The One That Got Away

Friday, April 16, 2010 |

"She knows there's no success like failure,
And that failure's no success at all."

-- Bob Dylan, "Love Minus Zero/No Limit"

Book editors, like placekickers and relief pitchers, need to have short memories or else risk certain madness. Like layoffs and papercuts, the tendency to dwell on one's failures is an occupational hazard for those in my profession, and over the years it has shortened the careers of far better editors than myself.

Books, if granted the power, can haunt an editor. They can shadow one's movements, cloud one's judgment. And not just the failures (or even the successes), but the ones that get away, too. The ones we lose at auction or those which, whether through our own miscalculations or due to circumstances beyond our control, manage to slip through our desirous fingers.

The ones that get away are, for some, the hardest to move past. I know they are for me. It's easy to brush off the disappointing sales of a book you had high hopes for by blaming its performance on breakdowns in the sales, marketing and/or publicity departments. I'm a pro at that. It's also easy to write-off a bestseller as a stroke of luck, fortuitous timing, or the result of a major media booking. All of those things are external, and have little to do with the work you, as the acquiring editor, invested in a book's development and subsequent birth into the world of letters. I have to continually remind myself that there's only so much an editor can do, because we do plenty, including cheerleading.

I'm no stranger to ones that get away, either, professionally or personally. There have been girls, sure. Jobs. Opportunities creative and otherwise, all blown. Somehow or another they've all gotten away from me, eluded my flailing grasp. And those are just the ones I was alert enough to recognize.

I got into this business thinking that it would lead me, through the relationships I'd forge, to a book (or many books) of my own. I had been inspired by masterworks like Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes and Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer--non-traditional sports books of true literary merit--so I set out in my early days in the business to find the next Exley, the next Kahn, while working on my own would-be masterpiece in my spare time. Only it never happened.

Instead, like many editors before me, I am left today with a half of a novel and some vague notes tucked away in a drawer I never open. The unfinished novel centered around a neurotic Jewish writer living in New York City (quite a stretch, I know) whose best friend, nicknamed "The Duke," had distinguished himself by playing three replacement games for the narrator's beloved New York Giants as a weakside linebacker and special teams wedge-buster during the strike-shortened 1987 season. The overcomplicated plot dictated the employment of a novel-within-a-novel technique that I had neither the faculty nor the patience to get right, and as a result the book sputtered to a stop after about 150 exasperated pages.

Once, I summoned the courage to share those pages with a more senior editor at my first book publishing job, a lovely dark-haired woman whose opinion I respected and who, not so coincidentally, I secretly desired. She responded by telling me that what I had written was "picaresque", a comment which sent me scrambling for a dictionary. I'm still not sure whether she meant the remark as a compliment or an indictment of my amateurishness, but it hardly matters now.

The attempt at the novel came after I made, in my late teens and early-to-mid twenties, what I believed was a wholehearted effort to become a poet in full. For my efforts I was twice rejected by The University of Michigan's subconcentration program in creative writing, rejections I mistook, naively, as poetic themselves. I produced hundreds of pages of energetic, mostly indecipherable poetry in those years. They included some interesting language and image experiments I guess, but on the whole the poems lacked substance. Mostly I was just aping my heroes, and not particularly well. The poems were, in retrospect, like a fireworks show after a baseball game, except the baseball game got rained out. Still, that didn't stop me from submitting them to hundreds of literary magazines, submissions which resulted in a deluge of rejections dotted by occasional, uplifting placements in unmentionable, ephemeral publications more often than not bound by side-saddle staplers. One such publication, if memory serves, was called Meat Whistle Quarterly. My first published poem, released in a green-papered broadside by the folks at Poetry Motel in Duluth, focused its attention on ejaculate. How proud my mother was.

I also made a run at writing a screenplay. Three drafts, each one worse than the last. Eventually, my frustration with it extended beyond my capacity for revision. So one night, under the influence of cheap bourbon, I rode the R train all the way out to Coney Island and threw the motherfucker in the ocean. At the time I thought it, too, was a poetic gesture, until the discovery several years later of a floppy disk (remember them?) containing all three drafts, plus notes, which I haven't since had the stomach to discard. I keep it in the same drawer as my half-novel.

Then there was the music, which represents another post for another time. I can't go there now.

Those personal creative failures have led me--not without some resistance--to my current position, where they hover over my cubicle like Eliot's women "talking of Michelangelo". As an editor, I've spent the past 10 years giving rise to others' voices, hiding (not always expertly) behind them, a would-be Cyrano of sportswriting. I've had my share of successes and more than my share of failures along the way. I've worked with writers whose work was possessed of great craft yet lacked heart, and I've worked with writers whose work had heart in spades yet lacked essential elements of craft. Once or twice I was lucky enough to work with a writer who had it all, but I've also had to re-write more books than I'd care to admit.

Through acquiring and editing something in the neighborhood of 200 books on sports I've managed, however, to carve out a nice little niche for myself in the publishing world. See, I'm the editor who, when you call up to pitch a book about, say, the American Football League or the training of champion prizefighters, has an informed opinion on those subjects. I'm the editor who often knows more about these subjects than the agent calling to pitch me does. Sadly, this makes me a rare species among my peers, yet it has won me more books over the course of my career than I've lost over such petty concerns as money.

One of those books was a delightful volume entitled Mets by the Numbers. Sometime in the Summer of 2007 I was sitting in field level box seats at Shea Stadium with the authors of that book when one of them, the knowledgeable and talented Jon Springer, asked me if I was familiar with a blog called Cardboard Gods. I wasn't.

"It's written by a guy named Josh Wilker," Jon said. "He's incredible. I read a few recent posts, and they were so good I went back to the beginning and read them all."

That night, when I got home, I did the same thing. It took me hours, but no more than five minutes passed before I realized that in Josh Wilker I had finally found my Exley (earlier, I had found my Kahn by working with the actual Kahn). For the first time since I'd read A Fan's Notes all those years earlier, I encountered a voice that seemed to speak to me directly. I bookmarked the site and made it a daily must-read. I recommended it to everyone I knew, sports fans and non-sports fans alike, creating a micro-legion of devoted acolytes in the process.

My identification with Wilker's voice, like Exley's, is curious, as on the surface he and I have little in common beyond our shared love of baseball and the baseball cards of our respective youths. To begin, he's got nearly a decade on me. We were also raised in drastically different environments, under rather different circumstances. One of the happiest moments of my youth is the coin's flipside to one of his most deflating. The dissimilarities only become more pronounced from there.

Despite these differences, there was just something to Wilker's voice that I couldn't shake. Perhaps it's because the voice is so personal, so openly vulnerable and honest. Perhaps it was because Wilker had found a way to write about sports without really writing about sports at all. But perhaps, unconsciously, I related to his voice because I, too, knew what it felt like to never quite fit in. I, too, had known failure.

Whatever the reason, I checked the site every day, the posts unraveling like small miracles before me, sustaining me, and I always felt disappointed on the rare days when a new entry failed to appear. 

About a year later, in March of 2008, I contacted Wilker after reading about "the bloodsucking nature of every single editor and agent in the universe" in a post he'd written about Gene Pentz of the Houston Astros. Sensing an opening, I expressed in a cordial email my admiration for his writing and my interest in turning Cardboard Gods into a book. He responded within hours, and with that, the courtship was underway. While it was far from my first rodeo, it wasn't his either. He had, I surmised, been burned by editors and agents before, so I treaded with caution. But it was hard to mask my enthusiasm for the project.

A short proposal soon followed which I shared with my publisher, a non-baseball fan. It proved, not-so surprisingly, a tough sell for him.

It's a book about baseball cards? 
Yes and no. More like a memoir. 
About baseball cards?
Not exactly. The cards are only a part of it.
Hmmn. Has he published a book before?
10 books for young readers. This one is nothing like those.
How did they sell?
Not well. Did you read the proposal?
No. Can you print it out for me again?
Will you do me a favor? Just read this one post I've printed out.
Sure. But who's Bob Colluccio?

Never in my editorial career--not before or since--had I desired an acquisition more. Books for which I'd offered six-figure advances paled in comparison. My biggest successes--bestsellers, critical raves--all fell away from my memory. I was convinced Cardboard Gods was the book that would define my career. At long last I'd have discovered a unique talent and helped nurture his inimitable voice into the world. It would be as close as I'd ever get to knowing greatness. Little did I know that I was tilting at windmills.

A few weeks later, in a nondescript Thai restaurant on ninth avenue, I made the critical mistake of mentioning my fondness for Cardboard Gods to an ambitious young literary agent. I'm not sure why I did it. Maybe I was self-sabotaging. Maybe I was thinking she wouldn't remember. But the most likely explanation is that I wasn't thinking at all. Wilker retained the young agent's services not long after that, and a new, revised proposal soon circulated. I didn't even read it. Instead, I went to my publisher and made my plea, emerging from his office with a modest offer which I shared with the agent at the end of a far-too-dramatic email.

The story gets more complicated from there, but by this point I am sure you can ascertain how it ended. In short, I did not acquire the book. It would be ungentlemanly of me to say why, exactly, so I won't. Instead I'll just say that I came very close, and that the determining factor was beyond my control. I don't harbor any ill will against the author or his agent, who was gracious enough to send me a review copy a few months back. I'm happy for Josh that he was able to secure, through his agent, a better deal elsewhere, because he deserves it. I'm also happy for the folks at Seven Footer Press, who had the prescience to realize what an absolute gem had fallen into their laps. I wish them all the best of luck. But that doesn't take away the sting of this "one that got away", because its getting away was entirely my fault. I have nobody to blame but myself. Again.

The book, of course, is extraordinary. It's even better than I expected it to be, and I expected a whole hell of a lot. I recommend it without qualification to anyone who enjoys great writing, regardless of one's opinion of baseball (or baseball cards). It's the kind of book that serves to reaffirm the form, that reminds you that books still have the power to move people in profound ways. It certainly moved me. More than that, it's caused me to reevaluate my entire adult life.

No small feat, Josh. I only wish that I could fail as beautifully as you have.


Eric said...

This is an amazing post. I don't really know what else to say. After reading it, I have the same slightly hollow feeling I get after a good Josh Wilker essay. And I was expecting a mere book review.

Jon said...

Nice! Glad I could help a little. Hey, we got Josh to the next "Amazin' Tuesday" (May 18)

Headsnack said...

Great post. Like Phish said, I'm sorry "it got away....yeah, it got away".

Maybe you should make some more music because that doesn't seem to get away, just take you home. Don't listen to me though, I'm a biased bastard.