Eisler’s decision is a key benchmark on the road to wherever it is we’re going

I wasn’t planning to write a post this past weekend for Monday morning publication. But then Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler contacted me on Saturday to tell me what Barry is up to. I’ve read their lengthy conversation about Barry’s decision to turn down a $500,000 contract (apparently for two books) and join Joe (and many others, but none who have turned down half-a-million bucks) as a self-published author.

To use a metaphor that connects with the current news: this is a very major earthquake. This one won’t cause a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, but you better believe it will lead everybody living near a reactor — everybody working in a major publishing house — to do a whole new round of risk-assessment. Because, in its way, this is more threatening than the earthquake that just hit Japan. This self-publishing author will much more assuredly and directly spawn followers.

As news of Eisler’s decision spreads, phones will be ringing in literary agencies all over town with authors asking agents, “shouldn’t I be doing this?”

I submit a bit of perspective from another part of publishing: scholarly journals. A few years ago I asked my very smart friend Mark Bide, who knows that part of publishing much better than I do, how I’d know if the business model for journals — by which they publish work the university paid the professor’s salary to write and then sell the published version back to the university’s library — was threatened. Mark told me to watch their submissions. As long as the scholar-authors felt the need to be published in journals, the journal business model would continue to function.

I am not alone in having long known that self-publishing would ultimately present big authors with the opportunity to disintermediate their publishers, but I wouldn’t have thought when I asked that question that the sci-tech journal would hold its ground longer. Now I wouldn’t be so sure.

The decision for Eisler, at its core, was pretty simple. On the basis of what he’s learned from his friend Joe Konrath, who seems to be banking in the mid-six-figures self-publishing annually after a career as a non-bestselling author for established publishers, and what Eisler learned himself by self-publishing a short story, he figures he can earn more, much more, in the long run by publishing himself. This is not about ego or vanity; it is not about hating the publishing establishment. It is a coldly calculated decision (by an author who should make those well; he started out in life as a covert CIA operative) that says, in effect,  “it would not be smart to take half-a-million bucks considering what I’d have to give away to get it.”

In the conversation between them which they just published, Konrath and Eisler touch upon many aspects of the publisher-author interaction and the author’s self interest. The conversation is smart, sophisticated, and mostly entertaining (although it is definitely too long; should they have hired an editor?) It is a conversation that everybody in the industry thinking about its future will likely read more than once (particularly the highlights, which are sure to be extracted by many people from the entire text.) Contained within it are certainly a number of points made to which there are valid rejoinders that could be offered. And certainly some will point out that Eisler’s BookScan figures suggest a decline in commercial appeal. But, in the overall scheme of things, the contentious portions are minor and the fact that his sales through publishers have been declining would mitigate the expectations for him somewhat and make any success he achieves on his own even more noteworthy.

The overall thrust is that an author has just made an entirely rational decision to turn down half-a-million bucks of big publisher money to self-publish. And what is said in their dialogue, but perhaps not emphatically enough, is that the direction of change makes this decision likely to make more sense to more authors each successive week than it did the week before.

What we do here at The Shatzkin Files is try to provide insight about the implications of news events rather than be the best reporter of them. If the implications of self-publishing to the business models of established publishers interests you (and what are you doing here if it doesn’t?), then you need to read the entire exchange they’ve published and the reporting others will do of it. I will limit this post (longer than mine usually are as it is) to a few points which for the most part are intended to extend their discussion, rather than contend with or correct it.

1. They didn’t do the math on what the loss of print sales and print merchandising might mean in dollars and cents and how to address it.

One of the themes that I’ve been working on for some conferences I’m planning (more on that upcoming later this week) is how the arguments about rights, royalties, and publisher leverage change as the balance between digital and print sales continues to shift. What this conversation can make you forget is that far more than half of most books’ sales, perhaps more than 70% for the majority of titles, are still print copies selling because they’re on-hand in a physical retail location. And that’s in the US. The number is higher in the UK and is almost certainly more than 90% in most other places in the world. So even if the math Konrath and Eisler put forth showing that the author share of ebook sales can increase by three or four times through self-publishing; even if we ignore (as they did) the fact that the higher percentage will be on a lower retail price (they trumpet the lower retail price they can charge as a key motivation for the shift); and even if we forget about the costs in time and actual expense involved in self-publishing, the author who follows this formula has to take into account the loss of presence and revenue from the retail channel.

But, having said that, the shift to digital seems to be increasing in speed worldwide. The percentage of print sales will keep declining. Eisler would have been signing a contract for a book that would come out a year from now and digital will be more important then, perhaps twice as important then, as it is now. And, as he points out in the conversation, the book a publisher would put out a year from now will have been selling and delivering revenue for a year before the publisher would have had something in the marketplace. To paraphrase the great author and publisher, Mark Twain, “the self-publisher will be halfway round the world before the legacy publisher can get his boots on.”

And that leads me to…

2. I’d be amazed if Barnes & Noble doesn’t detect an opportunity here to do a completely different kind of deal. What if B&N went to Eisler and said, “we’d like to buy print rights to sell your books just to our own customer base”? I can’t see why he wouldn’t just say “yes.”

What I’m envisioning here is something like a book club deal. B&N pays an advance and licenses the right to print its own copies for display and sale through its own stores and dot com. This could work many ways, but one might be for them to pay a royalty based on the actual selling price for every copy shifted. That would allow them to manage their downside risk on the printing because they could cut the price when sales slow down.

That might lead (or even trail) a wholesaler like Ingram or Baker & Taylor or Charles Levy to make a similar offer to print copies for sale through other retail outlets. The big publishers have taken a firm position (which, in my opinion, they’ll be figuring out how to walk back in a year or two) against buying print rights only, but one has to figure that a smaller publisher or a trade book distributor, looking at lots of underutilized capacity to handle print in the coming months, might see commercial merit in handling the print side of a major ebook bestseller.

Konrath does tout his sales through Amazon’s CreateSpace, which enables his books to be available in print for their online customer base. But he doesn’t talk about B&N’s PubIt program or setting up his title at Lightning Source, which would make it available as print online more broadly. None of these solutions put speculative inventory in stores, though, and that’s necessary to get the full marketing and sales impact for any book today (and probably for a few more years to come.)

3. Because Konrath has proved to be such a multi-talented combo do-it-yourselfer and finder-of-resources, the conversation doesn’t touch on the range of service providers that can help the potential self-publishing author for fees or for a much smaller percentage than a publisher would take. There’s mention of Smashwords, which is one, and of CreateSpace. But the self-publishing giant Author Solutions and aren’t mentioned. Neither is BookMasters, a company we’ve worked with in Ashland, Ohio, which offers a range of self-publishing services, including access to all the editing requirements discussed by Konrath and Eisler along with some human-intermediary handholding that many authors will need. Perseus is building a similar set of services, extending its Constellation service, which began as the means to enable their roster of print distribution clients break into digital publishing. And Ingram has a suite of capabilities that could be extended, if they chose to make the investment, to be an author-service platform. The Scott Waxman Literary Agency is the first to have created a digital publishing arm that, with tweaking, could provide an author with the help they’d need. They won’t be the last.

The single greatest shortcoming of the Konrath-Eisler conversation, to me, was its Amazon-centricity, although there is one place in the conversation that begins to acknowledge that Barnes & Noble’s Nook sales are becoming significant. (Some publishers have told me that Kindle has declined from a share well north of 80% to one in the mid 50s while Nook is now accounting for 25% of their ebook sales in the US.) They don’t mention Kobo, which might have as much as a 7% share now. Sony is still a player. Apple’s iBookstore really shouldn’t be ignored. And Google ebooks is the lifeline for independent bookstores to sell ebooks. No author who wants to stay sweet with independents can afford to ignore putting their books into Google. In fact, Random House executives told us that the growing use of Google by indies was a factor in their decision to level the pricing playing field by moving to agency pricing last month.

And as the build-out of pathways for English-language books abroad continues, these non-Amazon, non-B&N players become even more important.

When Konrath started doing his self-publishing two or three years ago, working exclusively through Amazon made complete sense on an effort-to-reward basis. It is becoming increasingly important to cover more points of distribution, even digitally.

But that doesn’t change the calculation that much for Eisler’s decision. There are already helpers in the marketplace to extend beyond Amazon and there will, undoubtedly, be more. The conversation imagines this kind of service provision. And (if they’re competent) the ones now in the marketplace will be falling over themselves to introduce Eisler to what they can do for him.

4. OK, here’s what these guys really got wrong. They made a mistake about baseball. Their post is full of line drives off the wall, but their interpretation of baseball history is flawed.

I refer to Konrath’s observation about the Negro Leagues in baseball, suggesting that the reason the majors brought in black players was that Negro League baseball had become superior to Major League baseball. Actually, that wasn’t true at all. Although some integrated barnstorming over the years did result in black teams beating white ones from time to time, it was seldom suggested — and certainly no major league owners or fans thought — that the overall level of play was higher in the Negro Leagues. It wasn’t.

Beating a competitor that had somehow demonstrated its superiority was never the motivation for the major league teams to integrate. It was all about them competing with each other and not ignoring talent. The real history might contain a useful lesson for the legacy players in publishing today.

What drove Branch Rickey to sign Jackie Robinson was pure competitive zeal. He wanted to win. He wanted good ballplayers to help him win. If he was missing some good ballplayers by ignoring blacks, he’d stop ignoring blacks.

When he did that, other teams followed. And, in pretty short order, the Negro Leagues were destroyed because the best ballplayers they had were playing in the Major Leagues.

A similar effect has weakened, if not quite destroyed, Christian publishing in the US. A quarter century ago, Christian publishing and bookselling existed in a parallel universe to secular trade: different publishers, different stores, different commission rep groups. Just different. Then superstore expansion and some major Christian bestsellers led to the major chains starting to carry the best titles from the Christian publishers. That weakened the Christian booksellers, who were the ones that carried the wider range of titles from the Christian publishers which, in turn, weakened them.

Of course, Eisler hasn’t succeeded yet. He has a book to put out this Father’s Day that he turned down $250,000 to have come out next Father’s Day. If the over-under is whether he’ll have earned his $250,000 by then, which way would you bet? It would strike me as extremely ambitious, but if he can sell at $4.95, not entirely inconceivable. And, of course, you could set the bar at which you’d call it “success” a lot lower than that.

If the legacy publishing establishment can develop tools to deliver marketing at scale, adjust its contracts to pay higher digital royalties, and, perhaps, offer a “fee for service” model alongside its “advance against royalty” model, it might, like Major League Baseball did, weaken the infrastructure that is developing that will increasingly tempt authors (and readers) to abandon it. But it also could be that I was right four years ago when I said that the general trade publishing house was a dinosaur in the emerging world of 21st century publishing. Wasn’t it a natural disaster that was the catalyst for killing the original dinosaurs as well?

Konrath made the point that self-publishing just gives him more time to write. He and Eisler both expressed frustration about living with the long schedules and companion limitations of traditional publishing practices. From their perspective, it is wasteful to not start monetizing IP quickly after it is finished in the digital age and it is unnecessarily constraining sales and income to publish only one book a year, or even one per publishing season.

I’ve tried to recruit Joe to speak at conferences, with a total lack of success, because he thinks the best marketing he can do is just to keep writing. New stories help him market himself more than public appearances do. Since he also enjoys writing more than speaking and would rather be home than on the road, it’s a pretty tough sell to ask him to lose a day of editorial output to have a conversation with a bunch of strangers.

The portion of their conversation about staying focused on generating editorial output was one of the most persuasive elements of it. A publisher would help itself a lot if it focused on that question too and thought of a writer’s time as a valuable resource that should be devoted, as much as possible, to doing what that writer can do that nobody else can. And that’s “write.”


Ted Williams: 3 stories you won’t have read anywhere else

Today’s post is about Ted Williams, the baseball player who might have been the greatest hitter who ever lived. There’s no attempt here to make the piece accessible to people who neither know nor care about baseball so, if you came to the blog for publishing or digital change today, please come back for the next post.

But if you know and care about baseball, you’ll be getting three stories of interest that never appeared in any Williams bio I ever read, and I think I’ve read them all. Each of these stories contains a little surprise about a character we thought we knew well. The first one is short and indicates that he wasn’t the hard-hearted SOB many sportswriters made him out to be. The second is a bit longer and shows that the great student of hitting learned from some apparently unlikely teachers. And the third is a lengthier tale that shows that Williams could also learn from a fan.

The first one came to me just a couple of weeks ago from Roger Waynick, the owner of Cool Springs Press, a gardening publisher I’ve written about before on this blog.

When Roger was in his mid-teens, before he had a drivers license, he went on a trip with his father to Islamorada, Florida to fish for tarpon. The group that included his dad breakfasted one morning and then, for some reason, left Roger behind when they went to the boat.

Ted Williams, a pretty famous tarpon fisherman (one of his major endorsement deals was with Sears for fishing tackle), noticed the young man sitting by himself and asked him what was going on. Roger explained that his dad and his dad’s friends had left him behind. Ted invited him to spend the day with him fishing on his boat.

Waynick has two great memories of the day. One was about the legendary Williams eyesight. (It was claimed that he could read the label on a 45 rpm record while it was spinning on the turntable.) Waynick explained to me that fishing for tarpon is like hunting; you see the target game first and then “cast to it.” As Waynick put it, “he had brilliant eyes and could see the fish long before I could!”

But the other recollection Waynick has nearly 40 years later is about Williams’s strength. “We caught several fish and I was amazed how he could hold his rod almost vertically as these huge fish pulled. For me, I was being pulled around the boat…but not him. He stood still and straight. Splendid.”

In the late 1980s, I spent a couple of spring training seasons in Florida with a press pass working on a book called “The Baseball Fan’s Guide to Spring Training.” I even saw Williams once working with young hitters on a back field at the Red Sox camp, then in Winter Haven, Florida. But that’s not the second story.

One morning I was hanging around with other writers and broadcasters at the batting cage at the Phillies spring home, then at Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater. (Jack Russell was a charming red brick edifice, one of my favorite spring training ballparks. It has been replaced, but at least the new park the Phillies built, Bright House Field, is perhaps the nicest of the new generation of spring training parks.) Also at the cage that morning was Tony Kubek, the former Yankee shortstop who was then a broadcaster. Kubek was talking about his first All-Star game appearance.

He was witness to a conversation between Williams and Kubek’s teammate, Yogi Berra. This would have been in 1958. (I had to look that up. Kubek was rookie-of-the-year in 1957, but he didn’t appear on the All-Star roster that year.) Williams had won the batting champtionship with an astounding .388 average in 1957; he was on his way to winning it again in 1958, but with an average that was 60 points lower. The defenses were shifting on him, loading up the right side of the infield and daring him to hit to left field.

Berra was a left-handed hitter, like Williams, but, unlike Williams he could hit effectively to left field. So Williams asked Berra for at tip on going the other way.

As Kubek related it, Berra said, “you have to throw the top hand over. Make a throwing motion with the top hand as you swing to hit line drives. Otherwise you’ll pop the ball up.”

I was amazed. “You’re telling us that Yogi Berra taught Ted Williams to hit to left field?” I asked Kubek. “Exactly,” he said.

There’s a coda to this story that has nothing to do with Williams. As it happened, a day or two later I was at the Houston Astros training camp in Kissimmee, Florida. Yogi was a coach for the Astros at that time so, with my press pass again allowing me on the field before the game, I went looking for him. I learned that very hot day that Yogi sought the shade. He was never in the sun before that game. I found him in the dugout. So I approached him.

“Hello, Mr. Berra,” I said, offering my hand. He made no move and just stood there. “I’m Mike Shatzkin, a writer from New York. I’m working on a book on Spring Training. Yesterday at the cage in Clearwater Tony Kubek said you taught Ted Williams to hit to left field.”

Berra didn’t move. He didn’t acknowledge a word I said. He showed no expression.

“Is that true?” I said. “Do you recall it?”

Still no reaction. I gave up; “slinked away” would be an accurate description.

Later in the press box I told a Houston writer the story. When I got to the part about approaching Yogi in the dugout, he said, “Did you get him to say anything?” “No,” I said. “No surprise there. He doesn’t talk to writers he doesn’t know.”

The third story originated with a movie producer introduced to me by a Hollywood friend in the late 1980s. This fellow (whose name eludes me 20 or more years since I last spoke with him) had apparently secured the rights to do a movie about Ted Williams. The film would revolve around an amazing story about Williams, still largely unknown (not in those bios!) But, sort of like the Berra coda to the Kubek story, I have an extra twist to offer.

Williams had missed most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons serving in Korea. He came back for the last few weeks of 1953 and hit well, but, nonetheless, announced in a national magazine before Spring Training that 1954 would be his last year. He would become 36 years old during the season and had been in the big leagues since 1939. As the movie producer told me the story, his wife at that time had very clear personal preferences: “no weddings, no funerals, no ballgames.” And as if to confirm that his plan to quit was the right one, Williams broke his shoulder making a tumbling catch in left field in one of the first exhibition games of the spring. But he rejoined the club early in the year and was, as always, hitting well.

After a game with the Orioles in mid-season, Williams was alone in the Baltimore train station when he was approached by a stranger. “You’re Ted Williams, right?” “Yes.”

“Are you really planning to retire when this season is over?” “Yes.”

“Well, you better not do that if you want to make the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. The writers vote for the Hall of Fame and they hate your guts. And your numbers just aren’t good enough. If you quit after this year, you’ll never make it on the first ballot.”

Since Williams had hit well over .300 in every season he’d played, and hit with power from the very beginning, he was skeptical. “What do you mean my numbers aren’t good enough?”

“You missed too much time fighting in the wars. Your lifetime totals just don’t cut it.”

Williams’s curiosity was piqued. He arranged to meet the fan again soon in New York. They stayed up all night talking. At the end of the session, Williams said, “OK, what do I have to do?”

The fan said, “you have to hit 500 home runs. If you do that, they can’t possibly keep you out of the Hall of Fame. They’ll have to put you in on the first ballot.” At that time, only Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, and Mel Ott had hit 500 home runs in all of baseball history. Lou Gehrig was 4th on the all-time list with 493 home runs.

At the end of the 1954 season, Williams had 366. The following spring, he was divorced, reported late, and started the season late. But his pledge to retire had been forgotten and he kept right on hitting. And his new friend kept in touch with him, kept encouraging him, and kept tracking how Williams was doing against the lifetime records that had been posted before him.

Williams hit .356 in 1955 and .345 in 1956. In 1957, the season in which he turned 39, that .388 average won the batting championship by more than 20 points over Mickey Mantle’s career-best .365. In 1958, the year Kubek played with him in the All-Star game, he won his sixth American League batting championship.

But age caught up with him in 1959. He had a painful pinched nerve in his neck that hampered him all year and, for the first time, his average fell below .300. He only hit .254. But he finished the year with 492 home runs, one behind Gehrig, eight short of 500. He couldn’t retire!

So he volunteered for a pay cut and came back for a final year in 1960. He climbed back above .300, hit 29 homers to total 521, and, in a final act that inspired one of the most famous New Yorker articles ever by John Updike (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”), hit a home run in his last at-bat in the major leagues. Five years later, after the mandatory waiting period was over, Williams was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

What a story, I thought. I told the movie producer: you need to turn this into a book. He agreed. Could I help him find a writer?

I had a friend named Lawrie Mifflin, who was one of the first woman sportswriters. She had started covering the New York Rangers for the Daily News and then covered them for the New York Times. Her husband at that time, Arthur Kimmel, had just left a job at an advertising agency. Arthur was a good writer, and really knew sports. I decided to see if he’d be interested.

So I called Arthur and said, “I have a guy who wants to make a movie about Ted Williams and needs a writer to do a book of the story.” And Arthur said, “have you ever heard the amazing story about Lawrie’s father and Ted Williams?”

The fan who influenced Williams — almost certainly the most important fan in baseball history — was Eddie Mifflin.

Lawrie is still with the Times, a Senior Editor working on new digital initiatives, and still a friend. What a nice series of coincidences. The most influential baseball fan in history is the father of one of the first women to cover professional sports for a major daily. Her friend who dabbles as a baseball historian finds out about it through the most circuitous imaginable route. And a dabbling baseball historian has three stories about the greatest hitter that ever lived which never made it into mainstream lore.


Publishing conversation at the ballpark

The very nice people of Tata Consulting Services entertained a group of publishing executives at Yankee Stadium on Friday night in a luxury box behind first base. This was an ideal way to see an historic evening at the ballpark on a very hot night (the box is air conditioned and opening the big window in it actually leaked cold air on the two rows of great seats below) but it also gave rise to some very stimulating conversation with some smart and knowledgable publishers.

Because this was a private evening (and because this is not a muckraking blog; we traffic in insight here, not news), nobody gets identified and no quotes are attributed. But that doesn’t mean that very interesting observations about where publishing is and where it is going have to be kept secret.

There were a variety of publishers and industry leaders in the group. One of the most interesting between-innings conversations picked up from the post on this blog last week about the threat that the rapid uptake of ereading poses to brick-and-mortar stores.

One big publisher observed that he saw clearly that display in bookstores moved the needle on ebook sales. His fear, and a thought we didn’t cover in the post, is that the decline in brick-and-mortar exposure will lead to a decline in the overall sales for many titles. The several of us involved who were in this dialogue agreed that brick-and-mortar simply presented more opportunities to grab impulse sales; you can’t “promote” as many titles in the real estate available on a screen than you can in a well-merchandised physical surrounding. The online advantage is targeting, of course; the store can’t customize its impulse presentations to each individual customer, and that opportunity exists online. But except for the opening screen, we couldn’t think of any online retailer that really takes advantage of that.

Another big publisher  wondered if there might be a plateau point below which the print book erosion won’t go. “Will it level off at 50-50, say, or maybe at 70-30?” It does seem intuitively correct that there’s a hard core of paper book readers that could keep print alive.

But, of course, keeping print alive for any number of people is only half the equation for bookstores. Print can be bought online. In our post on the threat to brick-and-mortar, we posited a 2/3 drop in store sales from current levels will have occurred when we reach 50% ebooks and 50% of the print being sold online. There is a vicious cycle at work here: fewer store purchases lead to fewer stores, which will further fuel online purchasing for those readers who don’t want to give up print. And that still leaves a big problem for the remaining stores.

One publisher had some interesting observations about “ebook first” publishing, a term I think we’re going to hear more and more. To me, “ebook first” means two things. First, it means that the ebook is the primary product being considered as the project is put together. And second it means that the ebook hits the market before the print book. That second point is tactical and practical, not strategic. It takes time to print and bind and ship books, so the presumption is that, when the book development is completed, it is just faster to get the ebook into the marketplace. That wouldn’t be true if you had a “print book first” workflow and had to then do an ebook conversion from your print PDF, but “ebook first”, ending up with an XML document that will deliver all your formats, should eliminate the need to do that.

But a publisher in our group at the game who is working with a blog on publishing reported “it ain’t necessarily so.” The final QA steps with an ebook, particularly if there is any complexity at all to the design or layout, can take longer than delivering the print from the PDF. That’s not theory; that’s this publisher’s actual experience. There is nearly 100% certainty that the PDF will print what you want when you deliver it. But the epub file you deliver might not give you what you want through every ebook delivery system and for every display environment without some further tweaking.

One conversation that made me really want to learn more was a discussion of what big publishers do to prepare for the erosion of brick-and-mortar. Executives from two big trade houses agreed with the point we’ve made here that harvesting consumer names is a key. If most of the market is available online and can be reached without deploying a large-scale organization, publishers will need to raise the switching costs for major authors beyond the cash flow shuffle that the author would suffer if they lost their advance. At the game, I heard two major houses agreeing that emailable names that the house owns will be a key author retention tool going forward; one wonders if there is a sophisticated consumer name gathering and managing process taking place in the big houses that is beneath the radar; or, at least, beneath my radar! Of course, getting into the details of “what exactly do you do” would not have been an appropriate question with a curious competitor listening in so it will have to wait for some other time.

Thinking about the Digital Book World Conference program I’m planning for January, though, this seems like a really important topic. And it also seems like one agents ought to know a lot about. Gathering the names of an author’s fans is a place for publishers and agents both to cooperate and to look for a negotiating advantage. It is very tricky ground.

Several of us also had a bit of conversation about Google and Apple as retailers. One of the publishers expressed skepticism about how well Google Editions would sell ebooks. “Google has never sold things successfully,” he said. I pointed out that “never” for Google was not a very long time; the company is barely more than a decade old. But it is true that whether Google sells three times as many ebooks as they expect or one-third as many, it won’t move the needle for them financially. (More than 95% of Google’s revenue is from advertising.) The same is true of Apple, which seems to put only the most minimal effort into merchandising at the iBooks store.

One TCS executive, with a strong background in the telecom industry, was pretty sure the publishers are underestimating the speed with which the online component of their business will grow. He says the coming G4 installations — the next generation of cell phone signal technology — will mean a four-fold increase in bandwidth and speed. The new “free wifi” offer from Starbucks is a leading indicator, he said. Free wifi will be just about everywhere very soon.

I had been thinking that the only significant advantage of an app store app on the iPhone versus a web-based app was that the “true” app would hold content resident in the phone that would require connectivity to be delivered through the web. But that’s a distinction without much of a difference if wifi is ubiquitously available (or if the app itself has to access an online database to be effective.) And delivering a web app steers clear of the whole Apple approval and vetting process and is, at least today, a lot cheaper to develop. The new Google Android app tool kit apparently presents another cheaper alternative to deliver value than delivering through the Apple app framework. TCS has been responsible for a large number of the apps developed for the iPad but, nonetheless, my new friend from TCS agreed with my observation. “When do apps make commercial sense” is another topic we’ll have to explore at Digital Book World.

As a serious fan, I can assure you that my involvement in all these conversations was between pitches and between innings. There was a helluva ballgame going on. The evening began with tributes to Yankee owner George Steinbrenner and longtime public address announcer Bob Sheppard, both of whom died in the past week. The Yankees’ new primary rival, the Tampa Bay Rays, took an early 3-0 lead, but the Yanks came back with a couple of home runs in the 6th inning to tie the game. The Rays broke the tie in the 7th but the Yankees answered with another solo homer in the 8th. After the greatest player of the Steinbrenner era, relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, preserved the tie in the top of the 9th, the Yankees won in the bottom half on a 2-out single by Nick Swisher. The TCS box exploded with cheers along with the rest of the Stadium. It was a perfect night at the ballpark.


A baseball fan in the steroid era

I have been a baseball fan since the middle of the 1955 season. I have written books about baseball. I have a web site dedicated to baseball. I have built whole life adventures around baseball. My wife and I spent the 2000 season living across the street from (what was then called) Pac Bell Park in San Francisco, and I went to every Giant game except five (when a client insisted I be in London to speak…) I wasn’t a Giant fan; I did it because I love baseball and a “walking life” and I realized when I saw where the new SF ballpark would be that one could comfortably live right in the vicinity.

That summer, Barry Bonds, the Giants leftfielder, became the favorite player of my adult life. This was the year before he started hitting home runs like a machine. From my seat in the stands, I admired his batting eye and plate discipline; the fact that he never threw to the wrong base from leftfield; the fact that he only attempted stolen bases in late innings of close games and was almost always successful. Ellis Burks, the Giants rightfielder, was our upstairs neighbor that year. Ellis told us that Bonds was an unbelievably hard worker. The press couldn’t stand Bonds, but that’s because he wasn’t particularly cooperative or friendly with them. As a fan, I couldn’t have cared less. What was there not to like? 

Well, we all know now, don’t we. STEROIDS!!! CHEATER!!! The sporting press has made an industry of ferreting out these miscreants. We know who they are.

I wasn’t a Giant fan, but I am a Yankee fan. ARod is another great favorite. Yes, he’s a recent additon to the steroid dungheap.

And this past week we have Manny Ramirez. I’m getting sick of this. Nobody can tell the truth.

What’s the truth?

The truth is that — whether it was 30% or 50% or 80% — a huge number of players were using PEDs (that’s “performance-enhancing drugs”) for many years. The owners knew it and encouraged it. The players were relaxed about it. The union did nothing because the union’s job is to fight with management and there was nothing to fight about! Management loved it because PEDs create home runs and (when pitchers take them) strikeouts. Home runs and strikeouts put fans in the seats.

So can Bonds or Tejada or Palmeiro or ARod or Clemens or Manny or any of them tell the truth? “Yes, I used these drugs. But, frankly, everybody was using them. I was competing against players who were using them. Nobody seemed to care or mind.”

No, they sure can’t. If they did, everybody — the Commissioner’s office, their ownership, their teammates, and the leadership of their union — would be down on them like a ton of bricks. If there is a “crime” here,  just about everybody’s guilty. So everybody’s much more comfortable letting the unlucky ones be consecutively outed, each one being treated as an isolated example of immorality. The collective hypocrisy — including on the part of the sportswriters who strut their purity — is nauseating. It’s really just pandering to an anti-drug hysteria which, if we give it a chance, might prove to be as passe as a lot of the other mistaken political and social ideas of the past three decades.

From Joe Torre’s current bestseller (I’d cite the page number, but I’m reading it on my iPhone in eReader so that wouldn’t mean anything):

Said one former All-Star and steroid user who competed against those Yankee teams, “Everyone around baseball did what they could possibly do. It was the survival of the fittest.”

…The player said that everybody in the game just understood that attitude was acceptable. “Now whether it was right or wrong, now you’re talking about a moral issue, but there were no rules. You did what you did. It was the wild, wild west.”

How should we regard performances during an era when steroid use was, as a practical matter, allowed and encouraged by the entire baseball establishment? Remember that when Mark McGwire was hitting 70 home runs, he had “andro” in plain view in his locker and it was written about during the season. Lenny Dykstra showed up one at Spring Training one year looking like he’d been inflated with a bicycle pump. Brady Anderson went from a gap hitter to a 50 home run guy in 1996. Suddenly lots of players were hitting 50 or more home runs in a season, which used to be a rare accomplishment.

The era is going to define itself statistically. As the dead ball era did. As the 30s (an era of very high batting averages and low strikeout totals) did. As the stolen base era ushered in by Maury Wills and extending to Rickey Henderson did. But it is really unfair to judge the people of the 1990s and early 2000s by a a standard that was developed when people noticed the size of Barry Bonds’s head in 2003.

If the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concept ever came to baseball on this topic, the list of villains would be far more extensive than the ones whose drug tests were leaked.

May 28 at 11 am at Javits Center: “Stay Ahead of the Shift.” Publishers are chasing their tails trying to figure out how to keep getting paid adequately for content. It will just get harder and harder to do. Use your content to build community. That’s where equity is in the long run. The good news? This shift will take a while. And publishers are well equipped to stay ahead of it.


From a book to a 1.0 website: the story of BaseballLibrary, part 1

This is the first of what will be 3 or 4 posts about the birth and development of, a sterling Internet 1.0 site still chugging along (barely) deep in the Internet 2.0 era. It shows that a good idea can sustain itself for a long time, even in the face of erratic and sometimes incompetent management (and both the idea and the mismanagement are mostly mine.)  This first post tells the story of the creation of the book The Ballplayers, which was the key building block of Baseball Library. The next installment relates some interesting history about how the model for compensating for content changed in the late 1990s, but this foundation is needed first.

In late 1985, at what was one of the more difficult times of my consulting career, I was invited to a meeting to brainstorm the commercial possibilities for “The World Classics of Golf”, a book club. One person who was supposed to come to the meeting couldn’t make it. “Oh, Rodney’s working on his baseball encyclopedia.”

I pondered that as I walked home. What could that be? And then an idea hit me (although I still don’t know what Rodney’s idea was!).  The Baseball Encyclopedia, then published by Macmillan and also known as Big Mac, was the complete statistical compendium, player by player, of baseball history. And what struck me was that, because of Big Mac and its power, nobody had created a normal, regular, plain vanilla  baseball encyclopedia: one where you could look up a player (or a team or an umpire or a baseball announcer) and read about him.

The idea of creating such a thing fascinated me and felt like something I could do. I had spent more hours of my waking life on baseball than on any other single thing. I knew (and know) a lot. I was also a member of a young organization called SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, and I knew there were lots of people who knew even more than I did who could be rounded up to help. But I also knew this was a big project and I’d need help to figure it out.

So I went to Jim Charlton, an experienced book packager and a fellow baseball aficionado with the idea. My startlingly naive notion was that Jim would just execute my idea for half the take. Jim probably just didn’t believe that I meant he’d do all the work, so he agreed. And together, we planned out the book that was later called (somewhat misleadingly) The Ballplayers.

At that time, if memory serves, there were about 14,000 people who had been active major leaguers in the 20th century (which is when the “modern era” of baseball begins.) By eliminating hitters who had fewer than 500 at-bats and pitchers with fewer than 100 innings of work, we got the number down to a manageable one, about 5,000. With the addition of some other players (from the 19th century and some who were worthy of inclusion despite having missed the cut-off), teams, leagues, announcers, sportswriters, owners, and umpires, we developed a list of 6,000 individuals who would get bios. By ranking all of them for their historical value (arbitrarily), we divided them into groups so that the most important players would get proportionately longer listings. And that enabled us to estimate the total length of the book, which was around 700,000 words and (we thought this was smart) about 500 photographs.

Thanks largely to Jim’s contacts and sales skills, we sold the book in a mini-auction to Arbor House, an imprint of William Morrow, for $165,000, a pretty huge sum at that time. And then we got to work, paying a small per-entry fee to a long list of writers we recruited, mostly through SABR. We then recruited two recent college graduates, Shep Long and Steve Holtje, to help us coordinate and manage the project. Holtje stayed until the end and became Managing Editor.

But by this time, Jim had figured out that I really was serious about him doing all the work and, for half the money, that wasn’t a very good deal. So we had to renegotiate. I cut the pie and then offered him his choice of slices. We’d split the take 85-15. The one who got the 85 would do all the work and have to pay all the expenses. Jim decided to take the 15. So this project became my baby.

We completed the manuscript on time (with the help of an extended schedule) in the Fall of 1989. John Thorn, a veteran baseball book creator with an extraordinary list of credits, was commissioned to provide the photographs, which he did with his colleague Mark Rucker. And in Spring 1990, The Ballplayers, a 7-pound, 1330-page tome, hit the bookstores with a retail price of $35.

By this time, Morrow had shuttered the Arbor House imprint. The Ballplayers may have been the last book released with that colophon. That meant nobody in the shop had a stake in the book. So they printed 35,000 (probably the number required for the house to break even; that was an even more common practice in those days.) They advanced about 20,000 and ended up selling about 22,000. And by the end of 1993, the book was ready to be remaindered and for the rights to revert to me. 

The work had achieved a little bit of fame: a kind review in Sports Illustrated and an appearance by me to promote it on Good Morning America were the highlights (thanks to an independent publicist I hired; we got almost no PR from our publisher.) It was still the only reference book of its kind. In the meantime, Jim Charlton had created The Baseball Chronology, which was a day-by-day account of baseball history. That was really the only competition to The Ballplayers. It was published by Macmillan which should have given it a better chance. But a couple of years later, it joined The Ballplayers on the remainder table and out of print.

I was aware that we had made a major publishing mistake with The Ballplayers by including the 500 photographs and setting it in a pretty loose design and a big trim size. These things made the book bigger and heavier than it needed to be. A straight-text rendition with smaller type might would have been more portable and could have been priced at $20. But that was water over the dam.

On the other hand, I now owned several hundred thousand words of baseball biography text and the internet era was just beginning. That would create a new opportunity, which will be where we will take up this subject again in a subsequent post.

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This is a post about nothing; it doesn’t count

This is a post about “no post today”. Or maybe this is a Seinfeld post. Its about nothing.

A particular number of years ago that my friend Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners could tell you and I can’t — but I would say about 15 — she confided that she thought it would be smart for her company to start a newsletter. And I said, “what do you want to do THAT for? A monthly deadline? To go along with all the other deadlines?”

Lorraine was smart enough not to take my advice and she and her partner (and also my friend), Connie Sayre, are still putting out Publishing Trends monthly and it has been a success, financially and otherwise, from about Day One.

So, 15 (or whatever) years later, totally voluntarily — with nobody forcing me, nobody even suggesting it was a good idea! (and the few that were asked actually telling me it was a bad idea) — I gave myself a daily deadline for this self-publishing effort (to go along with all the other deadlines, which rather inconveniently have refused to diminish to make way for the blog.) And I don’t think anybody noticed when I cut back from the six days I posted the first two weeks to the five I have maintained since.

This “no post today” post is the signal that I now consider four a full week. And I might not make a full week every week.

Richard Charkin (also a friend) wrote a daily blog when he was MD at Macmillan in the UK. I told him it blew me away that he could come up with something every day. He saw as his advantage that he could “always talk about a book” they were publishing. Those stories were always there to tell. Charkin stopped blogging when he moved over to Bloomsbury a couple of years ago; I suspect he’s relieved not to have the daily burden any more (even though at Bloomsbury he’s still got plenty of books to talk about.)

The indefatigable Mr. Cader (uh, yeah, we also know each other) was smart enough to build “except when not” into his promise of a daily newsletter when he started Publishers Lunch. My dad (yup, knew him pretty well too) used to get a newsletter called Winners and Sinners that was “published occasionally from the southeast corner of the New York Times newsroom” by a managing editor named Theodore Bernstein (whom I never met).

So, I’m making a very unconventional move when I say that any implied promise of a daily post is now officially withdrawn.

Which isn’t to say I don’t have a list of things I’m working on. It’s just that I am planning ahead to not work on any of them this weekend. (Baseball pool draft all day Saturday and hanging out with friends not in any way connected with publishing — I have some of those too — all day Sunday and I might not be doing any writing…)

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