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Monday, April 18, 2005

The East and the Rest of Us (remix)

(An updated and expanded version of an entry originally posted a few days ago.)

I’ve been asked what I think about the proliferation of books about the Red Sox—their rivalry with the Yankees, their 2004 season, the character involved in being a long-suffering Red Sox fan, etc. In considering this, I’ve been thinking about those teams, those cities, the book industry, and the baseball industry. And my own ambition.

To start on a purely personal level, it is occasionally infuriating to me to walk into a bookstore and see the tables, in the sports section and often those in the front, featuring books on the Red Sox. Stephen King’s book. Johnny Damon. Reversing the Curse. Red Sox Heroes of Yesteryear. And if a book isn’t about the Red Sox, it’s about the Yankees and how they couldn’t beat the Red Sox. All of these books, about a very small subsection of the game, fighting with an overpumped Jose Canseco for the honor of being the book that people read about baseball this year.

As many of you know, I wrote a book, Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography, which came out late last year. It’s sold a couple of thousand copies. Every sale has, in my better moments, led me to deep gratitude to each single buyer. To be able to connect with people at all through what one creates is a truly humbling gift, one that my ego too often resists.

I am proud of the book, and it’s a source of some pain to me that the book has not been given much of a look. For a short time, my publisher—a midsize house near Washington, DC—was able to pay for placement at Borders and B&N, but with a small publicity budget they haven’t had the muscle to pull many favors with the national (or even regional) media.

For purely ambitious reasons, I’d love to see my book in the book-review columns. But neither the Chicago Sun-Times nor the Chicago Tribune bothered to talk about it in their pre-season baseball book review pieces, even though it’s about Wrigley Damned Field.

The editor of a large magazine in this city bypassed promoting my book in favor of juicing a new autobiography of Lou Gehrig, of the New York Yankees, justifying an apparent lack of civic relevance by pointing out to me that Gehrig’s wife was from Chicago or something. Perhaps there aren’t enough magazines or newspapers in the East to give Gehrig his due.

Maybe I’d get it if I lived out east, where the Yankees and Red Sox have so much meaning. There is much to be said for the clash between the “rarified” air of New England and tough, savvy, glamorous New York. The rivalry between the city’s American League teams, white-hot since the early years of the 20th century, continues to burn.

I have friends who live in New York, and in New England, and who love the Yankees and the Red Sox. I watch both teams play often on mlb.tv, and I root for one and not the other.

But you know what? The rest of the country has cities, baseball teams, and culture, too. And it’s just as good.

Go to a Giants-Dodgers game sometime. While the Giants-Dodgers rivalry began in New York, it is no longer a New York rivalry. It now rages between the fabulous (in its own eyes) southern California and the more cultured and sensitive (in its own eyes) Bay Area. LA thinks Frisco is fey and self-important; the Bay has little respect for SoCal, which it considers vapid and shallow. It’s no less intense than any competition out east.

There’s also pretty good clash between Dodgers fans and Angels fans; the AL club plays in conservative, wealthy Anaheim, while the city-residing Dodgers court a multinational, minority-friendly audience. New Angels owner Arte Moreno, a self-made multi-millionaire with ties to Clear Channel, is going after that minority audience; I wonder how the fine upstanding residents of Orange County will react to idea of brown-skinned folks invading their territory.

And back up in the Bay, the Athletics--representing hardscrabble Oakland and the East Bay, and now, with new ownership, fighting to expand their audience into the wealthy East suburban and exurban area--lock horns twice a year with the Giants of the more upscale, counter-cultural San Francisco.

Or come on out Midwest. Don’t even tell any Cardinals or Cubs fans that their rivalry isn’t just as heated as anyone else’s, or that the Cubs and Sox don’t have the most explosive enmity in the game. People around here actually wear shirts that say “My favorite team is the White Sox—or whoever else is playing the Cubs.” And they mean it.

St. Louis and Chicago are hard-drinking cities. For each series the teams play, thousands of fans of the opposite side inhabit the host ballpark, dressed in their teams’ colors, and attempt to outparty each other apparently as a matter of civic pride.

While both cities are technically Midwestern, St. Louis is clearly still a southern city, one that—after a rough start—grew a tradition of baseball integration and is struggling to manage the real thing, with some success.

Chicago is a melting pot, with tons of neighborhoods, sporting people of all races, but these neighborhoods themselves are rarely integrated. Racial tension still simmers here, although its intensity has tapered off.

The north side of the city (home of the Cubs) and the south side (home of the Sox), with fan bases extending deep into the suburbs and exurbs, meet twice a year in a mood to party—but also in a mood to express deeply personal bad feelings about their opponents.

South Siders regard Cub fans as trendy, yuppie, Blackberry-toting airheads, while on the North Side, the White Sox are, if not ignored entirely, considered a lesser life form supported by fair-weather fans distinctly lacking both brains and style. (Both sides annually attempt to prove their smarts by outconsuming each other during interleague games.)

I haven’t touched on the Twins/Brewers rivalry, or that of the Astros and Rangers or the Pirates and Phillies. Or even the Mets and Yankees. But all of them speak volumes about their cities and how their baseball fans view themselves and each other.

But editors, advertisers, and publishers have decided that the Yankees and the Red Sox are the most interesting dynamic in baseball.

And this conclusion is driven by some clear evidence. The Yankees and Red Sox were by far the biggest draws in AL parks last year; New York drew an average of 40,847 fans on the road, more than 10,000 higher than the league average, while Boston pulled in 36,002. (And the World Champion Red Sox will certainly get a bump this year; the club is full of mediagenic personalities and has a nice, youthful, friendly white manager.)

But guess what. The Chicago Cubs pulled in 37,100 fans last year on the road, the NL’s highest total, and more than the Red Sox. San Francisco, sporting a competitive team with baseball’s greatest antihero, Barry Bonds, pulled in 36,190, making them a better draw than Boston as well.

While a few books have come out this spring about the Cubs (some books come out about the Cubs every spring), they are not being promoted in Chicago--or anywhere--nearly as well as some of the Red Sox books or Canseco’s book.

And much of that is due to the vagaries of the book business. Scribner rushed Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan’s diary of the 2004 Boston season, Faithful, out right after the World Series—rightfully so, because season diaries generally have the shelf life of a bagel—and other publishers decided that the Red Sox were the topic to push.

Faithful could hardly have failed to sell, since so many of the damn things were printed. In the bookstores I visited, copies were stacked up 50 to 100 in piles that were constantly replenished if even a tiny dent was made. The same can be said for Canseco’s book Juiced.

Nearly every major publisher is located in New York City, the self-professed literary capital of America. There is a VERY STRONG regional bias in the publishing industry, a fact of which anyone living in another part of the country becomes acutely aware within ten or so minutes of beginning their journey as “professional” writers.

The people working in publishing on the East Coast are often from the area, and they have a local bias in what they particularly think is interesting. For anything more regional, or “out there,” to get an East Coast publisher’s attention, it must be sold to said publisher as a book that is like some other book that’s already been a hit.

So if you have a book about the Kansas City Royals, and what their struggle for survival means about baseball, you’d best compare yourself to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, because it’s already been successful, you see. And once you’ve done that, and you’ve gotten signed (and good luck to you), your publisher is most likely going to want a book that’s an awful lot like Moneyball—whether you wanted to write it that way or not.

So in this environment, people tend to write books that they think can be sold, and publishers try to sell books that they think have already been sold. So every publisher wants a Red Sox book, and most publishers don’t think that said books are necessarily redundant.

For each publisher to have a books about the same topic is good in their eyes, because 1) it takes away even a subtle share of shelf space from another company, and 2) your book just might be the hit. (Of course, what becomes a hit is often decided by where publishers decide to put their promotional effort and cash). In any imitative, reactionary, and negative environment, innovation—often the thing people say they want the most—is almost impossible.

Here's a fine example of just how innovative the industry is. The cover of my Wrigley Field book, which came out in November 2004, sports a shot of Wrigley's playing surface and a mockup of the 'Wrigley Field' marquee outside the park's home-plate entrance. I came up with the idea for the cover and contracted a friend, Chris Bluhm, to do the photos. My publisher's art department did some remixing.

George Castle's book, Where Have All Our Cubs Gone, which came out in March, sports a shot of the 'Wrigley Field' marquee outside the park's home-plate entrance.

And it only gets better. Gene Wojciechowski [currently of ESPN, the magazine, but for a short time a Tribune Cubs beat writer] has a new book out, too. It's called Cubs Nation, and it features a shot of...Wrigley's playing surface and a mockup of the 'Wrigley Field' marquee outside the park's home-plate entrance.

Three Cubs books with the SAME COVER; quite a fine job of gumming up the market, confusing buyers, and screwing not one, not two, but three authors. George Castle's publisher told him that it was "too late" to change the cover design. That was in December, when my book had been out for a month.

(Disclosure: at least one book before mine featured a picture of the marquee on the cover: The Cubbies, a book of quotes and stories written by Bob Chieger sometime in the 80s or early 90s.)

I'm sure it's confusing for bookstore employees to try and shelve my book, George's book, and Wojciechowski's book. Hell, I'm confused by it. Imagine what people in other cities think, if they even get to see any of the three.

But even in Chicago, books about locals get the short shrift. While a Chicago-area Borders or B&N may have a section of local books, the product likely to sit on the high-traffic tables is the one paid for by the largest and richest East Coast publishers. Your local chain bookstore often has very little to do with the community in which you live.

And that matters not only to all of us as consumers of books, but also to anyone trying to survive as an author, especially if what that author wants to write about isn’t what established editors and publishers think that the public wants to read.

Of course, the real lesson here is that while Juiced and Faithful have sold, other baseball books—with much smaller publicity budgets, less attention and hype, and other topics besides two East Coast teams—have sold as well. Moneyball was a huge left-field hit, while the overhyped Pete Rose biography was one of the bigger publishing white elephants of the last decade. Buzz Bissinger’s Three Days in August, about Tony LaRussa and his Cardinals, is moving.

I’m crossing my fingers that the obsession with two of the 30 major-league baseball teams will end soon. Not just for me, or for George Castle, or for others trying to get their books published, but also for the game itself. The fifties—while a well-remembered time for baseball in New York—were terrible for baseball almost everywhere else in the country, with the game losing popularity everywhere but Fun City. We don’t need to revisit that era.

5 Comments:

Blogger Doug said...

Boy, when you come back from being fallow for a while, you really come back.

You're right about the East Coast bias, which just perpetuates itself. I'm not sure it's necessarily any worse than it's ever been, but as book publishers and other media have become more national in focus, the regional influences have been overwhelmed and squeezed out of the marketplace, so there are no other alternatives.

The reality of the blockbuster mentality in books, movies, music, etc., is unfortunately a fact of life these days. Money follows money, and nobody wants to blaze any trails--they all want to be second on the latest bandwagon.

10:05 PM, April 18, 2005

 
Anonymous Jim Garner said...

One of my favorite quotes from John Updike is, "She had the attitude shared by many New Yorkers, that everyone who lived west of the Hudson was kind of kidding."

This goes through my mind every time I do business in NY. They are the most cosmopolitanly parochial people in the country.

7:39 PM, April 21, 2005

 
Blogger Cas Tway said...

You just should have had a doctored photo of Sammy Sosa impaled on a spike. That would have sold some copies on a "Stuart Shea is a sick bastard!" basis alone.

On the other hand, you might want to keep that secret to yourself...

1:57 PM, April 22, 2005

 
Blogger John Thorn said...

Yes, Gothamania has become so rampant that even the venerable Farrar, Straus and Giroux felt moved to promote Jonathan Mahler's new book on New York City in 1977, which I reviewed unfavorably in the Boston Globe, as being somehow a book about the Yankees.

10:17 AM, April 25, 2005

 
Blogger R.J. said...

Stuart, I agree with you whole-heartedly. As a Chicagoan living in D.C., I don't even think it's an East Coast thing, specifically. In baseball, it seems only to be a Red Sox/Yankees thing, specifically, ESPN's need to overcover those two teams.

For example, the first three weeks of the season we had several interesting storylines in baseball. As a White Sox fan, I would've liked to seen some stuff on the Sox' hot start. Nope. Maybe something on the new Mets and the six-game winning streak the Mets had going. Nope.

It's not like the Mets aren't in, you know, New York. It's not like Chicago isn't, you know, the third-biggest city in the nation. It's not like D.C. isn't the the most powerful city in the world.

Nope, ESPN is in Bristol, Conn., right between NY and Boston. And they need to hype the Red Sox/Yanks as much as possible. It's irritating and I really hate it.

10:13 PM, April 30, 2005

 

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