Million-dollar bids welcome new Wolfe to the door

Rolling Stone's publisher tells David Usborne how he captured the rights to Vanities follow-up: 'Our karma carried the day'
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The Independent Online
IT IS a literary birth more anticipated than almost any other in modern times.

The new novel from Tom Wolfe - his first major opus since his 1987 Bonfire of the Vanities - will be upon us in November. Or it should be: in spite of spending a decade on it already, the painstaking Mr Wolfe still has three chapters to go. Readers of a certain magazine, however, will be getting a taste of the work as early as this summer.

Ever since his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, put it about 18 months ago that it would be hawking the first serial rights to the book for $1m

(pounds 600,000), the Manhattan publishing world has been agog with speculation. Would anyone really pay such a sum for the new Wolfe and, if so, who? The New Yorker, with its tradition of showcasing authors? Esquire, desperate to reinflate its sagging prestige?

Now, after an intense and secret competition that involved four rival periodicals - the two above, as well as Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone - the questions have at last been answered. The million-dollar price tag, it turned out, was too extravagant for everyone. As for the identity of the winner, it really shouldn't surprise anyone. It is Rolling Stone, owned and edited by Jann Wenner.

Exactly how much Mr Wenner did agree to pay no one is saying. Reports that it was $600,000 were dismissed by Mr Wenner as "way off". In an interview with the Independent on Sunday, however, he conceded that the amount was "impressive" and certainly in the six-figure category. Also impressive is the fact that Mr Wenner won the race in spite of being outbid by at least one of the other titles.

"We were not the highest offer, but I think that our karma carried the day," suggested Mr Wenner, who last week was in unusually talkative form after Rolling Stone walked away with two prizes from the annual National Magazine Awards in New York. More talkative, probably, than Farrar, Straus & Giroux would like. "Am I in violation of national security, telling you this? I hope not," he joked.

It was meant to be an impartial contest, with editors from the four contenders invited to the publishing house a few weeks ago to peruse the first 18 chapters under strict supervision and only after they had signed agreements not to divulge the contents. They were also asked to make detailed commitments about how they would display the four excerpts that were on offer, what kind of promotional efforts they had in mind and even how they would advertise the book itself on their pages.

In truth, however, Mr Wenner had several advantages over his rivals. He and Tom Wolfe are old and close friends. And Rolling Stone has a long tradition of publishing his work. The Right Stuff of 1973 had its genesis in a series of pieces about astronauts commissioned by Mr Wenner for his magazine. In 1987, he paid $200,000 to serialise Vanities in its entirety, which Mr Wolfe later rewrote slightly before its publication in book form. In December 1996, Rolling Stone carried Mr Wolfe's Ambush at Fort Bragg, an offcut from the forthcoming novel that otherwise came out only as an audio-book.

Mr Wenner, in fact, had no need to visit Farrar, Straus & Giroux at all. He had - indeed, still has - a copy of the 18 chapters all of his own. Moreover, he helped Mr Wolfe edit the first few chapters.

The book, it can be revealed here, will not be called Red Dogs, as has been widely reported. That was one of several titles considered by the author, along with The Stoics and Chocolate City. Finally, though, he has gone with A Man in Full. Its lead protagonist is a fallen property tycoon named Charlie Croker. It is deliberately set in Atlanta, Georgia, and not New York, to avoid any suggestion of a Vanities sequel.

That a bidding war should have broken out among the magazines is no surprise to Lynn Nesbit, Mr Wolfe's long- time literary agent. "This is the power of Tom Wolfe," she said last week. "Everyone has been waiting for this book. I mean, this is Tom. People wanted it desperately, and once they had read it, they wanted it even more." Leaks about the magazine competition and about the favourable reactions of those allowed to see the book have triggered an avalanche of interest from Hollywood, Ms Nesbit reported. She herself only saw the 18 chapters last weekend and, of course, was duly awed.

Whether Mr Wenner will get back what he is investing in the rights, at least in revenue terms, is uncertain. He himself conceded that sales of the four issues of Rolling Stone, a monthly, that will carry the excerpts may not even go up by that much. But, as Terry McDonnell, editor of another Wenner title, Men's Journal, explains, it is all about image and prestige in an industry that is far from genteel.

"It would have been a big deal if someone else would have gotten it," Mr McDonnell suggested. "Imagine if you're in a magazine whose stock has dropped and you're not the literary powerhouse you used to be and things are not going so great. You could do one big thing with Tom Wolfe and people would start talking about how you are cool again."

And for Jann Wenner, being cool, of course, is what it is all about.