First round picks...and busts
I love the NFL. And because pre-season doesn't start for a couple months yet, I -- like many football geeks -- resort to a sad substitute, The Draft. I read the magazines, check out the websites and listen to the talking jock-heads on ESPN. Will Heisman god QB Matt Leinart go No. 1 or will the raw Vince Young leapfrog over him? Will my Dolphins go for a beefy safety or a WR so Culpepper has someone to throw to?
Yeah, I know. I need a life.
But sports section devoured and in need of something loftier, I turned to the Arts section of today's New York Times. There I read about Charles Frazier's upcoming book. You remember Frazier. He's the fellow who scored big with his debut novel "Cold Mountain." It was a critical darling, won the National Book Award and was a surprise bestseller.
Right after his big splash, Frazier chucked his agent and editor at Grove/Atlantic and on the basis of a one-page outline, sold his SECOND book at auction for $8 million to Random House. "Thirteen Moons" is set to come out this October. It is another epic love story set in the 19th-century South. Random House "is betting that readers who made 'Cold Mountain' such a hit will do it again for 'Thirteen Moons.'"
I gotta wonder. Is Random House making a shaky bet on a future prospect?
Sure, Frazier has a track record. But it was just one book. And this is literary fiction. Plus it's been 10 years between books. And $8 million is a lot of shekels for one book. Does Frazier have the arm to score another touchdown? Have his fans left the stadium? Is this going to be another one of those expensive busts we read about at the end of the year in Publishers Weekly that will make it tougher for Random Houses lesser lights? Wouldn't it be wiser to maybe trade down, and use all that money to build a couple of steady talents with potential?
Which takes me back to Grisham and Marino. Both were overlooked in their drafts. But both took rejection and turned it into a positive. Both turned out to be huge assets for their bosses.
Marino was taken by the Dolphins with the 27th pick. That means 26 teams took a pass on the guy who became the first rookie QB to go to a Super Bowl and was a first ballot Hall of Famer. Five teams chose QBs ahead of him. The Colts drafted John Elway knowing they couldn't sign him. Kansas City took Todd Blackledge. Buffalo took Jim Kelly. New England took Tony Eason. The Jets took Ken O'Brien.
Now let's look at John Grisham. He struggled to write his first book "A Time To Kill" while working fulltime as a lawyer. You can read about that part in this interview. Grisham was turned down by thirty-some publishers. "Everybody said no," he recalls. After a year of rejection, his agent sold "A Time to Kill" to the tiny Wynwood Press. The book sold 5,000 copies, most of them from Grisham hawking them from the trunk of his car. Wynwood went bankrupt leaving Grisham with no one to publish the second book he had been laboring on, "The Firm." But then a bootlegged manuscript of "The Firm" surfaced in Hollywood, and as Grisham has explained: "Some guy ran 25 copies, said he was my agent, and sent them to all of the major production companies. He got nervous when they started making offers. At some point he called my agent in New York, and the rest is history. It was an unbelievably lucky break, and I had nothing to do with it."
But like Marino, Grisham did go on to have a rather long and productive career.
Publishing is a lot like the NFL draft. Every year, there is buzz, hype and great hopes surrounding a handful of hot prospects. Is what goes on in the booths of BEA so much different than the machinations in the war rooms of the NFL, where team owners place multi-million-dollar bets on unknown kids in cleats? Is a publisher dazzled by a photogenic face and a "media platform" any different than a scout besotted by a 4.4 and a good Wonderlick score? And is an editor any better at predicting which writer will have a sophomore slump than a coach is at foretelling which rookie will blow out a knee?
No one talking about the NFL draft really has any idea what they're talking about. No coach can predict which guy is going to be the next sixth-round steal Tom Brady and which one is the next first-round dud Todd Marinovich. Likewise, no editor can predict who's going to be the next J.K. Rowlings and who -- despite all the money they throw around -- is going to be the next John Twelve Oaks.
The people whose careers depend on drafting players and authors have no real idea how they'll turn out, if they will be one-season wonders or if they'll have a long and prolific career. Like my guys Marino and Grisham.
So will Charles Frazier bring home the Lombardi again for RH? Or will he just be this year's David Guterson? I dunno, but if there were a fantasy league for writers, I'd be tempted to take a pass on this one and find a couple second-round gems with -- as the sports cliche goes -- a good upside. But what do I know?
When it comes to finding a winner, in the end sometimes it's just plain, blind, dumb luck.