Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who repeatedly confounded the legal pundits during his successful defense of O.J. Simpson, stunned the publishing industry Tuesday when he signed the most lucrative book contract yet awarded to a participant in the so-called “Trial of the Century.”
According to sources involved in the negotiations, the total value of Cochran’s deal with the Ballantine Group, a division of Random House, slightly exceeds the $4.2-million advance obtained just last week by prosecutor Marcia Clark. “Let’s just say we won again,” said a Cochran confidant, who asked not to be identified.
Cochran’s book, which will be titled “My Journey to Justice: The Autobiography of Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr.,” will be published by Ballantine’s One World imprint, and is scheduled for release in the spring of 1997. He has yet to select a collaborator.
Another of Simpson’s defense lawyers, Robert L. Shapiro, also concluded a seven-figure publishing contract Tuesday. The Century City lawyer will receive $1.5 million from Warner Books for a manuscript titled, “The Search for Justice: A Defense Attorney’s Brief on the O.J. Simpson Case.” According to knowledgeable sources, Shapiro, who will collaborate with free-lance writer Larkin Warren, already has written more than 1,000 pages of his book, which is scheduled for publication in the spring.
The contracts secured by Cochran and Clark are the third- and fourth-richest for a single volume of nonfiction in the history of American publishing. Only Gens. Colin Powell and H. Norman Schwarzkopf have received more--$6 million and $5 million, respectively. Taken together, the advances received by Shapiro and Cochran on Tuesday bring the estimated total already paid by publishers for Simpson-related books to more than $14 million.
“There’s a feeding frenzy in progress,” said one prominent New York book editor, “and it’s not over yet. None of these prices make the slightest sense from a financial standpoint.
“Schwarzkopf’s book didn’t come close to making back its advance and, now that he’s taken himself out of the presidential race, it doesn’t look like Powell’s will either,” said the editor, whose firm was among the unsuccessful bidders for Clark’s manuscript. “I’m not sure what Cochran and Clark will tell us about the state of American justice, but these deals speak volumes about the state of American publishing. I’m stunned.”
Clearly, however, Ballantine took a different view. Its One World division is the nation’s foremost publisher of books by and about African Americans. It also is one of the few publishing houses in New York with a significant number of African American editors, including Cheryl D. Woodruff, the imprint’s associate publisher, who will edit Cochran’s autobiography.
In an interview Tuesday, Cochran explained that One World’s African American focus, while “not decisive, was an important factor in my decision. The book I have in mind,” he said, “is very important to me. I want to remind people that the battle to uphold justice and against injustice is never ending, and that one person really can make a difference.
“What I found at Ballantine was what I would call an extra sensitivity to those goals. They wanted me and . . . I wanted them. More important, we all agree that this book won’t simply be aimed at an African American audience. We think it’s one Americans of all races and persuasions will have on their shelves long after interest in the Simpson case has receded.”
Most publishing executives had assumed that the widespread public outrage over Simpson’s acquittal has made the personal accounts of defenders and associates less commercially valuable than those of authors identified with the prosecution. Such thinking is the major reason that Simpson and his co-author, Lawrence Schiller, have been unable to find a buyer for their proposed book.
While in New York last week, Cochran and his literary agent, Russell Galen, met with editors and executives from eight publishing houses, all of which ultimately expressed an interest in the project. In hopes of heading off the competitive auction that drove up the price of Clark’s as-yet-untitled book, Ballantine made what its president, Linda Grey, described as “essentially a preemptory offer,” which was accepted Monday night.
“We were very much convinced by our meeting with Johnnie Cochran that this was a perfect book for us,” Grey said. “We wanted to be its publisher. So, we moved quickly to make an offer that would be persuasive, and we were successful.”
Like Clark, Cochran eschewed the traditional written proposal and relied on the personal impression he was able to make on publishing executives.
As One World’s Woodruff put it, “I’ve been an editor for 17 years, and I’ve been through many pitch meetings. But Johnnie’s was certainly one of the most commanding I’ve ever experienced--commanding because of his presence, but also because of his deep commitment to this project.”
One leading publishing executive, who asked not to be identified, said that “the synergy between One World and Johnnie Cochran increases the commercial value of this deal more than some people may realize. One World has been the industry’s leader in recognizing that African Americans and, particularly, African American women, constitute an important but often unrecognized part of the book-buying market.
“They’re very good at producing books,” the executive said, “that while grounded in that niche, find a significant audience beyond it.”
While Cochran’s book will be a true autobiography, Shapiro intends to focus principally on the implications of the Simpson trial.
Warner Books president and CEO, Lawrence J. Kirshbaum, personally conducted his firm’s negotiations with Shapiro and will edit the defense attorney’s book. “We’ve met several times since the trial,” Kirshbaum confirmed. “I’ve been extremely impressed with the message Bob wants to convey, which is a defense of the court system and an explanation of why justice in fact was done in the Simpson case.”
In an interview Tuesday, Shapiro described his book as “very much a work in progress. I can say generally that it’s not an expose,” he said. “Rather, it deals with the role of a defense lawyer, what the system of justice means to me and how it was applied in this case. Hopefully, the public will get a better idea of what a defense lawyer does, and how our system of justice--with all its strengths and weaknesses--works to preserve our constitutionally guaranteed rights.”
Thirty-six books on the O.J. Simpson case already have been published; 14 more are under contract. More than half a dozen proposals currently are circulating among New York publishers, including one by Simpson friend and confidant Robert Kardashian, who is in Manhattan to pitch his project.
* CLARK SPEAKS OUT: Trial was lesson in confidence, Marcia Clark tells forum. B1