"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.