Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The quest for Cal. Final chapter.

Picking up where we left off the other day...

So I go to Cal's handler-in-chief, John Maroon, and explain that if he's willing to listen to my latest offer, which actually got worse, we might be able to beef up the back end of the deal: give Cal more points in royalties than the typical author gets. I underscore my belief in the huge market potential for such a book, and give Maroon the usual song and dance (sung and danced, that is, by people who know they're in a weak bargaining position); I effuse that
the $50,000 front money is just the tip of the iceberg, there's no telling how high is up, yada yada. In fact, I was certain that if we could just get the damn book on the shelves somehow, the profits would come pouring in and ol' Cal would make every dime of the quarter-million I'd wanted to give him originally and then some.

In my desperation to "get it done," I even floated an intriguing proposition: that Cal wouldn't have to do one iota of actual work if he didn't want to. Rodale would merely license the use of Ripken's name; I would do the writing, cover to
cover, working from themes and principles that I thought were "philosophically aligned" with Cal's beliefs. He would have to do nothing but cash a check for $50,000 and permit the use of his byline and likeness on the cover. And of course he'd still get whatever percentage of proceeds we negotiated on the back end. So in effect we were paying $50,000 for 11 letters* and a photo. And yes, he would have a chance to review the manuscript and change anything he wanted changed. If he didn't want to bother with the review, that was fine, too.

I'm not proud of having thought that one up. Even though similar strategies are common in publishing, especially when dealing with so-called celebrity authors (see under "ghostwriting"), it goes against everything that true writing is about; more to the point, it epitomizes the quick-hit opportunism and intellectual barrenness that underlies so much of what passes for self-help these days. Would I have put my heart into it and done my level best to make the book a great read
? Sure I would've; that's just the way I am when it comes to writing. That doesn't change the fact that a book that says "by Cal Ripken" on the cover, thus reeling in the unsuspecting schnook who hopes to assimilate some small portion of the wisdom that helped make Cal a modern-day legend, should be written by Cal Ripken, not an enterprising editor who's desperate to justify his title by throwing together some generic b.s. that in most respects could also be written by Tony Gwynn or Tony Perez or maybe even Tony Curtis. What can I say? I was in a tough, tough spot. The pressure to sign lucrative book deals (for peanuts) was extraordinary; immense. [See footnote in previous post, about "having moved my whole family to Pennsylvania...."]

Maroon told me once again that he'd "think about it." I went back to my superiors and sought formal confirmation of the right to sign Cal Ripken for $50,000.


This time the word from on-high was explicit
: "Cal isn't relevant anymore. Maybe a few years ago. But he's yesterday's news. Nobody cares about Cal Ripken. And we're not interested." Once again the rejection was delivered by a corporate v.p., in a tone that said, "Stop this foolishness if you know what's good for you." The messenger added that given the profound sense of fiscal responsibility that the new regime had ushered in, "We can't just throw $50,000 at every author who wants to do a book for us." (I hasten to add here that there were rumors—and I emphasize the word rumors, because I had no direct knowledge of any of this—that a larger sum than $50,000 had been expended on a party Rodale hosted in connection with that year's Frankfurt Book Fair.)

So died my deal. Presaging the death of my entire Rodale career a month or so thereafter.

Now, can I say for sure that we could've landed Cal Ripken for $50,000 anyway? No, I can't. Nor do I know whether a guy like Ripken would have agreed to have his name on a book for which he supplied zero content. Somehow I don't see him being that laissez-faire about a product that purported to represent his views on life and success. I do know that throughout the several-month period in which I was courting Cal, Maroon always returned my calls and assured me that they were "interested."

I recall sitting in my living room some weeks after I was fired (October 3, 2001), watching Cal "Mr. Irrelevant" Ripken attempt to restore the optimism of a nation shaken by the events of 9/11. The spot was sponsored by Coca-Cola. I thought about that a lot. Here was a company, Coca-Friggin'-Cola, that could've had anybody it wanted as its spokesperson for a very important, sensitive campaign. They tabbed Cal. (Possibly Coke went that route because Cal was already building an enviable reputation as a do-gooder through his various foundations and charitable initiatives.) But he's not good enough for Rodale.

Later, Holiday Inn Express would deem Cal relevant enough to let him anchor their very funny ad campaign. Indeed, he became the chain's public face.

The real kicker here, though, is that in April 2007, Cal Ripken and writer Donald T. Phillips released a book about perseverance and mental toughness. The book was put out by Gotham, an imprint of publishing giant Penguin.

It was titled Get in the Game.
**

In postscript, Rodale eventually did publish a celebrity sports book of its very own. The company that was so deeply concerned about athletes and their negative images went on to do a book with, of all people, Pete Rose. They reportedly paid Pete a seven-figure sum.

* b-y-C-a-l-R-i-p-k-e-n.
** You cannot generally copyright or trademark ideas for titles.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Steve:

Who was supposed to buy your Ripken book? What demographic were you aiming for? What is your honest assessment of the real sales potential?

I kind of agree with your old boss I don't think Ripken had a compelling story behind him that wasn't already beaten to death in Sports Illustrated.

Does Ripken have any hidden talents that would widen his audience? For instance, can he make it deep in to Dancing with the Stars eliminations?

I am certainly not an expert in the field of publishing relevant books and magazines. But then again, neither are the clowns running Rodale.

Cal said...

Why the about face from Rodale? I read the link to the Times article, but didn't glean as to why they would pay Pete Rose so much higher than Ripken.

I would say that Ripken was more relevant than Rose in 2001, and even now. Ripken's last season was 2001, and Rose hadn't managed since '89. Moreover, Ripken has gone on to start a youth baseball program that is somewhat of a rival to Little League.

Case said...

Steve,

A feature article on Cal,
Cal Ripken Jr. Leads by Example, is listed on the cover of the April 2009 issue of Success Magazine. I guess he's still not relevant. :)

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: The people "who were supposed to buy" my Ripken book are the same types of people who bought similar inspirational books by Pat Riley, Rick Pitino, Bill Walsh, etc. All of these books were phenomenal best-sellers. The Walsh book to this day is considered a mainstay tome on organizational management. My demographic, in other words, was the "Sportsthink" crowd, but I actually figured that Cal's appeal would be even broader than that.

In fairness, I don't think his 2007 book was quite the smash hit that some exepected it to be. But remember, a good six years had gone by since his retirement; I was going to do the book fresh off his magnificent career. Also, had I been able to do the deal for an advance of $50,000, at an enhanced royalty rate of 15%, the Rodale version would've had to sell fewer than 15,000 copies in order to "earn out" (i.e. recoup the monies paid out as an advance). We probably could've sold that many copies in a single direct-mail campaign, let alone what we would've sold in bookstores, on QVC or the like, etc.

At a mere $50,000 advance, Cal's book did not need to be anything close to a best-seller in order to justify its existence. It's when you get into the high-six- and seven-figure advances that publishers are really sticking their necks out. Like, say, Rodale did with Pete Rose.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - My inherent bias notwithstanding (being ghostwriters and all), I think you're being a bit too much of a purist when it comes to high-visibility individuals sharing their ideas with the world. The reality is that very few people other than professional writers actually pen their own offerings, whether those offerings be in the form of books, speeches, or what-not (the occasional op-ed column or article being the notable exception. Can you imagine, for example, an American president undertaking the laborious task of writing every speech he (or she) gave? And would you even want the president to do it? I would personally prefer that they spend their time attending to the running of the country. And frankly, I doubt that any president (immediate past president excluded) would agree to merely read a speech that they hadn't personally vetted, if only to ensure that they weren't saying something diametrically opposed to their own ideas.

That doesn't mean that the material is created wholly from the ghost's imagination. We've done projects where we actually had to sift through thousands of pages of a client's research and notes, condensing and compressing the voluminous data into a book of reasonable (and marketable) length). We've also had to "wing it," virtually writing books from our own research, but in those cases, the "author" would have ultimate authority and responsibility for the accuracy of the text.

While there may well be some "authors" who contribute only their name and image to books penned in their name, I believe that such an exercise is a rarity. If someone *does* accept such a detached relationship with a project that purportedly represents them, they probably deserve any untoward effects that may arise from the project.

Anonymous said...

Hate to get off the subject, but your pic of Tony Curtis'book reminded me how much his book sucked. Talk about a book that did not have to be written! How many times can the guy mention he slept with Marilyn Monroe, or did coke? Newsflash Tony-your are not the only one to sleep with Marilyn Monroe or do coke.