Jeff Pearlman

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The Book Deal

I’ve probably been asked 10,000 times about getting a book deal. Or, specifically, “How the hell did you get a book deal?”

The answer, to be honest: Good fortune.

AKA: Luck.

Back in the early 2000s I was covering baseball for Sports Illustrated. I was nothing special, really. The great Tom Verducci was (rightly) handed the sweet assignments, and Steve Cannella and I would pick up the crumbs. A trip to Kansas City for Carlos Febles? Yes! A quick profile of Courtney Duncan? On it! I’m not complaining, and never did complain. I was living the dream—hell, I’m still living the dream.

Anyhow, Jon Wertheim, my colleague and friend, had signed a book deal to write Venus Envy, his excellent biography on women’s tennis, and I was … not jealous, but … inspired. I wanted to write a book, too. Why? Because it seemed like something cool to do. And the chance to really dig into a subject—fantastic.

I reached out to a literary agent named Susan Reed, who met me for lunch and said, “Have you ever thought about the 1986 New York Mets?”

I hadn’t.

“Well,” she said, “I think it could be great.”

Two years later, The Bad Guys Won made the best-seller’s list—and my career as an author was born.

I should send Susan flowers and a new car every week. She really helped steer my career in a new direction; opened up a path I hadn’t much considered. Truth is, the key to getting a book deal is having a successful book. I know … I know—Catch 22. But it is the easiest path. The Bad Guys Won led to Love Me, Hate Me. Love Me, Hate Me was sort of a disappointment, but I was given another chance with Boys Will Be Boys—which remains my biggest seller, and spent 10 or so weeks on the NYT list. My next book, the Clemens biography, nosedived, but two best-sellers kept me in the game. Then Sweetness: My second biggest seller, but—without question—most talked-about work.

So how to get a book deal? Besides already having a book deal? Some thoughts:

1. Think large. When it comes to magazine and newspaper pieces, I try and think small. Derek Jeter’s scar, a third-sring catcher, a Division III cheerleading squad. But publishing companies need to believe a book can sell. So if you go to, say, HarperCollins with the riveting tale of two high school fencers … you’re likely doomed. Now, if you’re Chris Ballard or Wertheim or Mike Lupica, you’ve got a good shot, because track record speaks volumes. But if you’re unknown and untested, no …

2. So, instead, think big. Before pitching ideas, I always head to my local Barnes & Noble and scan the shelves. Literally, that’s how I thought of the ’90s Cowboys. There were all these books on all these huge teams, but none of note on the Aikman-Irvin-Emmitt ‘Boys. It’s a huge franchise with 8 million fans and tons of glory. That’s the only time I *knew* I’d get a deal as soon as I had the idea. It sold itself. So try and find ideas that sell themselves. Big teams, big stories, big athletes—especially if there’s mystery/intrigue remaining.

3. Have a following. It never, ever, ever hurts if you’re able to convince a publishing company that you already have, oh, 10,000 Twitter followers, an enormous Facebook presence, contacts throughout the media, etc. So much of this business is whoring yourself. I don’t mean that negatively—I’m a guy who, literally, stands outside stadiums handing out postcards with my new book pictured.

4. There’s no shame in self-publishing. And, truth be told, it might be the way to go. About a decade ago my friend John Walters, an excellent writer, couldn’t find a deal for his book on UConn women’s hoops. Well, John published it himself (it looked beautiful) and stood outside the women’s Final Four selling copies from a box. I don’t recall the exact number, but John sold at least 15,000. That’s dazzling—and something publishing companies notice.

OK, back to work …

  • reader

    This is well said. Several years ago, as a commenter on a blog like this I approached a sportswriter encouraging him to write a major sports book which eventually got made and I got a mention in the edit. There are ways to do it, without being in the industry but it helps. Sports is also a good route because unlike fiction there are natural avenues and markets and subject matter to use. Glad things worked out for you.

    I would also encourage the social media in plugging your stuff. A Barnes and Noble signing sounds cool, but only 150 people can go to that. One tweet can reach several thousand people and will probably get retweeted especially among diehard and younger readers who use this stuff.

  • Ben K

    Sweetness sucked

Showtime Book
Love Me, Hate Me Barry Bonds Book
Sweetness Walter Peyton Book
The Bad Guys Won Book
The Rocket that Fell to Earth Book
Boys Will Be Boys Book

Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life