"We try to elicit enthusiasms," Atlas explains. "I sent out these missives to writers I admire, sometimes into the Internet ether and sometimes by actual post. I sent some letters to Bill Bryson and sort of forgot about it until a few months later I got this letter from him. There's one word, followed by a question mark: 'Shakespeare?' "
Others persuaded have been Hitchens, for books on Thomas Paine and Jefferson, and playwright David Mamet, who completed a work on anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hatred for NextBook's "Jewish Encounters" series. Contributors to the Times Books presidential series include former Sens. Gary Hart and George McGovern, and Dallek, author of best-selling biographies of presidents Kennedy and Nixon.
Smiley, whose novels include "Horse Heaven" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Thousand Acres," was approached years ago by Atlas to contribute a book to Penguin Lives. Smiley chose Charles Dickens, and, like Ackroyd, read far more about her subject then she could ever put in a short biography.
"From my point of view, it's like writing an article for a magazine. There's not going to be any great profits; it's more on the order of, if they've got to have a series, who should be in it?" Smiley says.
"I love the idea of all these short books coming out, although like every bubble, it'll break. But the great thing about book bubbles is that we'll have the books. Even after the market crashes, the books will be around to read."