entering politics? Well, an actor had become not only President but an enormously influential one; wouldn't it be interesting and gratifying if a gifted writer were to succeed in American politics? Like an American Vaclav Havel.

"Let's track him down and find out what else he's doing. And let me know if it looks like he stands a chance to win."

We acquired and set a publication date for the book, positioned it as a must-read literary work for the growing memoir readership, written by a gifted up-and-coming politician, announced a modest first print run of 20,000 copies and an even more modest laydown goal of 10,000 copies (meaning, the number of books in stores on the on-sale date), emphasizing a regional focus in Chicago, where he was known. We distributed photocopies of the available materials to various in-house departments and to our sales reps across the country, and made impassioned pleas to read and support the book at cross-departmental meetings. Months passed, support grew slowly but steadily, contractual paperwork was shuffled, and we became increasingly familiar with the author. We were impressed by the evident breadth and depth of his intelligence, his smooth and unflappable demeanor, his undeniable charisma, and knew that these qualities might take him far in his Senate race--and perhaps beyond.

Because I was returning from a business trip to London, I missed the live coverage when Barack introduced himself to the country as a "skinny kid with a funny name" in the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But there was no missing the next day's coverage blasting from the airport TV screens and shouting from newsstand headlines. Barack was being hailed as a new political celebrity who had galvanized the left and reawakened its nascent political dreams--all in eighteen minutes. I picked up a newspaper and read the transcript of the speech in the backseat of a taxi home and was struck by the perfect pitch craftsmanship, a symphony of words that built to a crescendo of hope and optimism. I nearly gave him a standing ovation in the cab. Three months later he was elected to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate.

We knew in advance of the DNC that Obama had been selected to give the keynote address, so we notified our sales reps to watch for it and to ask their bookseller accounts to do so as well. By then we felt confident that, given his eloquence as a writer, it would probably be a rousing speech, and hoped it would put him on the national map. But we never dreamed it would have the impact it did. It was as if Barack was a baseball player who'd come off the bench as a pinch hitter and, with one swing, hit a home run that had won not only a World Series game, but the entire series.

Everything about the publication process changed. Everything. Bookseller orders doubled, then tripled. Barnes & Noble's order went from 3,000 copies to 20,000. Our publicity department was flooded with requests for him to appear on national media. Print media outlets prepared profiles. A multi-book deal was negotiated and announced. We decided to include the text of the DNC speech in the back of the book. We went to press, and back again, and back again--prior to the on-sale date. Our modest 10,000-copy laydown goal had swollen to 25,000, then 50,000, then 100,000 copies. He went into the studio to read the audio edition of the book that would eventually garner him a Grammy Award--his first Grammy, but not his last.

Shortly after the on-sale date, Barack came to New York for a book signing appearance at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. His editor and I attended and watched as the space packed in several hundred more people than its stated capacity before security cordoned off the area. When the Senator strode in the crowd leapt to its feet and, amid the din of whistling and cheering and clapping, a chant broke out: "Obama in '08! Obama in '08!" I remember thinking how gratifying it was that such an exceptional writer could be embraced so broadly and passionately for his work, but also being mystified by the enormous leap the crowd was taking: a writer? In the White House? What were they smoking?

During the book signing I stood next to Barack at his table and opened each customer's books to the proper page. Before signing each copy, Barack personally greeted each customer with a handshake and a question or comment. One young man in his late 20's, pale and nervous-looking, stepped up and said, "Why won't you appear on Bill O'Reilly's show?"
Because, the Senator explained, he hadn't been invited to appear on the show. "Do you work for Mr. O'Reilly?"

"Why won't you appear on the O'Reilly show?" the young man asked again, turning sideways. I looked and saw that he was being filmed by his own cameraman. I signaled to security.
After repeating that he had never been invited on to Mr. O'Reilly's show, the Senator, keeping his cool, said that he watched the show and would be glad to appear if invited to do so. At this point two security officers escorted the young man off the podium as he raised his voice and asked over his shoulder, "Why won't you appear on O'Reilly's show? What are you afraid of?" In retrospect this may have been a precursor to the current disaffection between the White House and Fox News, and perhaps the first, albeit minor, gauntlet thrown down.

I was there through the editorial and publication process of his next book, The Audacity of Hope, in 2006. Between midnight and 3:00 am each day--after his Senate and family obligations were put to bed--Barack would write, then send his work to his editor for her comments. As the deadlines grew tighter, she would give us regular updates about the progress of the manuscript and sometimes share drafts of chapters for a few of us to read. It was a rare pleasure to watch as the distillation of his message and his vision took shape on paper. Even as a senator Barack continued to care about his work as a writer. He attended the Random House Sales Conference as a dinner speaker and had his picture taken with each of the sales reps. He attended an author-and-bookseller dinner party Crown threw during the annual booksellers' convention (the BEA), a gathering he would also later attend as a breakfast speaker along with John Updike and Amy Sedaris. And I brought my young sons to his Senate office, where they swiveled around in his chair and we were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Senate building.

The night of the election was a momentous turning point in history, one that we will all remember for decades to come. Throughout the evening I kept marveling at what an improbable and exhilarating trip it had been, and when he won I felt so profoundly proud of our country, and of our author, and of the editor who'd read Turow's piece and had the tenacity to pursue the republication of his luminous first book.

Perhaps because I first came to know Barack Obama as a memoirist, and perhaps because I read his DNC speech rather than watched it with the rest of the country, I continue to think of him as a writer. When he gives a major speech--when, for example, the controversy surrounding Reverend Wright threatened to explode and he said he was drafting a speech that would address the issue--I often avoid watching his delivery, and instead find a transcript on the internet and read it. When I read his speech about race I printed it out, photocopied it, and went from office to office dispensing copies because I thought it was the most important and well-crafted speech in years, if not decades. I still think so.

Barack Obama will always be a writer in my mind. He's won two Grammy Awards (one each for Dreams from My Father and for Audacity of Hope), won the most powerful office in the western world, and won a Nobel Peace Prize. Actually, when I heard he'd won the Nobel Prize I assumed it was for Literature and my first thought was, "Well, most writers have to demonstrate a more prodigious literary output before being considered, but bully for them for recognizing such superior quality." But as audacious as it sounds, I'm still holding out hope for a Pulitzer, or a National Book Award, or at least a National Book Critics Circle Award.


So, one year after the election, what do you think Candidate Obama would think of President Obama? Tweet your response (our Twitter hashtag is #OneYearLater), or post it in the comments section.

 

Follow Steve Ross on Twitter: www.twitter.com/slross58