Saturday night's all right for writing

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The Independent Online
IT IS a book that has not yet been written, by an author who has not even been asked to write it - but it could be the publishing sensation of next year. The autobiography being auctioned to the highest bidder will be by Elton John - if he ever gets round to putting pen to paper.

The man dangling this tempting morsel in front of various publishing houses is Irving 'Swifty' Lazar, 85, an American literary agent who has become a legend for his publishing coups. One rival agent described him as 'one of a small number of literary agents in Hollywood who, if he enters behind you in a revolving door, will come out in front'.

Mr Lazar is credited with inventing the 'blind' book sale, in which agents attempt, with a combination of hype, cunning and contacts, to clinch a series of lucrative deals for non-existent books.

He said last week that he was on the verge of selling the UK rights for the Elton John autobiography for 'much more' than dollars 1m (about pounds 600,000). Negotiations with several publishers were taking place. Whoever buys would also get the UK serial rights. Newspapers including the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Sunday Mirror and Today are said to have expressed an interest.

The UK rights for the story of Beirut hostage John McCarthy and his girlfriend Jill Morrell are rumoured to have gone for pounds 350,000, and Katharine Hepburn's autobiography went for pounds 365,000. However, the UK rights to Baroness Thatcher's autobiography are believed to have been sold for about pounds 3m.

Authors whom Mr Lazar has represented include Michael Caine, whose autobiography was published this month after being sold in the UK for about dollars 700,000, Noel Coward, Richard Nixon, Joan Collins and Orson Welles.

He approached Elton John, whom he knows socially, with the idea of writing a book. 'I then went to the publishers to see what was the best deal I could get and presented it to Elton and his manager.' But it can be the other way round. 'Sometimes I approach the author; sometimes he doesn't know he has a book or wants to do a book.'

At a time when the publishing industry is in deep recession, books with guaranteed appeal have become increasingly valuable.

Mr Lazar is famous for his ability to create deals - and books - out of nothing. He has been know to ring up publishers late at night to ask what they would pay for hypothetical

autobiographies. After speaking to several publishers to find the top price, he contacts the intended subject and makes an offer.

A literary agent based in London recalled an incident in which Mr Lazar offered the film director Roman Polanski a contract and a large advance for an autobiography days after meeting him for the first time. 'We all have a grudging respect for Lazar,' said the agent.

Contracts for autobiographies often include clauses saying celebrates must discuss certain subjects - usually controversial ones - in their book. For example Cher, the singer and actress, has to include love, men, sex and plastic surgery.

This can be vital - the contract for James Mason's autobiography did not contain a similar clause. Rather than describe his work with the likes of Marlon Brando and Alfred Hitchcock, it went into great detail about his life in Huddersfield.

Politicians usually have to write their autobiographies as soon as they leave office, otherwise their market value drops. Ronald Reagan is believed to have signed a contract the day he left office for about dollars 10m. Many literary agents believe Lady Thatcher could have got a lot more money for her story if she had signed sooner after she fell from power.

Mark Lucas, of the agents Peters Fraser and Dunlop, said: 'Quite a lot of people think they are born to write their autobiography and are deeply flattered to be asked. Others are offended because they think you're suggesting their career is over.'

(Photograph omitted)