Bill Gates: Version 2.0

Time Warner is helping him clean up his battered image

When Microsoft Corp. Chairman William H. Gates III debuted as an author in 1995, he was an icon of the high-tech industry. His company's achievements epitomized the American success story. No surprise, then, that consumers snapped up his chatty book, The Road Ahead--perhaps hoping to glean tips from the richest man in America. Road became a best-seller.

A lot has changed since then. As Gates prepares to launch a sequel, Business @ the Speed of Thought, with a promotional tour on Mar. 24, he faces a public no longer baffled about the digital realm--and all too familiar with Microsoft's role in the most high-profile antitrust battle in decades. Instead of the nerdy visionary from The Road Ahead, the government painted Gates as an anti-competitive tyrant.

Not the ideal moment for a book tour. But is it obstacle or opportunity? Says R. Fulton Macdonald, president of marketing consultant International Business Development: "This is a good time for Gates to beef up his image." Microsoft insists the tour is not about image.

But whether selling the book or Gates, his publisher Warner Books Inc. has cobbled together a campaign that would make Tom Clancy swoon. For starters, Time pictured a smiling Gates on its Mar. 22 cover and ran a six-page excerpt from his book. Fortune is slated to run an excerpt next month. Both publications and Warner Books are owned by Time Warner Inc., whose CEO, Gerald M. Levin, is also hosting a gala reception for Gates at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Time Warner is applying more corporate synergy on behalf of Gates than some media experts deem proper. Mark Crispin Miller, a media studies professor at New York University, questions the motives behind the decision to run an excerpt from the business-oriented sequel in the mass-market Time. "It's not a news story," says Miller. "It's a puff piece for a product the magazine's parent company is selling." Time says its decision to put Gates on the cover was based on his book's news value. "We handled it no differently than if it had been a Random House book," says a spokesman.

Certainly, Gates doesn't have to depend only on Time Warner: His book tour will include speeches in New York, Washington D.C., and London. On Mar. 31, he will host an online chat for those who pre-order from any one of eight online retailers. Barnes & Noble is running an online sweepstakes. Grand prize: a VIP tour of Microsoft's headquarters.

So will all this translate into another bestseller? "It could do very, very well," says Jack Covert, president of Milwaukee-based bookseller 800-CEO-READ.

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