Bigger than Grisham

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Tom Clancy is in clear and present danger of getting a reputation for losing friends. You might ask his ex-wife, who was abandoned after 28 years of marriage. Or the people he chose to run his charitable foundation for children, of whom more later. You could certainly ask his agent of the last 15 years, who is very angry indeed right now.

Tom Clancy is in clear and present danger of getting a reputation for losing friends. You might ask his ex-wife, who was abandoned after 28 years of marriage. Or the people he chose to run his charitable foundation for children, of whom more later. You could certainly ask his agent of the last 15 years, who is very angry indeed right now.

Clancy, one quickly discovers, is not a man who is easily satisfied. But not everyone who is associated with him has suffered this fate. First, there are his most important partners, his legion fans around the world; even now they are snapping up his latest work of espionage and military bravado, The Bear and the Dragon. (Yes, it is about a near-nuclear spat between Russia and China.) He has also remained faithful to his publisher, GP Putnam & Sons, an American arm of Penguin.

Indeed this last matter - the survival of the relationship between the author and publisher - is the real reason why Clancy's name has been on people's lips in recent days. For until late last week, many in the publishing world thought that this bond was in jeopardy too - and that Putnam was about to be shafted by Clancy.

But then word leaked out of an extraordinary new deal between Clancy and his publishers - one that would confirm the 53-year-old author as the world's best-paid writer. Indeed, it would make him the best-paid writer ever. According to American newspaper reports, they have inked a contract that guarantees Clancy $45m (about £31m) for his next two books. Even before the deal, Clancy's annual earnings were estimated by Forbes magazine at $66m (about £45m), already putting him slightly ahead of arch-rival, Stephen King, on $65m.

The financial clout of Clancy is hard not to admire. After all, here is a man who started out as a humble insurance salesman in Maryland, and who had always wanted to join the military but was rejected because of serious myopia. Then, in the early Eighties, with the support of his wife, Wanda, he began to act upon his other long-term dream: to become a big-time author. At the dining-room table of their modest home, he started writing a thriller about the crew of a Russian nuclear submarine who wanted to defect.

That book, of course, was called The Hunt for Red October. Clancy sold the completed manuscript to an obscure publisher, the Naval Institute Press. They paid him just $5,000 for it, omitting to guarantee him the film rights. Then something quite extraordinary happened: without any marketing to speak of, Clancy's first novel quickly sold 300,000 copies - helped along when Ronald Reagan publicly described it as the "perfect yarn". So overwhelming has Clancy's success been in the years since that it seems incredible his career is still only in its second decade.

Red October spawned more than just a successful thriller writer, however. It created an entire Clancy industry. With the publication last month of The Bear and the Dragon, Clancy now has 12 bestselling novels under his belt, many featuring one Jack Ryan, a former CIA operative. And there is more. Three of those books have been made into blockbuster films, including Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games, both starring Harrison Ford as Ryan. And in a remarkable exercise in author franchising, Clancy has put his name, if not much time at his word processor, to the "Op-Center" series of potboiler novels, which have also enjoyed phenomenal popularity. Clancy "creates" these offshoot books with Steve Pieczenik, but they are largely written by another collaborator, Jeff Rovin.

Finally, there is another company, called Red Storm Entertainment. It produces video games based on the Clancy novels. Intriguingly, his 1998 bestseller Rainbow Six was inspired by a Red Storm game of the same name, rather than the other way around. In an interview that year with this newspaper, Clancy said he was creating a "new art form... a different way to tell stories. Instead of telling them to people as you do if you're a playwright or an author, we present the reader with stories in which he can participate."

But more recently Clancy, a chainsmoker well known for his right-wing views, has been attracting a less flattering press. In mid-1998, newspapers began to chronicle the mess of his divorce from Wanda. Their marriage fractured first in 1995 when Clancy had an affair with a 26-year-old New York lawyer, whom he allegedly met on the internet. (He must have regretted telling The Washington Post two years earlier that "I can't admire anyone, who plays around on his wife".) Later, in 1997, he took up with Alexandria Llewellyn, a 31-year-old heiress and a cousin of General Colin Powell, the former American military supremo. Powell, who has advised Clancy on military minutiae, introduced the couple. Clancy fought in court with Wanda over, among other things, her claim to a share of the intellectual property contained in his novels, including some credit for the creation of Ryan. In a legal brief, his lawyers asserted that the writer "merely wishes to terminate the parties' moribund marriage as soon as possible and get on with his life". Which he has since managed to do.

Clancy's philanthropic adventures, which should have been worthy of Ryan himself, began to unravel this year. Back in 1991, he had set up a charity to help children with cancer and other grave illnesses that he called The Kyle Foundation - after a six-year-old boy who had written to him while dying of sarcoma. With his own money and his many connections, Clancy got the foundation up and running with relative ease. But recently it has gone into a nosedive. In February, Clancy sacked the foundation's executive director, Katherine Gorshow, accusing her of mismanagement and improper expenditure. Before she could return to the foundation's Colorado HQ, Clancy reportedly dispatched former FBI agents to change the locks. For her part, Gorshow is now suing - and the future of the foundation is in doubt, or worse.

The bust-up that has really gripped the literary world, however, happened this August. Out of the blue, Clancy announced that he was leaving his long-time agent, Robert Gottlieb of the William Morris agency. Even more astonishingly, it transpired that he was defecting to Michael Ovitz, the one-time Disney chief and legendary Hollywood fixer, who now heads his own firm, the Artists Management Group. Ovitz had already managed Clancy for some years.

Not surprisingly, people wanted to know what had brought this on. After all, Clancy and Gottlieb were seen as the best of friends. It was Gottlieb who, way back in 1984, had spotted a proof of Red October at a book convention, and had wooed the then unknown Clancy and signed him on as a client. Soon after, it was Gottlieb again who had hooked the author up with Putnam. But over time, we have learned, Clancy had become restless. He felt that there should have been more films based on his books. (It has also been common knowledge for some time that Clancy never favoured the casting of Harrison Ford as Ryan; and he has recently suggested that Ben Affleck will soon take over the role.) By hitching his fortunes to Ovitz alone, Clancy may also have been hoping to save money.

"Rob [Gottlieb] is a good guy," Clancy explained to The New York Times shortly after the switch. "He made me a lot of money and I made him a lot of money." But he went on to contrast numbers of books written with films made. "Eight are out there hanging and flapping in the wind, and I think they are damned good enough to be made into movies."

Gottlieb, perhaps understandably, did not react well. Presenting his own version of events, Gottlieb fumed that Ovitz had "raided" his client, who he claimed had been "bamboozled". In an unusual move, William Morris made its own statement disassociating itself from Gottlieb's outburst.

Eyes quickly turned to Putnam. Was the publisher about to lose its star author too? And how seriously would such a loss wound Putnam, given that it had barely overcome the humiliation of losing Stephen King to Simon & Schuster in 1997?

Nobody who actually knows anything will say what really happened between Putnam and Clancy. But most in the industry seem inclined to believe the figure of $45m, reported in The New York Post. "We have no idea really how this deal played," one leading literary agent told me this week. "But it would have to be up there, given his numbers". Another added: "I believe it. Oh yeah. Look who he is!"

Only one question probably remains. Why did this leak happen? In whose interest was it that all the world should know just how fabulously well Mr Clancy is doing out of Putnam? You don't have to be Jack Ryan to make an intelligent guess. You might imagine it was Clancy himself. Once more, it seems, the acclaimed lord of the techno-thriller has got his way. On the other hand... did I hear someone mention the name of Michael Ovitz?