Publishers Ready Books on Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Julie Bosman
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Any readers clamoring to relive the oil-darkened spring of 2010 will have plenty of opportunity. Publishers have bought at least six books relating to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, and several more proposals are circulating. One book is being hastily written so it can come out in September.

Next spring a traffic jam of titles could converge on the first anniversary of the spill. “There are lots of people circling the subject,” said Mitch Hoffman, an executive editor at Grand Central Publishing who has read at least three proposals. “With a story of this magnitude and importance, there are going to be any number of books. I was hearing consistent chatter inside of the first few days of when Deepwater Horizon went under.” The spill and its aftermath would appear to have all the ingredients of a gripping, complex narrative: 11 workers were killed when the oil rig blew up late at night; a thriving fishing industry was immediately threatened; an environmental catastrophe loomed; BP, the oil company that managed the drilling rig, was accused of incompetence and its chief executive (“I’d like my life back”) of callousness.

Some publishers saw potential for a many-tentacled story about human anguish, the environment, big corporations and political fallout. But as with Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, they feared a collision of similar books. Wary of covering the same territory, the publishers and authors who have announced deals so far have tried to approach the story from different angles. Carl Safina, an oceanographer and MacArthur fellow, will write a book for Crown, part of Random House, about the environmental consequences of the spill. Loren Steffy, a business columnist for The Houston Chronicle, sold a book to McGraw-Hill in early July that will focus on BP, tracing “how the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is only part of a larger pattern of corporate cost-cutting and image-making that has compromised safety across BP’s operations for years,” according to a statement from the publisher.

Last week David Hirshey, the executive editor of HarperCollins, signed a book that he called “the definitive account” of the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon, tentatively titled “Fire on the Horizon.” “It will be a page-turning adventure narrative that pits engineers against the earth, blue-collar roughnecks against an invisible corporate presence, but ultimately it is a story that finds them all struggling to survive the same unimaginable accident,” Mr. Hirshey said in an e-mail message, adding that John Konrad, an oil rig captain who is one of the authors, has gained close access to some of the families of the men killed aboard the rig. Stephen S.

Power, a senior editor at Wiley, sought out Antonia Juhasz, the author of “The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry — and What We Must Do to Stop It,” and commissioned her to write on the human tragedy. “Agents and publishers are very savvy about this,” said Diana Finch, Ms. Juhasz’s literary agent. “There’s a huge crush of books, so they really do look for very clear angles and strong author credentials going into it. How will the author of this book get attention? Where will the author’s authority come from? Why will people want to read what that author has to say?” Michael Flamini, an executive editor at St. Martin’s Press, was one of the first publishers to sign an author.

In May he read a proposal by Mike Magner, an investigative journalist in Washington who had already spent three years working on a book about BP. Mr. Magner updated his nearly finished manuscript to include material on the disaster. When Mr. Flamini saw the proposal, which was sent by Ron Goldfarb, an agent in Washington, he scrambled to prevent the book from going to auction. “I called him and said, ‘Ron, please do nothing,’ ” he said, offering a six-figure bid, which was accepted. Considering that the story of the spill is far from over, Mr. Flamini is still trying to decide how the book should end and when it should be published. “At one point, you just have to say, O.K., this is the end of the story,” he said. “And you try to make an intelligent guess on how to end the book.”

OR Books, the publisher of “Going Rouge,” a book of critical essays about Sarah Palin, is rushing to produce what could be the first book on the disaster, “Deepwater Horizon: The Oil Disaster, Its Aftermath and Our Future,” by Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, written with Bob Deans. Colin Robinson and John Oakes of OR signed the authors in mid-June and gave them about a month to finish writing and reporting. Mr. Oakes said he expected to have a finished manuscript in his hands this week, with a September publication date planned. “It seemed essential to get a book out,” Mr. Oakes said. “We’ll have the take on what’s happened and how we got to this point. A book that encapsulates, that does an overview of the issues, could be of utility to someone.”

Other publishers wondered if the story was dramatic or straightforward enough to lend itself to a book. “The spill is one of those stories that is shocking but not surprising,” said Geoff Shandler, editor in chief at Little, Brown & Company, who saw several proposals but did not pursue any of them. “It’s incredibly important, but weirdly, it’s not that dramatic in terms of the action.” And some authors who would be considered natural candidates to write about the spill have hesitated. Michael Lewis, a New Orleans native and a master of the deeply reported, best-selling narrative, said he was not writing a book on the spill.

The historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” said he also had no plans to write a spill book. “I’m sensing oil spill fatigue,” Mr. Brinkley said. “We’ve been seeing so many images of that gusher, I just don’t know if people really want to read more about it.”


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