July 12, 2022

This November will mark two years since the death of Tony Hsieh. The legendary Zappos entrepreneur was 46 when he died after a house fire in Connecticut. The outpouring of grief from the tech community and beyond was swift. Major news outlets did what they always do when notable figures die — report biographical facts, and in Hsieh’s case, his lifelong mission of creating happiness and his impact in the business and tech worlds.

In the days after Hsieh’s death, Forbes staff reporters David Jeans and Angel Au-Yeung interviewed more than 20 of Hsieh’s close friends and colleagues for what would turn out to be an in-depth story describing his self-destructive last months of life. They used these accounts to paint a clear portrait of tragedy — of a visionary whose struggles deepened as the COVID-19 pandemic stilled the world. Numerous sources told Jeans and Au-Yeung that Hsieh was always a heavy drinker, but began abusing drugs.

“He fostered so much human connection and happiness, yet there was this void,” a close friend of the late entrepreneur told the reporters in the Forbes story. “It was difficult for him to be alone.”

A few days after their story was published, at least three literary agents and a publisher reached out to Jeans and Au-Yeung.

“And all of them more or less had the same pitch, which was: Would we be interested in writing a book about Tony?” recalled Au-Yeung, who now works as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

It’s not uncommon for journalists to be approached by people in the publishing industry, but it was a first for Au-Yeung.

“I didn’t quite know how to interpret it,” she said. “I think my first reaction actually was, ‘I don’t know how seriously to take this.’”

As each agent who reached out to them, Jeans — still at Forbes — realized this was something that they should consider.

“I think we were probably overwhelmed and excited, and there’s a whole bunch of emotions that came with it,” he said. “But it also meant like, what does this mean for us? Is this something that we can even do? Is this something that we can pull off?”

The journalists signed a contract with publisher Henry Holt & Company for a nonfiction book about Hsieh titled “Wonder Boy: Tony Hsieh, Zappos and the Myth of Happiness in Silicon Valley.” According to the deal report on Publishers Marketplace, their book is about the Zappos visionary’s life and impact on the business world, and how his pursuit of happiness and real-world change came to a tragic end during his battle with mental health and addiction. Jeans and Au-Yeung have spoken to more than 150 people and conducted hundreds of interviews, which they hope to turn into the definitive account of Hsieh’s life. They declined to share what they earned from their book deal.

Jeans said he feels fortunate and grateful for the opportunity to co-write this book.

“Really, really grateful,” Au-Yeung added. “And unexpected.”

Journalists authoring books is nothing new. Selling a book can be viewed as a logical branching out and, if a journalist is lucky, can provide a means to more income such as speaking engagements and future book deals.

Think “She Said” by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who broke the Harvey Weinstein story in 2017. It’s a how-we-broke-this-story kind of story that was recently adapted by author Ruby Shamir into another book titled “Chasing the Truth,” this time targeted to young reporters who aspire to go the investigative route.

There are journalists whose books are an expansion on the expertise they’ve built from deeply reporting on the same subject for years. Others blend reporting, research and personal experiences into memoirs. And there are those who dare to — gasp! — write fiction on the side.

Poynter spoke with nearly a half dozen journalists who are authors or have forthcoming books, and a few of the publishing professionals tied to their deals. We set out to understand the kinds of stories the publishing industry is interested in from news media.

The answer is both clear and opaque. And it depends on who you work with.

Vivian Lee, a senior editor at Little, Brown and Company, said she’s “subject-agnostic” when it comes to her interest in potential nonfiction books by journalists. “I think that the mark of a good journalist is to write about a subject that makes a layperson — me — really care about something that I didn’t seem to care about, or ask questions in a way that I never thought to ask, or answer questions in a way that I never even thought to approach.”

Lee recently acquired “The Mango Tree,” a memoir by Annabelle Tometich, an award-winning food writer and restaurant critic for The News-Press daily newspaper in Fort Myers, Florida. The book, which the editor said is slated to publish in 2024, unpacks Tometich’s childhood in the Sunshine State and complex relationship with her Filipina mother. In 2015, Tometich’s mother shot at a man who was stealing mangoes from her yard. She used a BB gun, and she missed, but she was arrested. This chapter in Tometich’s life made her examine privilege — Tometich’s family is half-Filipino, half-white — and her relationship with her mother. It also serves as the inciting incident in her memoir.

In the book, the News-Press staff writer also touches on her years writing restaurant reviews under the pen name Jean Le Boeuf. “I was hiding behind this very French male-sounding pen name, but in reality, I’m a Filipina mom who drives a minivan and is not French in any way,” she said. Last year, the newspaper finally revealed Tometich as the writer behind the pseudonym.

Lee said she thinks Tometich’s training as a food critic brought “The Mango Tree” to life. “The way that she writes about food is so beautiful, and what was wonderful is that (that) kind of skill set also translates to the other parts of writing a memoir, which is writing about relationships, writing about herself. … It comes off as a very vibrant story of essentially her relationship with her mother, which is the heart of the story and what really drew me to the book,” she said.

Lee said the food writer also poses big questions in “The Mango Tree.” That’s a trait she’s noticed in journalists who write books.

“I find them to be just inherently curious about the subject matter that they want to pursue,” Lee said. “And also there’s a humaneness they imbue in their subject matters, no matter if it’s themselves, or the people that they’re talking to. I think that’s really the biggest thing.”

Tometich said she began working on her memoir out of frustration. She felt she couldn’t move on to bigger journalism opportunities because of her familial obligations at home. She thought to herself, What else can I do? She later landed a literary agent and together they spent a year revising the manuscript and placing standalone pieces in bigger outlets. After finally going on submission (meaning when your agent pitches your manuscript to publishing houses), the book was sold in a few weeks. It was a six-figure deal that will enable Tometich to transition to a part-time schedule at her News-Press job for a few years. The process, she said, was easier than she had anticipated.

“The one beauty of journalism, despite all the hardships, is how much you have to write every single day, and every single week, and day in and day out even when you don’t want to,” Tometich said. “It kind of builds that muscle memory where it’s like, when you hook on to a book idea or you figure out the storyline of whatever it is you’re working on, stuff came pouring out in a lot of ways because I’ve written so much over the last 17 years that I’ve been in journalism.”

Craig Pittman, a longtime journalist and New York Times bestselling author, has had six books published. He’s working on his seventh book proposal now, about pythons in Florida. His first book — “Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss” — grew out of a series of stories he worked on for the then-St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by Poynter) with colleague Matthew Waite.

Before there was even a book deal on the table, a local university professor contacted Pittman and asked if he thought of turning it into a book. Pittman hadn’t. The professor then invited Pittman and Waite to lunch the following week with the editors of the University Press of Florida, the official publisher for the State University System of Florida.

“That’s how that first book came to be. We were so green. We didn’t even know to ask for an advance,” Pittman said with a laugh.

Pittman, a 30-year veteran with the Tampa Bay Times before being laid off in 2020 (he now writes for the nonprofit Florida Phoenix), had wanted to write a book for years. “It had never occurred to me to do a nonfiction book. It was always, ‘I’m going to write the great American novel. Well, the novel still isn’t published, but six books in nonfiction later, I think I’m OK.”

After the University Press of Florida saw “Paving Paradise” do well, Pittman recalled them asking, “What else have you got?” The most divisive issue he covered, he told them, was manatee protection. That led to his next book, “​​Manatee Insanity: Inside the War over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species.” The University Press of Florida later also published “The State You’re In,” another book by Pittman.

In “The State You’re In” longtime journalist Craig Pittman describes some of Florida’s oddest wildlife and most eccentric people. The book was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida. The cover was illustrated by cartoonist/columnist Andy Marlette. (Courtesy: Craig Pittman)

Romi Gutierrez, the director of University Press of Florida, said the longtime journalist has a keen eye and ear for what people find interesting about Florida. She said university presses are unique publishers compared to a commercial house, in that their books undergo a rigorous peer review process before they go to print, and have to be approved by their faculty editorial boards. As a publisher in Florida and in the South, Gutierrez said her team is interested in stories about the culture, arts and history of Florida and the South, and of the diverse people that call the state home. And beyond that, stories that place Florida in the larger context of the nation and globe.

“Part of our mission is to provide books that are relevant to the people in the state of Florida, so stories that speak to the people in the state, that are about the people in the state. Those are books that we’re looking to publish, and often journalists have a much closer feel for those types of stories,” Gutierrez said. “We have a lot of scholars and professors that obviously write about the state, or about the culture and the history of the state, and we publish those books, also. Journalists can often create a narrative that appeals to a much broader audience.”

Pittman has gathered what he thinks the publishing industry is searching for from journalists: interesting characters.

“One of the things I’ve gone back and forth with my agent about is the need to give readers a character to follow through the narrative,” he said. “They need that human connection to what you’re writing about — someone to sort of serve as their surrogate in exploring this world that you’re telling people about.”

In 2020, Pittman’s “Cat Tale” was published. He said the advance from that book enabled his family to make a down payment on a used car at a time when they really needed one. He also said the continuing royalty checks from “Oh, Florida!” — another one of his books — have helped cover the cost of buying textbooks for their two children, who are in college and law school.

“In other words,” he said, “it’s not enough to justify quitting the day job, but it sure helps.”

Albert Samaha, inequality editor at BuzzFeed, knew since college that he wanted to write a book someday. While at his first newspaper job for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, Missouri, he began chipping away at a book idea. Samaha eventually landed at the Village Voice, where he began working on a cover story about the Mo Better Jaguars, a youth football team in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood.

“And as I was reporting it, it became clear to me within a week or two that there was going to be more material here than a feature story could hold,” he said.

Samaha said he spent his free time — evenings and weekends — following the football team. He began working on a book proposal about the team’s story, but didn’t have an agent. Then in 2014, he won an award at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. Samaha said one of the judges introduced himself as a literary agent and asked if Samaha had representation.

“I got really lucky,” said Samaha.

It took some time to polish his proposal and iron out the angle, but in 2016 Samaha sold his first book, “Never Ran, Never Will.”

“It was very exciting, but it’s a tough process and I know people who have gone through that process and have not gotten book deals, so I definitely didn’t take it for granted,” he said. “I know that’s not guaranteed. You do the meetings, you meet with people, you find out that some people are interested and some people are going to pass. It’s a very nerve-racking experience.” Samaha said he knew it was a big step for him in his career, and a proud moment. “Never Ran, Never Will” was later adapted into a Netflix docuseries titled “We Are: The Brooklyn Saints.”

Last fall, Samaha celebrated the publication of his second book — a more personal project to him titled “Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes.” In it, the journalist follows several generations of his family’s story from the Philippines to the United States, tracing their history through Spanish colonialism, American intervention and Japanese occupation.

Rebecca Saletan, vice president and editorial director of Riverhead Books (an imprint of Penguin Group), acquired “Concepcion.” She loved the colorful personal details about Samaha’s family and his ability to track their history to very specific people and to the deep past.

“He had those specifics, but he also had this bigger frame of reference and the journalistic chops to put it in this bigger context,” Saletan said.

Saletan said she works a lot with journalists, and she generally looks for work that goes beyond memoir. As for what kinds of manuscripts the industry as a whole is looking for, she said it depends on the editor and the house.

“Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes,” a nonfiction book by journalist Albert Samaha, was published last fall by Riverhead Books. (Courtesy: Albert Samaha)

“It kind of runs the gamut, I think, for journalists. It’s more just figuring out ‘What is it you really want to do?’ And then finding the right place for it,” she said. “My favorite is to get hold of the journalist when they’ve been deep into a subject area for a while and they want to say more than they can say in the confines of even a long-form piece. They have more developed ideas and characters in the situations they want to follow, and that’s when I would like to get them — when they recognize that they can do something in a book that they can’t do in the journalism.”

Samaha said he didn’t take any leave from work for either book. The advance from his first book helped him to secure a down payment on a co-op apartment in Brooklyn, and he was able to place the advance from the second book into savings. When his mom lost her job early in the pandemic, Samaha said he supported her and paid her rent. It was fitting, he said, because she’s the main character in “Concepcion.”

“I think, for a lot of millennials who grew up in the recession and are working in a shrinking journalism industry, to me it was one of the few windfalls I have to actually help my family and help our standing, as opposed to just paying my own bills,” he said.

Samaha is now working on another book proposal. He hopes to sell it by the end of this year.

This story was updated with the final title of Au-Yeung and Jeans’ book.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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