Who's Dying To Read A Book On The Meltdown?

That was fast. Four of the business writers said last week to be hunting for Wall Street crisis book deals have found publishers — the same publisher. Penguin Group swears it wasn't bumbling when it hired the authors in rapid succession, at a cost of more than $2 million, to basically compete with one other. What does Penguin look like, some kind of investment bank? "I would rather be publishing all three of the best books on the economic crisis than to be competing against any one of them," Penguin's president told the Observer. OK, but who's going to buy these tomes?

Aren't troubled economic times usually marked by a flight to escapist entertainment, like James Bond films or cable shows about gangsters? And don't the best-selling business books tend to be bought by people looking to turn a profit, like say from the insights and life of Warren Buffett, now hitting shelves after the writer was already paid a $7 million advance? The number of freelance speculators tends to fall dramatically during a downturn. And if there's a miraculous economic recovery, no one's going to want to read about the bad old days.

The economic panic has been well timed, at least, for ink-stained wretches able to take some more profits before the slow-motion meltdown in their own industry is complete. The winners, per the Observer:

  • Cocky Joe Nocera of the Times and Bethany McLean of Vanity Fair (formerly Fortune) got the $1 million advance they dreamed of over wine, plus "a few bits" more. And they're going to take their merry time, publishing sometime in 2010.
  • Andrew Ross Sorkin of the Times (pictured) — who called out those nasty rumors about trouble at Lehman Brothers not three months ago — topped both Nocera and McLean, individually, with his $700,000 advance for an insidery "Woodward-style" account of the panic.
  • Roger Lowenstein of the Times magazine, will focus on the week Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, AIG took a federal bailout and Merrill Lynch sold itself to Bank of America.