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Knopf inks record deal for Clinton memoirs

After months of clandestine negotiations, Alfred A. Knopf has bought Bill Clinton’s memoirs in a world rights deal believed to be worth more than $12 million.

The book will chronicle Clinton’s life to the end of his presidency, with a focus on his years in the White House. It is not expected to shrink from such events as his impeachment and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “It’s a thorough and candid telling of his life,” Knopf prexy Sonny Mehta told Daily Variety.

Unlike Hillary Clinton’s memoir, which fetched an $8 million advance from Simon & Schuster in December following a lengthy and much publicized auction, the former president’s book was quietly preempted by Knopf, an imprint of Bertelsmann’s Random House. Without an auction, the terms of Clinton’s deal with Knopf are likely to remain a mystery.

While people close to the deal put the advance at $12 million, there is no way to determine its accuracy. Clinton’s attorney Robert Barnett called published reports on the subject pure speculation. “There are about six people who know what it is,” he said. “And they’re not talking.”

While fiction writers like Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy have netted advances well north of $10 million, no nonfiction author is said to have matched the Clinton advance.

In 1994, Pope John Paul II was paid $8.5 million for a world rights to a memoir. And last year, Time Warner Trade Publishing paid GE topper Jack Welch $7.1 million just for North American rights to his memoir “Jack.”

Knopf secured virtually all available rights to Clinton’s book. These include hardcover, softcover, serial, audio and electronic rights. Knopf will publish in 2003; Vintage Books, a unit of the Knopf Publishing Group, will issue the paperback in 2004.

Barnett has no plans to sell dramatic rights to the book.

Clinton’s memoirs were a subject of intense speculation in publishing circles well before he left office. “He’s received an enormous number of domestic and international offers,” said Barnett.

Unlikely player

Even so, Knopf, which Barnett confirmed has been in exclusive talks with Clinton since sometime this spring, is an unlikely player. Unlike Simon & Schuster, which publishes Hillary and has Joe Lieberman under contract, Knopf doesn’t specialize in contemporary political autobiographies.

But it could be a shrewd matchup for both author and imprint.

Clinton, who’ll be edited by Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb — a former editor of the New Yorker, as well as of writers like Katharine Graham, Toni Morrison and Barbara Tuchman — will get a coat of literary sheen that’s by no means a staple of books by former heads of state. One exec at a rival imprint on Monday called Gottlieb “the best editor of his generation.”

Flying solo

Also uncharacteristic for a political memoir, the book will not have a co-author.

The acquisition also comes at an important time for Knopf. Bestsellers Michael Crichton and Richard North Patterson recently left the imprint. And sibling imprint Random House is about to launch a trade paperback imprint of its own that will jockey for softcover rights with Vintage, increasing the sometimes fierce intramural competition at Random House Inc.

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