Sunday, January 18, 2004
New York Pete Rose's fame and controversy as a baseball star guaranteed big attention for his memoir, "Pete Rose: My Prison Without Bars," in which he finally acknowledges to betting on the game.
But that fame and controversy may also limit the number of people who buy the book.
Sports publishing is a multimillion-dollar market, ranging from encyclopedias, instructional works such as Tiger Woods' "How I Play Golf" and "instant" commemorative editions about championship teams. But the books that sell best are often those that attract nonsports fans.
"You want to appeal to multiple audiences, and the sports books that really work transcend the subject," says Jonathan Karp, editorial director at Random House, which published the million-selling "Seabiscuit," a hit with a wide range of readers.
Few names are bigger in the baseball world than Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader whose gambling led to his banishment from the game in 1989. In his new memoir, recently released by Rodale Press, he concedes for the first time that he bet on the Cincinnati Reds while he was their manager.
His belated confession made instant headlines, but several publishing officials questioned how long interest would last and whether nonbaseball fans would care. Also skeptical was former pitcher Jim Bouton, author of "Ball Four," a scandalous best seller in the early 1970s.
"I think the only people who really follow Rose are die-hard baseball fans," says Bouton, whose memoir of the 1969 season included stories of pill popping and players kissing other players.
"Also, when you come forward and say, 'I've been lying for 14 years, now read my book,' that's a tough sell. Why would anybody believe what he's saying now?"
Bang, then bust
A senior vice president at Rodale, Marc E. Jaffe, defends the Rose book with an argument common among publishers of sports books: It's more than a sports book. Rose's gambling may be the biggest news, but Jaffe says the memoir also works as a story of redemption and loss.
"We think that it will reach across gender and across generations," Jaffe says. "I also think it will speak to a lot of people who have struggled with addiction."
Financial terms of Rose's book deal were not disclosed, but it seems relatively modest. A source from a rival publisher says Rose was seeking $1 million, a lot more than most writers get, but not in the range of best-selling novelists such as Michael Crichton or the $8 million collected by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for her memoirs.
Rodale, which published the million-selling "The South Beach Diet," issued the Rose memoir with an announced first printing of 500,000. One superstore chain, Borders, reports strong early sales. But among online consumers, interest has apparently already faded. After cracking the top 20 of Amazon.com's best sellers last week, "My Prison Without Bars" had dropped to No. 94 as of early Monday.
"It's a scandalous memoir, fueled by tabloid headlines and revelations of bad behavior. These are akin to summer blockbusters that that open huge and fall off precipitously," says David Hirshey, vice president and executive editor of HarperCollins, which published gossipy memoirs by NFL star Lawrence Taylor and pitcher David Wells.
Broad appeal needed
An ideal book among sports publishers is "Seabiscuit," Laura Hillenbrand's biography of the 1930s race horse. Thousands of copies have been sold at race tracks, but the book's success is less as a sports book than as a book of general interest that happens to center on sports. Appealing to history fans, fans of last summer's movie, horse lovers and fans of underdogs, "Seabiscuit" has more than 4 million copies in print.
Other sports books have reached general readers. Bouton's memoir reflected upon the cultural battles of the 1960s and upon maintaining a family life when you're frequently on the road. A recent best seller is Michael Lewis' "Moneyball," the story of how the management of the Oakland Athletics built a winning team despite a limited budget.
"'Moneyball' has worked both as a book about sports and as a business book," says Josh Pollock, a category manager at Borders.
"The same rule applies to all books, not just sports books. There's got to be something more to it than just one particular subject. There has got to be a story there. ... Publicity also helps. Rose's book has gotten a lot of help from the media."