Wednesday, October 19, 2011

“Moneyball” and Bookball

In Moneyball, the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis and now a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt, a character believes pro baseball teams should buy wins not by buying players but by buying runs.

The most talented baseball players, naturally, command the highest salary. The budget of the Oakland A’s is far lower than that of the New York Yankees. Therefore, the Yankees can afford players considered “better” than what the A’s can afford. So how can a poorer team like the A’s compete? How they can ever conquer?

By dividing.

I’m wobbly at both baseball and math, but here’s how I understand it (using hypothetical figures): Instead of shelling out, say, $7 million, for a star player, a team of less means could pay three average players $250,000 each. It’s okay if none of those three individually gets as many runs as the $7 million player—as long as collectively they do. So a team would be bringing in the same number of runs using three people instead of one—but for a fraction of the cost.

Baseball purists and long-timers saw this Moneyball model as controversial, absurd, or both. Yet it appears that it works, at least enough of the time for it to be taken seriously.

I see a parallel for the publishing industry. More and more, publishers want books that come with a brand—an already-famous name (i.e. Madonna) or company (i.e. Food Network) or blog (i.e. Stuff White People Like).

But brands are fallible. Not every book with a built-in brand does brisk business. I feel publishers often overlook something that can be more valuable than a brand.

To put this in Moneyball terms, I feel editors should buy books not by buying brands but by buying platforms. In other words, a great book by an unknown who promotes could be a better investment than an average book by a star.

What I mean by “platform” (and this may differ than how others use the word) is a position from which to generate excitement. It’s best if you start with a great book, but even if you don’t, and you’re a great promoter, you may still have a winner. (Please note: I am not advocating weak books; I am simply emphasizing the power of promotion.)

In our iWorld, so much of a platform comes from social media, but it shouldn’t end with that. There still is—and will always be—much to gain from in-person promotion. Writers who are committed to speaking and appearing at events related to their work have an advantage that social media doesn’t provide: it’s easier to charm face-to-face.

Another advantage to live promotion, particularly for authors of books for young people who speak in schools, is that when we put on our speaker hats, we almost always have a captive audience. In the case of school visits, the kids are forced to sit on that gym floor and listen to me whether or not they would choose to otherwise. Many kids have not heard of me beforehand, but my presentation may win them over to the point that they would then want one of my books that they would normally not notice. As a good number of other children’s authors have discovered, you can typically sell more books after you present.

Let’s recap:

Moneyball—buy wins by buying runs, not players
Bookball—buy books by buying platforms, not brands

In Moneyball, the underdog was hindered by a lack of funds. In Bookball, the underdog is hindered by a lack of fame. In either case, there are cost-effective (if not outright profitable) ways to circumvent these obstacles.

I feel publishers must consider an author’s promotional conviction as an asset just as they do lyrical writing, a sticky premise, or a memorable main character. If you write a great book and you are dedicated to promoting it for the long haul, you may find that your platform has become a brand.

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