A deal has been concluded for Salman Rushdie's next two books, his first since "The Satanic Verses" earned him a death sentence from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His agent had shopped the books around for nearly a year, but both the high asking price and fears of retaliation had stymied efforts to conclude a deal.
The books, a novel and a collection of essays, will be issued first in Britain by Granta Books in association with Penguin, the publisher of "The Satanic Verses."
Granta is known in this country as the publisher of the highly successful literary magazine of the same name. The only works it has published here were two pamphlets by Rushdie this spring.
"The deal was done this way mainly for sentimental reasons," Granta Editor Bill Buford said from his home in Cambridge, England, last night. "It combines for Salman the two parties he regards as his two publishers. We published him very early in the magazine and during the last year, and I think I can say I'm a pretty close friend."
The novel, titled "Haroun and the Sea of Stories," has autobiographical roots in Rushdie's travails over the past 18 months. "It's about a professional storyteller whose ability to tell stories is restored by his son," Buford said. He added that he didn't think it would evoke the same sort of religious passions that "The Satanic Verses" did. The book will be published in Britain in the fall and in this country in January.
At the Frankfurt Book Fair last fall, Rushdie agent Andrew Wylie was reported to be asking as much as $15 million for a four-book deal. If any publishers had agreed, it would have gone on record as one of the biggest publishing deals ever. Yesterday, Wylie said: "I never talk about money."
The estimated price tag for world English-language rights to "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" and the essay collection, "Imaginary Homelands," is somewhat under a million dollars. Even at that price, both books would have to be bestsellers to earn back their advances.
The structure of the deal allows Penguin, which is putting up a percentage of the advance and will do the distribution and publicity, to continue to publish Rushdie. But it also will allow Penguin to slightly distance itself from him, since Granta's namewill be most prominent on the books. As "The Satanic Verses" publisher, Penguin -- a part of the British conglomerate Pearson -- came under tremendous pressure.
Wylie refused to discuss the mechanics of the deal. "I don't want to get into a whole lot of past history," the agent said. He didn't want to talk about publication of the paperback of "The Satanic Verses" either -- something both he and Rushdie have said they are eager to see happen -- but did note that it was not part of the new contract.
While the Rushdie affair has slipped off the news pages in this country, it remains a hot topic in Britain. Last month Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the author should be delivered to British Moslems "so that he can be killed for blasphemy against Islam." Iranian President Rafsanjani then reaffirmed that the death sentence remains in force.
Rushdie remains in hiding in Britain but is said to have a bit more of a normal life than previously. His wife is the American novelist Marianne Wiggins, who initially shared his life in hiding. Wiggins has denied rumors -- which have recently resurfaced -- that the marriage is over.