Thursday, March 12, 2009

And Rodale gets out of the game. (Again.)

With the just-announced demise of Best Life, Rodale's ambitious and highly touted foray into the magazine market for "mature men," I am again mindful of my brief-and-not-so-illustrious tenure at the company once known as "the pride of sleepy Emmaus, Pennslvania." In more recent times, Rodale has done everything it can think of to disassociate itself from its "sleepy Pennsylvania" heritage, which in New York publishing circles is seen as tres gauche.

Looking at this in tight focus to start, I'd always thought Best Life was a mixed metaphor, given that it was aimed at 40-to-50-somethings despite being edited and written (largely) by 30- or 40-somethings, while featuring ads depicting male models who sometimes looked to be 20-somethings. (Is that what advertisers think? That we all want to be perpetually 20? More to the point, I guess, is that what we think?) Nonetheless, it must be said that Best Life was gaining momentum in its demographic, at least circulation-wise; and I must also say as a fan of good writing that at times, the magazine featured some lovely writing indeed. Alas, lovely writing that resonates with your target demographic isn't enough amid today's tyranny of the bottom line. All projects must self-justify by hitting their (arbitrary? hypothetical? purely illusory?) profitability targets. And clearly once the economy started to sour and the manufacturers of products aimed at graying men (like certain kinds of cars made by GM) started to cut their losses, Rodale didn't see the purpose of continuing to fight the good fight.

The larger point is that powerful,
highly compensated executives always think they're making the right decisions in these areas. They think that way simply because they're powerful and highly compensatedthey believe their own hypethus by definition, as they see it, the decisions they make must be correct. The reasoning is obviously circular, and I'm not sure it has any validity at all, especially in creative pursuits. I'm not sure that executives launch projects for the right reasons, and I'm not sure that they pull the plug for the right reasons, either.* In many cases it's a total crapshoot. They don't see it like that, and they'd never admit it regardless. But that's how it is.

Which brings me back to the project that preoccupied me during my so-called career at Rodale: the ill-fated book we'd planned to call Get in the Game, later Stay in the Game. GitG/SitG eventually became something of a quest for me, and then an obsession—the book-editor's version of a religious pilgrimage. (Here, you may want to catch yourself up by reading this post.) This book, too, would've been aimed at maturing men, teaching them the physical and especially mental skills needed to compete against younger competition.** My books-division co-manager and I debated a number of possible authors to attach to the project, but by mid-year 2001 I grew convinced that the ideal author for such a book was one man and one man only: Cal Ripken, owner of the longest consecutive-game streak in baseball history. If anyone knew how to stay in the game, it was baseball's Iron Man. Ripken had just annnounced his retirement from a lengthy career that would surely land him in Cooperstown, and the press he'd be receiving as he made his farewell tour of America's ballparks would be golden.

I knew I was in trouble when one of the company's growing stable of vice presidents, who seemingly had been appointed just to keep tabs on what we were doing in books, referred to my quarry during an early meeting as "Carl Rifkin." (He learned soon enough that the first name had no r in it but continued saying "Rifkin" to the end, which came when he himself was summarily fired one afternoon.) Undeterred, I dutifully worked up a budget that showed how we could make a lot of money on the project even if we offered Cal an advance of $250,000; that is very low by sports-author standards but was then a lot of money for Rodale, which was accustomed to writing most of its books in-house at hourly rates.

The response I got from on-high was this: "Nobody cares about Cal Ripken anymore."

Nonetheless, I took the initiative of trekking down the pike to Baltimore's northern suburbs to meet with Cal and a top handler, John Maroon (who has since splintered off to form his own PR agency specializing in repping sports stars). Cal himself didn't arrive till very late in the meeting, but I did get a nice (firm) handshake and an autographed baseball that still sits about two feet away from me as I write this. I didn't know what authority I had to offer any actual money at that point, but I enthusiastically described the project I had in mindMaroon seemed impressedand I dropped a number: $100,000. He suddenly looked less impressed. In fact, he looked as if I'd thrown a warm turd at him. One hundred thousand dollars? You do realize that the man who just signed that baseball for you is Cal 2632-Straight-Games Ripken, right? Without specifically apologizing for the offer, which easily could've been interpreted as an insult, I went on to explain that Rodale had a lot of institutional weight to put behind the book, including a direct-mail program second to none (which was true at the time). Maroon thanked me and said he'd talk to Cal (who'd disappeared again) and they'd be in touch.

I'd dragged the wife along that day, and we took my freshly autographed baseball do
wn to Baltimore's Inner Harbor where I expensed a nice early dinner at Legal Seafoods (which always struck me as a rather forbidding name for a fish restaurant, even if it is the actual family name. It's a great place, though. Ask for the miso soup, which isn't always on the menu). In the ensuing weeks Maroon and I exchanged a few emails. Meanwhile I gingerly approached my Rodale superiors about paying Cal $100,000. I got the same answer as before: too much, too much...and why were we still talking to Rifkin anyway? I wrote an extremely lengthy memo in which I outlined all the benefits that would accrue to us by virtue of an alliance with a guy like Cal RiPKEN. In Cal, I emphasized, we had a true baseball immortal and a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer (which would come to pass in 2007); he was also a world-class guy who had none of the baggage so commonly associated with sports celebs. I was told in return that sports stars were "risky," that you never knew when they might do something stupid that generated bad press, thus not only tarnishing their rep but taking us down with them. I also got the impression that Cal was sort of downmarket for the tastes of our new leadership team. They didn't want a felon, but they wanted somebody with a bit more glitz appeal than my boy Cal. Jeter, maybe. Cal, not so much.

That said, the powers-that-be might "consider" something if I could put it together for $50,000. No promises. But they'd consider it.

To be continued... Or, "how do you tell a guy who sneered at your first offer that your second offer is for half as much?"

* I know, "launch" and "pull the plug" aren't appropriate metaphorical bookends. Sue me.
** OK, I admit it: I was going to publish a book containing elements that came dangerously close to qualifying as "Sportsthink." Sue me a second time. What was I gonna do? I was 50 years old. I'd walked out on a very good teaching job and moved my entire family east from Indianapolis in order to pursue "financial security." I'd had certain expectations of what my new job would entail that turned out to be nothing like the reality of the matter. Was I supposed to just quit on principle? Principle wasn't going to pay the rent or buy formula and diapers for the baby granddaughter who by then was living with us. I knew I'd made a horrible mistake almost as soon as I arrived in Emmaus but I didn't see what options I had, except maybe to try to work quietly from within to reengineer the publishing program, or at least incorporate some elements that bore my stamp. Even at that, every time I said something marginally controversial at one of our high-level meetings, president Steve Murphy looked at me with an expression that said, "I would enjoy stabbing you in the neck."


Cal said...

1) I didn't know that Legal was the actual name of the owner of the restaurants.

2) I believe Maroon originally worked for the O's before he left to join Cal's organization.

It's still remarkable to me that Cal currently has no visible presence in the Orioles organization. The team has been terrible for 11 years and attendance is declining (also because it now shares a market with Washington's team).

Steve Salerno said...

Actually, Cal, I didn't intend that line to mean that I knew for a fact that "Legal" was the family name; I meant it more in the "even if it is" sense. The "family name" line is what I was told by a waitress there once--I've been there a number of times--but she was kind of a ditz who later got the orders all wrong, so I don't know if I should rely on her answer. In fact... I write this I'm also doing a little background research, and I find this:

"Since 1950 when George Berkowitz opened his fish market next to his father's grocery store in Inman Square in Cambridge, MA, the 'Legal' name has been synonymous with quality and freshness. This humble seafood market was named after his father Harry’s 'Legal Cash Market' where customers were given 'Legal Stamps' (forerunners of S&H green stamps) with their purchases..."

I still don't know if that fully explains how they came up with the "Legal" name in the first place, but at least, as the late Paul Harvey might have put it, "Now we know part of the rest of the story."

Steven Sashen said...

I think the "So, No to $100k? How 'bout $50k?" technique is great. My dad negotiated that way.

Once, in a lawsuit, the other party (who admitted they were responsible), said, "What would you settle for?" My father said, "7,000."

They replied, "$1,000." To which my dad said, "$8,000."

"WHAT! You can't go UP!"

"Okay, $9,000."

"But you said, $7,000"

"Now it's $10,000."

"Wait, wait. How 'bout $8,000?!" they practically begged.

They settled at $8860.

Steve Salerno said...

Steven: I like your father's style.

Of course, that assumes you have two parties with equal interest in reaching accord. Somehow I don't think that approach would work with, say, today's GM:

"Car buyers! Take home the new GMC Eco-buster All-Wheel-Drive this week for $34,000...or else we'll charge you $44,000 next time!"

To which the prospective buyer replies, "Uh, I wouldn't buy that piece of s**t for $14,000," and he gets in his Toyota RAV4 and drives away.

Steven Sashen said...

True. You need the right context for my dad's technique.

Though I have heard him at a car dealership having this conversation:

Dealer: How much do you want to pay for this car?

Dad: $1

Dealer: I'm serious.

Dad: Me, too... I *want* to pay $1. If you keep asking me stupid negotiating questions, I'm leaving.

Dealer: Okay... so, seriously, what do you want to pay?

Dad: *walks out*

Steve Salerno said...

Steven: But the funny part is, I think a lot of dealers would take that offer. Seriously. Have you seen the ads they're running? "Buy a new Buick and we'll throw in a Cadillac and a set of Go-Karts for the kids! Plus, you get a $10,000 rebate! [Note: This will come directly from Washington as part of the TARP legislation.] And if you should lose your job, we'll not only make your car payments for three months but send Jessica Simpson over to lift your spirits for a while..."

Anonymous said...

Best Life is gone? I liked that mag. Men's Vogue is gone too. I wonder if GQ and Esquire are far behind.