Friday, January 28, 2011

Next time I just 'gotta want it' a little bit more.

Buddy of mine tipped me to this new book yesterday, and it's with some ambivalence that I recommend it, particularly to those of you who are passionate about your sports. Don't get me wrong, it sounds like a terrific book in the Freakonomics/sabermetrics tradition: a book that pulls back the curtains of the sports world's hoary cliches and mythologies to determine in some scientific sense which (if any) of them has some basis in fact. In reading the Wired interview linked above, I was especially gratified to see the authors debunk the whole idea of momentum (and, by implication, at least certain facets of sports' hallowed "mental game"), which, of course, is a key component of what we on this blog call Sportsthink. Take that, Tommy Lasorda!

By now you've probably surmised the reason for my ambivalence: I should have written that damn book. (Yes, another one. And I gotta be honest, based on the synopsis/reviews I've seen, my book would've been even broader and richer.) It isn't for lack of trying. As long ago as 1995
which is to say, a full decade before SHAMI was harassing my (then) agent to circulate a proposal for a book to be titled "The Thinking Man's Guide to Sports." I would've even been willing to make it PC by changing Man's to Person's. Alas, my agent felt that the concept was too "airy" and "contrarian" to make a meaningful dent in the market for sports books; he said I'd end up pissing off (or, maybe worse, boring the crap out of) the very demographic such a book depends on in order to sell enough copies to justify a decent advance. He said that the cliches and mythologies, however factually nonsensical, are part and parcel of what the average fan loves about sports. (Sound familiar? Remind you at all of the hope/Happyism crowd?) He summed up his position thusly: "People don't want to have to think that hard about it. They just want to watch and enjoy."

A few years later I floated the idea to my bosses at Rodale (who had to approve budget for each new book idea). They're no longer with the company, but wherever they are, they're still laughing. Shortly thereafter I took up the idea with ESPN editor John Papanek, asking if he'd be interested in an extended feature on the subject, or ideally a series of them, organized sport by sport. He shot me down using pretty much the same reasoning as my agent. I ended up writing a series of articles for America West, the eponymous airline magI don't think it exists any longerand a somewhat more scholarly treatment for Psychology Today that evolved into my SHAM chapter on Sportsthink.

I guess I can console myself with the notion that I was way ahead of my time, huh? Too bad consoling notions won't pay for new cars or roof repairs....

15 comments:

Mike Cane said...

Stuff like that happens all the time. You were seen as just a Joe Schmo -- versus the people who did the book: an SI guy + Freak guy.

Now you see why I am so in favor of eBooks. If you have an idea, YOU can do it and not seek "permission" from a yutz.

Yesterday Amazon announced they sell more Kindle books than paperbacks. Wake up!

Dimension Skipper said...

My own most recently noted example of the Sportsthink phenomenon involves Mike Vick...

I could be wrong*, but I seem to recall that back in his Falcon days opposing teams and various commentators used to frequently talk about wanting to face him outdoors in cold climates because he wasn't nearly as effective then. In the Eagles' most recent season and quick playoff exit, I don't think I heard one person (broadcaster, commentator, or even radio talk show caller) bring up the issue. It's as if the concept just magically disappeared now that he's "our" guy. And yet from what I saw, the cold weather thing didn't go away and seemed just as applicable as ever.
__________
* I could be getting confused with the Tampa Bay Bucs as a team, but I think the same was said about both Vick AND the Bucs. Also, I no longer listen nearly as much to sports blather as I used to, so that could also account for my having missed such discussions. Though I still listen enough that I think I should have at least heard it a time or two in passing if the notion was at all still out there.

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, one thing I love about you is the extra effort you always put into buttering the ego. ;)

Couldn't you at least have said "Joe SHAM"?

Cosmic Connie said...

Schmo or Sham, Mike is right. If you have an idea, turn it into a book and publish it yourself. Maybe you could still do your book on Sportsthink. I imagine there's a market for more than one of that type of thing. And if you absolutely abhor the idea of self-publishing...well, if your concept is broader and richer than the book that has already been published, it's possible that a trade publisher might be interested in it now. It doesn't hurt to try (and I hope you are).

Steve Salerno said...

Connie (et al), more and more I find that, like electrical current, I'm taking the path of least resistance: going where the money is, rather than trying to forcibly extract money from people who don't seem to want to pay it. Rest assured, that doesn't mean I'd ever sell out and go over to the dark side, even though that's where the serious money is. I'm just saying that if corporate America is inclined to give me decent amounts of its money (as well as an obvious and heartfelt appreciation for my commitment to craft that I don't find as much anymore in the world of "real writing"), then why am I hitting my head against the wall?? I conceived and wrote up three (count 'em: THREE) full book proposals in 2010. Slaved over every freakin' word of three 50-plus-page manuscripts. Did 50% or more of the basic background research that would've been necessary to complete the actual books, too. When I was rejected, I was almost always rejected nicely--with words of praise for the actual writing and even sometimes the abstract merit of the idea ("this is a book people SHOULD read, but..."). In the end, though, I was always rejected. And bear in mind, each one of those three proposals ate up several months of productivity. So in effect, I worked for 12 months last year and got paid for only 4 or 5 of 'em. And keep in mind, my days are 12-15 hours, not the usual 8 or 10.

From this point on I'm going to try my best to take the money that's there for the taking (with integrity) while at the same time deriving my "writerly pride" from occasional essays and other, more introspective works I'm able to place here and there. Plus maybe a longer piece or two that some editor will allow me to write exactly the way I want to write it--provided what's left of the industry I once cherished doesn't crumble even before the Mayan end-times take all of us Home in 2012...

Of late I feel kinda like Nixon in the waning days: They won't have me to kick around anymore. Yeah, I know that sounds petulant and whiny, and it's also out of character for me. The only way I've lasted in this business is by being incredibly resilient and, yes, optimistic. Guess I'm just getting old and tired.

a/good/lysstener said...

It makes me so sad to read that last comment of yours. I look at your resume, as I'm sure many of the "faithful" have, and I can't imagine how you could be in the position you say you're in. But then I also see what's on TV or on the main display racks in bookstores and I sort of understand.

Dimension Skipper said...

Guess I'm just getting old and tired.—Steve Salerno

So how's the view from that far back in the line? Can you see me up here near Gino's and the Rustler Steakhouse, both just across the road from the Two Guys dept. store?* There... I'm jumping up and down and waving my arms, can you see me now?

:-)

Sorry, just my "cute" way of saying "You're not alone" in the feeling (regardless of the causative details). Not that that helps in any way, but still...
__________

* Not sure how widespread those businesses were, but they're what's known as "things that aren't there anymore." All three used to be adjacent in one particular local spot when I was growing up... long, long, long gone now. The businesses, that is. Although also my youth. The local spot itself still technically exists—it didn't vanish or vaporize or anything—it's just not anything like it used to be, but of course neither am I.

I see, though, according to the first listing on the Gino's google search link I supplied above (looked like too many good links to choose just one), the franchise is maybe in the midst of (attempting?) a comeback. I didn't know.

Steve Salerno said...

You wanna know what it really is, DimSkip? Well, I'll tell ya...

(...and the shameless whining continues...)

See, I've lived my life backwards, or maybe upside-down is the better way to put it. My life was front-loaded, with all the success coming early and sometimes even without great effort. I had almost everything go my way, and in every realm. I was able to transit seamlessly from career to career (jazz to selling to writing, with men's baseball entering the mix somewhere along the line). In each new realm I enjoyed a stunning success right out of the chute. I was doing jazz gigs in the Village when I was 18, and I'll repeat myself here in saying that there aren't many writers whose very first piece (that they whipped up at home in their spare time at night while collecting huge commissions as a salesman by day) appears in Harper's--a coup that meant even more at the time than it does today. I was successful in other areas too; let's just say I never lacked for female companionship. (This is probably getting more personal and confessional than it needs to be, but what the hell, it's my blog, right?) As I've also noted, I applied for--and got--great jobs that I had no business applying for, jobs that listed, right in the ad, prerequisites I didn't have. No matter. I got them anyway.

[a little more to come]

Steve Salerno said...

I might have mentioned this too, but my Dad (rest his soul) always said, "End things right. Whatever it is, you want to end it right. That's much more satisfying and important than to begin it right." And it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to end all this right. As I wrote in a post a while back, I'm in the sunset of my years and it seems like after five decades (certainly at least four) of having just about all the coins come up heads, now they're mostly coming up tails, and for no good reason that I can discern. But I guess there was no reason why I should've expected them all to come up heads, once, either.

Like the man says: Eventually it all evens out. It's just that if I had my druthers, I would've chosen to build toward something, to have the bulk of the success come after many years of straining for it. Rather than having had it all early, and then spending the latter stages of my life locked in some nostalgic memory-loop of "how it used to be."

That sound pathetic enough for ya?

Steve Salerno said...

And then there's the fact that the things I really, really value--"a great sentence"; a fantastic and original metaphor--don't count for shit anymore. Literally. You get far more accolades (and measurable reward) for appearing on a show a la Jackass and having the dog that takes the biggest dump.

Mike Cane said...

>>>Mike, one thing I love about you is the extra effort you always put into buttering the ego. ;)

That's the way it goes. I'm a Schmo to many people too. So there. Or something.

RevRon's Rants said...

This might be a duplicate. Blogger is playing games again.

Going into anti-diplomat mode here Steve; publish this or keep it private as you see fit. Life changes, Steve. For everyone. We have the option of changing along with it or commiserating about how it once was. And it is a conscious choice.

I made great money freelancing in my early 20s, then the "awl bidness" changed. In my mid-20s, I moved rapidly up the ranks in two companies, ultimately becoming the youngest person ever to be named a corporate-level manager in a huge international oil search firm. Then, the subsidiary was sold, and I was left scratching my head.

Turned my hobby into a business, making custom furniture. Took over management of a 100-year-old woodworking business and brought it from near-bankruptcy to profitability in 90 days. After a rather convoluted drama involving the new owner's embezzlement, bounced checks, and the murder of my best friend and ersatz new business partner (with an ugly divorce thrown into the mix), things changed again. The story goes on, but you get the point.

And that point is that, as the sage says, the only thing that is eternal is change. And for all the wonderful stuff that drifted out of my life, there has been even more pleasantness that has come to replace it. Might not always feel particularly good when it's happening, but I've learned that there are lessons to be learned in the losses as well as the gains. The toughest part to accept is that once those lessons are integrated, even the "bad" parts of our lives become cherished.

Now, whining and preaching aside... You're having a tough time getting published the way you used to do it. Welcome to the real now-world. Unless you're a million-selling novelist, a child star or heiress who peddles a sex tape or a celebrity/politician who gets caught with a dog in the fight or his willie in the intern, traditional publishers aren't interested. You need to bring them a million-seller.

Truth is, with your talent (and contacts), I have little doubt that you could self-publish a book, market it effectively, and make more $$ than if you were picked up by a major house. Than - if you chose - you could shop your proven marketable product to trade publishers. We've had clients take this route - clients with much lower name recognition and bona-fides than you have.

You need to ask yourself what is your biggest obstacle. Do you just resent having to change? Feel that since others pushed your books out there before, you shouldn't have to do so now? Or perhaps you harbor the stigma that is sometimes attached to self-publishing, and feel it is beneath you to take that route.

You can't go back. And you get to decide whether you're going to go forward and try new things or spend the rest of your life throwing a pity party for what once was. IMHO, the latter course would be a profound waste.

Anonymous said...

I really think if you just worked a little harder to "attract" book deals, then they would happen.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, I actually had someone say that to me seriously not long ago: that the reason I was so successful early in life was that I expected to be successful, and the reason I'm less successful now is that I see myself differently. I would give that theory more credence if the less successful episodes hadn't started piling up on their own, out of the blue, back when I still expected to succeed at every single effin thing I did.

Anonymous said...

Reading over the post and comments, I was reminded of the law school scam blogs I've been reading lately. The connection between the two (at least in my mind) is that it seems to become ever more difficult to choose a career path that offers a reasonable hope of stability and a decent salary, let alone a modicum of professional respect. You can make great choices, develop excellent skills, and have a history of success, and still at any time run slam into career stagnation or no career at all. This basic story gets repeated all the time.

It's scary. It means our society is deeply screwed. It means we have a tough fight ahead if we really want to change. I'm thinking general strikes and bricks through windows (and I don't mean G20 protesters, I mean regular folks doing this).

To link it back to your situation Steve: we're still in deep denial. We'd still rather read or watch The Secret etc, get eyeball-deep in Sportsthink, than think hard about the mess we're in. That's why there is so little demand for ANY book that questions any myth. Myths are almost all we've got left.