Q&Amp;A: Vanessa Leggett's Book Deal

By now, Vanessa Leggett's story has been well documented: the 34-year-old University of Houston adjunct professor (of literature and criminology) and freelance writer spent 168 days in prison for refusing to betray information gleaned from confidential sources to federal investigators while she was working on a book. A book that had no publisher.

Now, months after her release from jail-with the threat of another subpoena, and potential jail time, still hanging over her-she has landed an estimated $600,000 contract with Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, to write about her attempts to uncover the truth about the 1997 killing of Doris Angleton.

Leggett won't confirm the financial terms of the contract, but tells NEWSWEEK's Jennifer Barrett she was happy with the deal. She says her book, "The Murder of the Bookie's Wife," due out in 2004, will reveal new information about the Angleton case. Angleton's husband, Robert, was accused of hiring his brother to kill his estranged wife. Leggett taped interviews with both brothers and conducted dozens of other interviews during her research, but refused to turn over the information to federal investigators, citing her First Amendment rights, and was sent to jail.

Robert Angleton, a former millionaire bookie, had been acquitted in 1998 on murder charges in state court. But federal investigators filed new charges of conspiracy, murder for hire and a weapons violation in late January. Angleton is free on bail awaiting a trial next month. Leggett says her research indicates, and her book will show, that he did solicit the murder of his wife and participated in a conspiracy to have her killed.

Though Leggett was approached by a number of publishers, she says she chose Crown Publishing in part because she was felt it would package and release the book "in a way that was commensurate with the substance of the story." She adds, "I didn't want it sensationalized, and in the wrong hands it could have been." Barrett spoke with Steve Ross, editorial director of Crown, about their decision to make a pre-emptive bid on Leggett's book, an unusual move in the publishing industry-particularly with a writer, like Leggett, who had never published a book before.

You made a pre-emptive bid for the rights to Vanessa Leggett's book? What does that mean, and why do it?

Steve Ross: It means that we took it off the table before other publishers had the opportunity to bid on it. That is, rather than waiting until the agent sets an auction date and then participating in the auction, which is the usual and customary method for a "big book." Within about a half hour after Vanessa and her agent left our offices-after we'd had time to discuss our enthusiasm for the book collectively-we phoned the agent and told her we wanted to do this and we named our price.

What was that price?

I'm sorry, I promised that I wouldn't reveal that.

What was her reaction to the offer? Weren't there other publishers eager to scoop up the rights as well?

I do know they had met with numerous publishers and I know that publishers' consciousness, if it needed to be piqued-which I doubt-would certainly have been piqued at the previous night's Payne [Awards for Ethics in Journalism] dinner when Vanessa was given the First Amendment Award. I was there for the entire evening and it was a celebrity-studded affair. But the entire evening was focused around her. Her acceptance speech had everybody riveted.

When we made the offer, she told us that she had more meetings lined up the next day and we expressed our intention to ease her schedule from the need to have those meetings [laughs]. They were open to the pre-emptive bid because they had also felt that the meeting went as well as we'd thought it had. And they saw the reasons why we were the right publisher.

Why are you the right publisher?

I told them the book was reminiscent to me of a couple of things. First, the best of Dominick Dunne in its exploration of high society's dark underbelly-and we publish all of Dominick Dunne's books. It was also reminiscent of a book I edited myself a couple years ago-NEWSWEEK reporter Michael Isikoff's book "Uncovering Bill Clinton"-because the protagonist is reluctantly sucked into and becomes inextricably intertwined with the story that, in this case, she was researching. Both of them faced this horrific narrative obstacle of trying to report on a story that they've become a character in. Both of them I believe have handled it beautifully.

She also reminded me of Erin Brockovich in the steely resolve that Vanessa had displayed on behalf of her principles and at significant personal cost. I think the fact that we are the publisher of all of Dunne's books and of "Uncovering Clinton," that resonated with Vanessa and her agent. They also appreciated the number of people and the caliber of people that showed up at our meeting with them. And we have been following this story for quite a long time, in part for obvious reasons as publishers. We followed the news of her imprisonment with a sense of awe for the resolve she displayed on behalf of those First Amendment issues because these are issues about which we usually hear a lot of lip service but all too little conviction displayed.

How unusual is it for Crown Publishing to make a pre-emptive bid?

We don't do it very often. We usually wait and see what the market forces dictate as the price of the book. But we just felt we were the right publisher for this and there was such collective enthusiasm across all departments fueled by the acquiring editor, Annik Lafarge, who will be Vanessa's editor.

Vanessa Leggett was a freelance writer without a contract when she started researching the case, and she had published little, if any, writing before that. How much did that concern you?

The question had always been: Can she write? She hadn't written a book before and we couldn't even find any journalism she'd published. But that question was answered pretty much to everyone's satisfaction when we got her proposal and then we had the meeting the next day and that really closed it for us. She was just terrific-poised, confident, extremely articulate, authoritative and really courageous.

If she hadn't given us such a detailed proposal with three sample chapters that displayed a very riveting quality of narrative skills, I can't imagine we would have been this enthusiastic. But what she's demonstrated is that this is a really rich, complicated, multitiered story. And she's managing to interweave all the layers, thus far, beautifully.

Do you think "The Murder of the Bookie's Wife" will be a best seller?

I think it probably will. I think there is a very good chance it will be but it's hard to say for sure at this early stage.

Initially, Leggett started out writing the book about Doris Angleton's 1997 murder in River Oaks. How much will she be a part of this story now?

Certainly the focus has changed but I wouldn't say that Vanessa is the focus of the story. She is still focusing on the murder of Doris Angleton and the search for justice. But she has done a fine job of interweaving how she has become a character and a significant player in this story.

Are we going to see any of the information she was unwilling to give the FBI in the book?

Yes. I really don't feel I am at liberty to say what. I will say that there was quite a bit of information that was new to all of us that came forward to us at the meeting and that will be in the book.

Are there concerns that revealing this information might be an obstruction of justice, or that it might violate confidentiality agreements she had with her sources?

We are convinced that there is no way she is obstructing justice.

You've taken a chance on other newcomers, like publishing a book on entertaining by Martha Stewart back in 1982, well before she became a star. You still publish Martha Stewart's books. Do you foresee similar success for Leggett?

Rather than compare her to Martha Stewart, I would say there is a more relevant comparison to Dominick Dunne. In general, we do tend to work with our authors to become "house authors"-to grow with them. For example, we published all of Jean Auel's books, which is on my mind since her latest book went on sale yesterday. "The Clan of the Cave Bear" was the first in her series and this book, "The Shelters of Stone," is her fifth-and there was a 12-year wait in between. We weren't sure whether or not her readership might have been diminished in the intervening years. But any question we might have had has been answered to a great extent by first-day sales which were unbelievable, far above our expectations. We have also published everything Martha Stewart wrote-from that first book forward.