Books Put Tech Notables in the Spotlight

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg headlined “Books Put Tech Notables in the Spotlight”:

Biographies of tech moguls Elon Musk and Sam Bankman-Fried from two big-name writers are among the most anticipated titles this fall in the publishing world, a rare instance of business books taking center stage.

Walter Isaacson’s “Elon Musk,” which comes out Tuesday, is the culmination of almost three years of reporting and writing, the author said in an interview.

Three weeks later, Michael Lewis’s biography of crypto entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried, “Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon,” goes on sale Oct. 3.

“It’s highly unusual to have two blockbuster business titles in the same fall season,” said Terry Finley, chief executive of Books-A-Million, the bookstore chain based in Birmingham, Ala. “But I can’t imagine two more interesting characters, with Bankman-Fried the symbol of a new financial phenomenon and Musk being Musk, a very polarizing figure.”

The subjects of both coming books are lightning rods for different reasons. Musk, who purchased Twitter last year and recently rebranded it as X, has revamped the platform with an approach his boosters say is refreshing and his critics say is erratic.

Bankman-Fried is a celebrity entrepreneur and high-profile political donor who is facing criminal-fraud charges related to the collapse of his company, cryptocurrency exchange FTX. A federal judge last month sent him to jail, pending trial.

Both books were in motion before each man’s story took a dramatic turn. Lewis said in an interview that he spent the better part of a year trailing Bankman-Fried, whose personal fortune was once estimated at nearly $23 billion.

Bankman-Fried, commonly referred to as SBF, was regarded by many—investors, politicians, celebrities—as a new-age tycoon with a compelling notion of a future financial system built around digital assets.

A book excerpt in New York magazine portrayed Lewis as highly impressed by Bankman-Fried. Asked about his assessment of the young entrepreneur at the start of his project, Lewis said, “I was just watching without any strong view.”

In the course of his work on the book, FTX collapsed and filed for bankruptcy protection in November. Bankman-Fried was subsequently arrested in the Bahamas after the U.S. filed a variety of criminal charges against him. Lewis started to write his manuscript in January, after Bankman-Fried was charged. Bankman-Fried has pleaded not guilty.

Publisher W.W. Norton & Co. said it is printing 500,000 copies—its biggest print run of the year—of the Bankman-Fried book, “Going Infinite.” Three of Lewis’s earlier titles were made into movies: “The Blind Side” about football player Michael Oher, “The Big Short,” an inside look at the 2007-08 financial crisis, and “Moneyball,” which focused on the use of baseball analytics.

Isaacson, known for biographies of such disparate figures as Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, described his time with Musk, who is also chief executive of electric-vehicle maker Tesla and rocket company SpaceX, as a “fascinating ride filled with amazing stories.” That Musk acquired Twitter in 2022 might give the book extra lift.

A second Musk-related title, Ben Mezrich’s “Breaking Twitter: Elon Musk and the Most Controversial Corporate Takeover in History,” is expected to come out in early November.

Bradley Graham, co-owner of the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., said Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs “supercharged sales over the entire holiday season” after it was released in late October 2011.

Politics and Prose is holding a ticketed event for Isaacson’s “Elon Musk” biography at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington on Sept. 18.

“The bar is high for the Musk book because there is no shortage of coverage about him,” said Graham. “But Isaacson has a reputation for taking on people like Steve Jobs, gaining incredible access and coming up with a much fuller story than has been told before.”

Excerpts of Isaacson’s book appeared in The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine. Isaacson also has a full slate of media appearances planned in coming days, said a spokeswoman for Simon & Schuster, his longtime publisher.

Speaking about the coming business titles, Graham said, “You have authors who have tackled complicated, controversial individuals before.”

Besides the business books, there will likely be other blockbuster titles this year, including a memoir from Britney Spears titled “The Woman in Me” that comes out on Oct. 24. A spokeswoman for Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, said the first printing will top one million copies. The book is already resonating with TikTok users.

A second coming memoir is already huge. Entertainer Barbra Streisand’s “My Name Is Barbra” spans nearly 1,000 pages. Penguin Random House, which will publish the book on Nov. 7, earlier announced that it would print one million hardcover copies, although such numbers are often aspirational and can vary.

While Musk and Bankman-Fried are frequently in the headlines, the publication of both titles might test whether readers believe they already know enough about their lives. Readers, though, devoured Prince Harry’s juicy memoir, “Spare,” when it was published in January.

There is far more competition in the fall for new titles than at the start of the year. This month, for example, there are new novels from such bestselling authors as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith.

Publishers need a big finish to the year. With the peak of the pandemic over and people devoting less time to reading, print sales in 2023 fell 4% through Aug. 26, compared with the same period in 2022, to 461 million books, according to book tracker Circana BookScan. Readers have shown less interest in adult nonfiction, said Kristen McLean, a book analyst for Circana BookScan.

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