March 23, 2010
I knew that when I made a call for suggestions for articles to include in my upcoming book, it would probably complicate the decision process. I thought I'd been fairly thorough in looking through the last decade of writing, thought I'd narrowed down the list to something manageable, thought there was little chance I'd missed anything of note. I was wrong. There were a number of pieces suggested to me by e-mail and in the comments section that I hadn't considered. Some had already been tossed-by and large pieces to specifically tied to events, that I think won't play well in a book-but some had simply made less an impression on me, in the re-reading, than they had on the readers. It is interesting, as a writer, to not realize what of your output has actually made a lasting impression.
When I talked out this book with Dave Pease over the winter, it started out in my mind as a collection, then developed into something that included more original material than that. The longer I live with this concept, the more I see that the decision between those two categories isn't just a matter of finding sufficient material to make it the former, or writing enough of the latter. It's actually a battle for the identity of the book. Is this going to be a "greatest hits" collection, a means of having all of my best work in one place as both a retrospective of and an introduction to Joe Sheehan, or will I create more of the book from whole cloth?
I have been leaning towards having more new material. I have specific ideas I'd like to explore, plans I'd like to execute, and I'll write here about those through the spring and summer. Saturday night, however, I had a conversation about this conflict with a friend, someone I trust deeply, and he made some very good points arguing the other side. Extending the argument outward, he said that new material would be most appealing to those who have been reading my work for a decade, who have subscribed to Baseball Prospectus in some part to enjoy my writing, and who even now have total access to everything I've done. However, he continued, this book shouldn't be for those people, at least not as a target audience; it should be a means of reaching the millions of baseball fans who have never heard of Joe Sheehan, of Baseball Prospectus, or even this whole world of baseball analysis. If that's the goal, then it makes little sense to reinvent the wheel, to rewrite and rehash arguments for the sake of including original material, but instead to publish the finest words you can, old or new, because that's what will make the best impression on the widest possible audience.
The piece that I come back to is one that wasn't on the original list, but was suggested by a reader in the comments section. It was written in 2006, and has very little to do with baseball. There's not much more I could say about the matter, so including a piece such as this would simply be about running material that said something without necessarily inviting additional comment. When I think about doing that, I come back to this central argument-who am I writing this book for? The answer, today, is "I don't know," and I need to answer that question before I do much further, because that answer drives the entire process. The easiest thing to do would be to pick a dozen pieces, riff for five months around them, and be reasonably sure that no one would lose money. I'm confident I can get some bare minimum of people to buy a book done in the above manner. The risk is in putting out a product that won't appeal so much to that core audience, but have a greater chance of breaking out to baseball fans in general.
I should mention that not all the suggestions were surprises. "The Jack Morris Project" was brought up by more than one person, and since it's basically my entire body of work as a researcher, it will be in there. I'm excited about what I might be able to do with it in the book as well. A number of people referenced material connected to the last season of Yankee Stadium, and I imagine some of that will be in there.
Perhaps the most interesting issue revolves my writing about the postseason. I've long prided myself on October. I honestly love the work I do during the playoffs, and if I had to be judged solely on one category of content, I'd put that forward and hope for the best. Many of you suggested pieces written during various playoff runs, and while I appreciate that vote, I wonder how well something about, say, decisions made during the 2003 postseason, will wear in a book published in 2010. That's not to say I dismiss the idea, just that I'm not sure how well it fits. To some extent, this may come down to a structural issue. I'm still not sure what the book will look like, and decisions made in that area will determine whether some material works or doesn't work.
Over the years, one of my standard responses to the question of, "Are you going to write a book?" has been to say that there are days when writing a thousand words feels like a nightmare, so I didn't feel up to the challenge of writing 100,000. If nothing else, I'm over that. Between the work I've been doing at Basketball Prospectus, the articles I've written for Rotowire, and work on the Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue, I pumped out about 25,000 words in a two-week period. For someone whose writing style tends to the terse, and who has always worried about his ability to produce volume, it's comforting to know that I can be that prolific. At this point, the one concern that is safely off the table is the the idea that I can't possibly write this many words. I am sure that I can, and it's just a matter of getting the book's structure down so that I can dive into the writing.
If that's not far too much information about how the sausage is being made, you can ask me questions Thursday afternoon, as I'll be chatting at Baseball Prospectus. It's entirely possible I can be goaded into answering baseball or basketball questions as well.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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