This is a story about a story. A story that might be worth millions of dollars. It’s also a cautionary tale for academics who dream of writing best-selling books.
One day in early 1999, I found myself awaiting the retrieval of books in the main reading room of the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. I was completing the research for my doctorate in history at Georgetown University. Passing the time by strolling through the alcoves circling the giant room, my eye caught the spines of a group of slim volumes resting on a shelf. They were a series of oral histories compiled by the LA84 Foundation, an organization assembled by the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Committee that was tasked with, among other things, providing scholars and students with historical materials related to the Olympic Games. One volume contained an interview with Gordon Adam, a member of the University of Washington’s gold medal-winning crew team in Berlin in 1936. Having been a collegiate oarsman, I started reading Adam’s story.
It was riveting. Adam grew up poor on a farm in the Pacific Northwest. He worked at a salmon-canning factory in Alaska to make enough money for college and then enrolled at the University of Washington in the depths of the Depression. He decided to try rowing -- at the time a major intercollegiate sport -- and in his oral interview, he told a marvelous tale of how he and his teammates topped Eastern Ivy League competition for the right to represent the United States in Berlin. He recalled traveling to Europe, his impressions of Nazi Germany and seeing Hitler at the opening ceremony. He finished by describing his crew’s stirring come-from-behind victory over Italian and German crews in a very tight race.
Although that oral history had nothing to do with my dissertation or research, I knew I’d stumbled upon a great story. Global in scope, cinematic in its drama, this story -- I felt strongly -- would sell. I copied the oral history on the library Xerox machine, tucked it away in a file, and told myself someday I would research and compose a book on it.
Life moved on. I finished the dissertation, accepted a visiting assistant professor position and gained a tenure-track job. I focused on securing tenure by publishing my scholarship on radio and journalism history in top journals. I also worked on improving my teaching and agreed to enough service commitments to fill up my time. All the while, however, I kept gathering material on that 1936 crew team. I “collected string,” as they say in journalism.
The University of Washington put me in touch with surviving members of the crew, some of whom I interviewed, and I discovered the original CBS recording of the race broadcast at the Paley Center for the Media. I contacted Dan Raley, one of the last sports editors of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for more information on the crew, and he generously shared his materials and thoughts.
Then I received tenure, and I started to seriously pursue the book. I wrote a book proposal, a sample chapter, a magazine-length version of the story and even a 750-word op-ed about this incredible Olympic moment. I never considered composing the story as a dry academic or scholarly tome. Nor did I have literary pretension. Rather, I wanted to bring the story alive and engage the public journalistically, reporting the facts interspersed with the words and voices of the Olympians themselves. The story, it appeared to me, required little embellishment.
Crickets. I pitched the material everywhere. I actually had started pitching it as a book proposal and magazine article even before I got tenure, using the news peg of the 2006 and 2008 Olympic Games. I tailored my approaches to every kind of outlet as precisely as possible. For example, I pitched the story to the Chronicle Review, emphasizing how impoverished Depression-era college kids used intercollegiate athletics to learn about the world. But my magazine article pitches were either rejected or ignored by Slate, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian, the New York TimesMagazine and elsewhere. In fact, my version of the story was continually and consistently turned down as an extended essay, a newspaper column and a book proposal by numerous editors, literary agents and publishers. I got almost no feedback. I stopped counting rejections when they passed 60.
Still, I refused to give up. In 2012, with the London Olympics on the horizon, I again pitched the story everywhere. Josh Levin, an editor at Slate, liked it. He published it as “Six Minutes in Berlin” and made it the centerpiece of their 2012 London Olympic coverage. The article exploded on the web, lasting four days as Slate’s most-read feature, generating a long comment thread and thousands of social media recommendations.
Emails flooded in. Literary agents that had previously rejected the book proposal now inquired whether I would be interested in representation. One major publisher that explicitly prohibits the submission of unsolicited manuscripts wrote and asked me to send the book manuscript.
Then, just as quickly, silence. It turned out that, one year before, Viking Press had inked an enormous deal with an author named Daniel James Brown to write the story of the 1936 crew. That book, titled The Boys in the Boat, came out in 2013 and remains near the top of the New York Times nonfiction paperback best-seller list as of this writing. Brown’s book tells the story of Joe Rantz, one of the rowers, and the significant investment by Brown’s publisher in the success of The Boys in the Boat made others reluctant to take on a competing project.
An important New York literary agent told me as much over the telephone. The publishing industry, he explained, was under enormous economic stress. The book trade was getting slaughtered, he said, and big publishing had essentially evolved into a cartel (my word, not his). Publishers simply could not compete with each other by bidding competitively for the same stories, and once Brown got his contract, any chance I had of publishing “Six Minutes in Berlin” as a book had evaporated. No major publisher would waste their time or resources undercutting another major publisher’s list.
That was bad enough. But then The Boys in the Boat came out, and much to my surprise, my interviews with two oarsmen were cited by Brown. I only shared transcripts with the oarsmen themselves -- coxswain Bob Moch and Jim McMillin -- both of whom had died in 2005, before Brown met Joe Rantz or began his research. Somehow copies -- the only ones I shared -- ended up in Brown’s hands. He and his publishers undoubtedly knew I was working on my own book because of the publication of “Six Minutes in Berlin” in Slate in 2012. The interviews proved remarkably illustrative of occurrences in the boat during both the national championship and the Olympic gold medal races, and it disturbed me greatly to see information I had collected published elsewhere without my permission.
The Boys in the Boat is a good book, but it’s not history. It’s not the book I would have written. It’s peppered with inaccuracies and embellishments. One of the reasons my manuscript took so long to compose was that I possess a doctorate in history, and verifying information by cross-referencing sources requires an enormous amount of time. In other words: accuracy matters. I’m not bothered by the slight copy-editing errors that pop up in The Boys in the Boat that are endemic to any manuscript -- such as when Cornell University, not Columbia University, is inaccurately credited with victory in the first Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta.
But I am disturbed that inaccuracy and embellishment is apparently acceptable when writing history for popular audiences. For example, Brown offers this dramatic opening to the race broadcast: “At 9:15 a.m., the voice of NBC’s commentator, Bill Slater, began to crackle over KOMO’s airwaves in Seattle, relayed from Berlin.” But according to NBC’s records in the Library of Congress and numerous other sources, Bill Slater was in London that evening preparing to cover the next day’s White City track meet featuring Jesse Owens. The rowing final in Berlin actually started at 9:02 a.m. Seattle time, and anybody tuning in to NBC would have missed it because the network widely publicized the wrong starting time in newspapers around America. Only those people tuning to CBS would have caught this Olympic exclusive. Yet these facts don’t deter Brown. “NBC’s Bill Slater was screaming over KOMO’s airwaves in Seattle,” he informs his audience at a particularly dramatic moment in the race narrative. This did not occur.
A lot of ink has been spilled recently about the need for academics to write for wider audiences. Much of the criticism presumes that academics prefer to write and speak in impenetrable rhetoric designed to limit communication to only people initiated in the cloistered world of scholarly interchange. I don’t doubt that this problem exists. But many critics have no idea how many scholars -- like myself -- have attempted to write for wider audiences but found ourselves blocked by gatekeepers in the publishing industry. Although I’ve published numerous essays and newspaper columns for wide public readership, and I believe my book proposal proved my ability to deliver clear, serviceable -- and even engaging -- prose, no publisher took a gamble on this first-time author coming out of academe.
This story, however, might have a happy ending. Although Daniel James Brown has a best seller and the revenues from his movie deal for The Boys in the Boat, I continued pursuing my project. I reshaped my manuscript to more closely align with academic standards and fit the constraints of scholarly publication. I then sent it out to academic publishers.
Obviously, Brown’s best seller significantly damaged the trade market for “Six Minutes in Berlin.” But the University of Illinois Press responded positively to the parts of my manuscript about Olympic broadcasting. No single volume exists on the birth of global sports broadcasting as developed by Nazi radio authorities. If I were willing to interweave this larger story about global telecommunication history into the narrative of the rowers, who gained brief national celebrity from their victory, they told me they would be interested. But I needed to satisfy peer reviewers and severely limit the word count. The first peer reviews proved encouraging, and a contract was signed. Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics will be published this month.
But I won’t make a million dollars.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Inside Higher Ed reached out to the publisher and author of The Boys in the Boat for a response to this piece, and they had no comment.
Michael J. Socolow is an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine. Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics will be published this month by University of Illinois Press.
Over the weekend I went through the fall 2016 catalog of every publisher belonging to the Association of American University Presses. Or at least I tried -- a number of fall catalogs have not been released yet, or else the publishers have hidden the PDFs on their websites with inexplicable cunning. (It seems as if savvy publicists would insist that catalogs be featured so prominently on the homepage that it’s almost impossible to overlook them. Perhaps half my time went to playing “Where’s Waldo?” so evidently not.) A few sites hadn’t been updated in at least a year. At one of them, the most recent catalog is from 2012, although the press itself seems still to be in existence. Let’s just hope everyone there is OK.
After assembling roughly 70 catalogs, I began to cull a list of books to consider for this column in the months ahead, which now runs to 400 titles, give or take a few, with more to be added as the search for Waldo continues. When you take an overview of a whole season’s worth of university-press output in one marathon survey, you can detect certain patterns or themes. A monograph on the white-power music underground? Duly noted. A second one, publishing a month later? That is a bit more striking. (The journalistic rule of thumb is that three makes a trend; for now, we’re left with a menacing coincidence.)
Some of the convergences seemed to merit notice, even in advance of the books themselves being available. Here are a few topical clusters that readers may find of interest. The text below in quotation marks after each book comes from the publisher’s description of it, unless otherwise specified. I have been sparing about the use of links, but more information on the books and authors can be readily found online.
“Whither democracy?” seems like an apt characterization of quite a few titles appearing this autumn and early winter. Last year, Jennifer L. Hochschild and Katherine Levine Einstein asked, Do Facts Matter? Information and Misinformation in American Politics, published by the University of Oklahoma Press and out in paperback this month, concluding that “citizens’ inability or unwillingness to use the facts they know in their political decision making may be frustrating,” but the real danger comes from “their acquisition and use of incorrect ‘knowledge’” put out by unscrupulous “political elites.” By contrast, James E. Campbell’s Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America (Princeton University Press, July) maintains that if the two major parties are “now ideologically distant from each other and about equally distant from the political center” it’s because “American politics became highly polarized from the bottom up, not the top down, and this began much earlier than often thought,” meaning the 1960s.
Frances E. Lee sets the date later, and the locus of polarization higher in the body politic, in Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign (University of Chicago Press, September). She sees developments in the 1980s unleashing “competition for control of the government [that] drives members of both parties to participate in actions that promote their own party’s image and undercut that of the opposition, including the perpetual hunt for issues that can score political points by putting the opposing party on the wrong side of public opinion.”
Democracy: A Case Study by David A. Moss (Harvard University Press, January 2017) takes fierce partisanship as a given in American political life -- not a bug but a feature -- and recounts and analyzes 19 episodes of conflict, from the Constitutional Convention onward. Wasting no time in registering his dissent, the libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan comes out Against Democracy (Princeton, August) on the grounds that competent governance requires rational and informed decision making, while “political participation and democratic deliberation actually tend to make people worse -- more irrational, biased and mean.” The alternative he proposes is “epistocracy”: rule by the knowledgeable. Good luck with that! Reaching that utopia from here will be quite an adventure, especially given that some voters regard “irrational, biased and mean” as qualifications for office.
Fall, when the current election cycle ends, is also be the season of books on the Anthropocene -- the idea that human impact on the environment has been so pronounced that we must define a whole phase of planetary history around it. There is an entry for the term in Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment (Fordham University Press, January), and it appears in the title of at least three books: one from Monthly Review Press (distributed by NYU Press) in September and one each from Princeton and Transcript Verlag (distributed by Columbia University Press) in November. Stacy Alaimo’s Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (University of Minnesota Press, October) opens with the statement “The Anthropocene is no time to set things straight.” (The author calls for “a material feminist posthumanism,” and it sounds like she draws on queer theory as well, so chances are “straight” is an overdetermined word choice.)
The neologism is tweaked in Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, September) by Donna J. Haraway, who “eschews referring to our current epoch as the Anthropocene, preferring to conceptualize it as what she calls the Chthulucene, as it more aptly and fully describes our epoch as one in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably linked in tentacular practices.” Someone in a position to know tells me that Haraway derives her term from “chthonic” (referring to the subterranean) rather than Cthulhu, the unspeakable ancient demigod of H. P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction. Maybe so, but the reference to tentacles suggests otherwise.
A couple of titles from Columbia University Press try to find a silver lining in the clouds of Anthropocene smog -- or at least to start dispersing them before it’s too late. Michael E. Mann and Tom Toles pool their skills as atmospheric scientist and Pulitzer-winning cartoonist (respectively) in The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics and Driving Us Crazy (September), which satirizes “the intellectual pretzels into which denialists must twist logic to explain away the clear evidence that man-made activity has changed our climate.” Despite its seemingly monitory title, Geoffrey Heal’s Endangered Economies: How the Neglect of Nature Threatens Our Prosperity (December) is actually an argument for “conserving nature and boosting economic growth” as mutually compatible goals.
If so, it will be necessary to counter the effects of chickenization -- which, it turns out, is U.S. Department of Agriculture slang for “the transformation of all farm animal production” along factory lines, as described in Ellen K. Silbergeld’s Chickenizing Farms and Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals and Consumers (Johns Hopkins University Press, September). Tiago Saraiva shows that the Germans began moving in the same direction, under more sinister auspices, in Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism (The MIT Press, September): “specially bred wheat and pigs became important elements in the institutionalization and expansion of fascist regimes …. Pigs that didn’t efficiently convert German-grown potatoes into pork and lard were eliminated.” A different sociopolitical matrix governs the contemporary American “pasture-raised pork market,” of which Brad Weiss offers an ethnographic account in Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork (Duke University Press, August).
And finally -- for this week, anyway -- there is the ecological and biomedical impact of the free-ranging creatures described in Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella’s Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer (Princeton, September). Besides the fact that cats kill “birds and other animals by the billions” in the United States, the authors warn of “the little-known but potentially devastating public health consequences of rabies and parasitic Toxoplasma passing from cats to humans at rising rates.” The authors also maintain that “a small but vocal minority of cat advocates has campaigned successfully for no action in much the same way that special interest groups have stymied attempts to curtail smoking and climate change.” I write this while wearing a T-shirt that reads “Crazy Cat Guy” but will be the first to agree that the problem here is primarily human. There’s a reason it’s called the Anthropocene and not the Felinocene.
A number of other themes and topics from university-press fall books offering might bear mentioning in another column, later this summer. With luck, the pool of candidates will grow in the meantime; we’ll see if any new trends crystallize out in the process.