Thomas Boswell, the baseball columnist for the Washington Post, does a weekly Q&A. In his latest, someone asked him why he hasn’t written a book in so damn long. Boswell gave an honest answer. The sort of answer a lot of writers don’t often give: they don’t have an idea that’s worthy of 50-60,000 words.
Boswell went further, though, and observed that most folks who write baseball books don’t have 50-60,000 words worth of good ideas either:
I don’t have a higher gear.
What you read in my column is fully thought out, re-re-re-written and the best thinking/writing I’m capable of … The assumption that with more time, broader explication of the main point, that I’d be “better” is something I’ve heard for 35 years. I know it’s not true. This IS my best.
There are few things I hate more than a 300-400 page book on a 20-page idea or a 40-page person. And that’s what 95 percent of all sports books are. Take a really good column idea or “takeout” idea – worth 1K or 5K or even 8K words – and “blow it out” into a book, make some $$$, but make the reader (me) want to throw the damn thing through a window. Over the years, plenty of very nice people, writers, book editors have, in the friendliest way, suggested “big books” that I should do, or do with them. Like what I’ve done every day of my life – and the audience I enjoy talking with so much – constitutes some kind of slumming and if I’d just shape up I could make something of myself. I say, “Thanks very much. I appreciate the idea.” What I am thinking is, “Those are exactly the books I want to incinerate. Please, lord, save me from weakening and saying, ‘Yes.’”
There are a couple of ideas in there worth discussing.
The first being that a great number of sports books are bloated. God, they are. Maybe most are. And he’s certainly right about how they’re pitched. I’ve had a number of publishers or agents approach me after I’ve written a post at HardballTalk and say “you know, you could blow that idea up and make a book out of it.” I’ve attempted to construct an outline for a book after a couple of those conversations and each time I determined that the idea didn’t have much more to it than what I had to say about it.
Maybe that’s just because I have a short attention span. Maybe some of those ideas would make excellent books in someone else’s hands and wouldn’t be a bunch of filler. Boswell says he’s a columnist who writes 800 or 1000 words, sometimes more, but not much more. Maybe I’m just a blogger who writes 200 words on some things, 2,000 on other things and sometimes just posts a funny picture or a video or something. Maybe we all have our own gear.
The fact of the matter is that the idea is often secondary to publishers. Many will freely admit this to you. Good ideas are great, but what gets the ball rolling on a book deal, at least in sports or the non-fiction world, is “platform.” Are you a big enough deal in name or position to where we could be guaranteed a certain number of copies sold without having to do much marketing? Were you recently the focus of a big news story, be it tragic or heroic? Are you the featured columnist for the Washington Post or the lead writer for NBC Sports? Do you have a Twitter following of sufficient size? Are you, yourself, a product and do you have a built in audience so that we may be relieved of the hassle of trying to sell this thing to people? If so, hey, got any ideas for a book?
This is a bit of an exaggeration – you won’t actually get a deal without a well thought out pitch – but the conversation starts with your platform. And folks with amazing ideas routinely don’t even get to have the conversations, because they don’t have a platform to speak of.
I understand why publishers operate like this. Publishing is a business and businesses need to make money. A good way of making money is to limit the risk of any given project, and putting a brand name with an established audience on the cover of a book is a good way to limit risk. But no one is introduced to books as a product. We’re all introduced to books as ideas. The notion that ideas don’t drive a great many of the books which get published these days is rather depressing.
At the moment, I am working on a book. It’s not a sports book. And I don’t have a deal with an agent or a publisher for it. It’s something more personal and it may never see the light of day. Indeed, given that I’m just a blogger who writes 200 words on some things, 2,000 on other things and sometimes just posts a funny picture or a video or something, it may not be any good at all.
But if it does get done, bad or good, it will have been driven by my ideas, not my platform. And I feel like that will be something I’ll be more proud of than a longish blog post inflated into a baseball book.