The Campaign Spot

Obama’s Book-Writing Sabbatical in Bali, Indonesia

From time to time I’ve referred to Obama’s advance for Dreams From My Father, and stories indicating it was enough to allowed “him to set aside six months after he graduated to write.”

The New York Times dug into this last month, and found a few more answers.

The coverage prompted a call to him from Jane Dystel, a gravelly-voiced literary agent described by Peter Osnos, then the publisher of Times Books, as “a good journeyman with a hard edge.” The home page of her firm’s Web site currently features clients’ best sellers including “Lies at the Altar: The Truth About Great Marriages.” Ms. Dystel suggested Mr. Obama write a book proposal. Then she got him a contract with Poseidon Press, a now-defunct imprint of Simon & Schuster. When he missed his deadline, she got him another contract and a $40,000 advance from Times Books…
By the time Mr. Obama landed at Times Books, he had a partial manuscript. He required minimal editing, said Henry Ferris, his editor, who is now a vice president and executive editor at William Morrow. He simply needed guidance in paring and shaping the sections already written and keeping the rest from becoming too long. The writing, Mr. Ferris said, “is very much his own.”
The two worked mostly by telephone and by manuscripts sent by Federal Express between New York and Chicago. Mr. Obama, an inveterate journal writer who had published poems in a college literary magazine but had never attempted a book, struggled to finish. His half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, said he eventually retreated to Bali for several months with his wife, Michelle, “to find a peaceful sanctuary where there were no phones.” He showed drafts to a few close relatives including his grandmother, of whom Ms. Soetoro-Ng said, “It probably made her a little nervous, having the family written about, just because you don’t do that in Kansas.”

Nice work if you can get it. The article doesn’t quite make clear when that second contract was worked out, sometime between 1990 (Harvard Law Review) and 1995 (the book’s publication). A $40,000 book contract in 1993 would be $58,427.46 in 2007, according to the Inflation Calculator.
(I can hear it coming — “Hey, big shot, weren’t you in Turkey when you wrote your book, now available at fine remainder bins everywhere?” Yup, but I was already over there when the publisher signed on, and frankly, being overseas made writing it tougher – seven hour time difference with sources, etc.)

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