Two-time Oscar Award-winning actor Gene Hackman is turning novelist. With an old friend, underwater archeologist Dan Lenihan (and the assistance of noted editorial "doctor" Dick Marek), Hackman is writing a book to be called Black Star Rising. What's more, it's for a house mostly associated with nonfiction, Esther Margolis's Newmarket Press. The two authors, who have been friends and neighbors in Santa Fe, N.Mex., for more than 10 years and share a passion for boats and diving -- Lenihan writes for Natural History magazine and is featured on the Discovery channel -- began to work out a story together three years ago and sold world rights, through agent Noah Lukeran, in a six-figure deal, to Margolis. They showed her, she said, an "action-packed" first draft set in the 19th century, but before making the deal, she wanted to meet them and make sure they could work with Marek on licking the book into shape. "It was a lot of fun, and ultimately we all agreed to move forward together," Margolis said. The book will be published later this year.

It's all very well to have a group of Harvard men authoring a book, but how about when their agent and about-to-be editor turn out to be Harvard classmates as well? This highly suspicious circumstance arose around a book to be authored by a group of editors of the Harvard Lampoon, who have concocted a parody of college admission guides, full of what its subtitle calls "utterly useless" information. Eric Rayman, a former senior counsel at Simon &Schuster who is now serving in the same capacity at the New Yorker, agented the submission, as a former Lampoon editor and still a trustee. He sent it out to six or seven publishers, but it was a Harvard classmate of his, Rick Wolff at Warner, who pre-empted. "Just as well he did, or the authors might have had to take real jobs during the summer vacation," quipped Rayman.

Cultural terrorism is the hip but unusual theme of a first novel just bought by Warner's Rick Horgan in an appropriately unusual way. He actually paid a substantial six-figure advance on the basis of a cunningly worded synopsis, thus beating out seven other publishers who had been interested in the synopsis but were more cautiously -- and conventionally -- waiting for sample chapters. The author is William McGowan, whose byline is highly visible around town as a frequent contributor on media and culture matters to the WSJ, NYT Magazine, GQ, NY Observer, etc., but who also, as a fourth-generation descendant of Irish police detectives, wanted to write a thriller that combined his fields of knowledge. The result, agented by Elizabeth Sheinkman of the Elaine Markson agency, is called Digital Black: The Fall of the House of Ersatz, and is about detective Archer Muldoon's investigation of a series of grisly murders whose only link is that all the victims are trendy sorts active in the Manhattan art and media worlds. It turns out that the killings, each in a manner appropriate to the victim's occupation, are the work of a terrorist group that hangs out in a hip East Village nightclub, the House of Ersatz, which is frequented by many of the victims. They call themselves Digital Black, a music industry term for the silence between the tracks on a CD. Horgan is convinced the book, which McGowan will labor to finish this year for publication in 2000, will become a cult read, probably among some of the very people "guilty of their own cultural war crimes." The world rights deal is for one book only, but Sheinkman said it will be the first of a series starring Muldoon.

A second six-figure buy by Horgan of a New York-theme first novel was adman Howard Roughan's provisionally titled Randall's Reign, described as a hip satirical tale with a noir edge, about an upwardly mobile young lawyer, married to wealth, who is cheating on his wife, and gets found out and blackmailed by an old school chum. Laura Tucker at the Richard Curtis agency made the world rights sale, and the book also made a swift movie sale to October Films for producer Michael Douglas.

Colson Whitehead, a young African-American first novelist who made a considerable stir with The Intuitionist, published in January to excellent reviews and beginning to show on some regional lists, isn't lingering over his second novel. It's already been sold, in what we understand is a six-figure deal, to Anchor editor Alison Cherwin, who made the deal with agent Nicole Aragi at Watkins Loomis. The new book, said Cherwin, is called John Henry Days, and it's a "riff" on the folk hero John Henry, told on two levels: the tale of JH's 19th-century life, and that of a contemporary hack journalist freeloading at a Postal Service unveiling of a John Henry postage stamp. The first book has already made good sales in the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Holland.

Noted historian Michael Beschloss has signed with Simon &Schuster's Alice Mayhew to write a major study of the Lincoln assassination and its impact. The untitled book, to be published in 2003, was agented by Esther Newberg at ICM.... Harriet Rubin, once head of Doubleday's Currency imprint, and now on her own as a business guru, has done a new book, Soloing: Reaching Ambition's Everest, which Lisa Berkowitz at HarperBusiness has taken, for six figures, from West Coast agent Sandra Dijkstra. It will be published this fall, a year ahead of Rubin's Bad Boys of Business, which HarperBusiness had ready to go.