Andre Agassi's "Open" or Not
The State of Book Publishing Part I
By: Susan Hall - 11/14/2009
The cover of the controversial book by Andre Agassi published by Alfred A. Knopf.
An image of the tennis star early on in his successful career.
As he appears today.
J.R. Moehringer. Agassiís collaborator. Courtesy Hyperion Books.
The Tender Bar by Agassi collaborator J. R. Moehringer. Courtesy Hyperion Books.
Andre Agassi's "Open" is out. On November 11 at a Times Center event in New York, New York Times sports reporter, George Vecsey, interviewed Agassi, who announced that "Open" was not a tennis book but rather "a book for the ages." Like the Bible or Uncle Tom's Cabin? His answer had been coached.
Agassi's celebrity comes from his position at the top of tennis for two decades, so it's hard to see this book as about anything but tennis. Marketing "Open" outside the sport is crucial because tennis books don't sell.
With the exception of the anomalous "Inner Game of Tennis," a special instructional book which hit at the right time and place, even the best of books about tennis don't sell. Johnette Edwards' "The Rivals," on Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and Pete Sampras' autobiography didn't sell. The Williams' sisters' books, published for the young adult market do well as inspirationals,. Their adult trade books languish on bookstore shelves.
Joel Drucker's wonderful :"Jimmy Connors Saved My Life" didn't sell, although it evoked the role of passion in life. Agassi's book is an inverse flip of this, since he proclaims that he hates the game which has earned him in excess of a hundred million dollars -- not including the five million book advance, chump change by his standards, but not for publishing.
So what gives with the Agassi advance? Publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, has printed 500,000 copies - a nice one to ten ratio compared to the advance. Are we to think that the deckle edge prominently pushed by Amazon.com is going to move copies? Amazon reports the book at number 3 on its best seller list, but exactly what this means in terms of the book's success is a mystery.
Deckle edges, by the way, are of interest to me and nine other Americans who love hand-made paper. Even though Amazon takes the trouble to explain what they are, it's hard to believe that more than a handful of us would buy the book for the edges of its paper. On paperless, Kindles, the point is moot.
Must -read books can be printed on a home computer and bound at FedEx Kinko's. Boardroom Publications followed this model with great success. Oxford University Press has a print-to-order policy. If the public wants the book more copies are produced. The French have always started with the cheaper paperbound copy and print hard covers if the book is a hit with the public.
Of the remaining book publishing houses Knopf is among the most distinguished. When they advance five million for a book you sit up and take notice.
The book is stylishly written, and what one would expect from J. R. Moehringer who collaborated with Agassi. Unless he got a great deal of money (his fee is not revealed) it's hard to imagine why Moehringer disrupted his life and moved to Las Vegas to work with Agassi. Did Agassi's life story strike him as the clear sequel to "The Tender Bar" his moving memoir?
In many ways, Moehringer was a perfect partner. Agassi referred to him as "literary," and talks often about the Bolleteri tennis academy he attended as boy as "Lord of the Flies" with forehands. Literary means, in part, references to literature. Agassi refers to the ball machine his father invented to train him as "the dragon."" He describes himself as Lancelot slaying the dragon. What we do not hear, for instance, is why Bolleteri kicked him out of his Academy, or why an openly gay manager sued him for some $50,000.
Listening to Agassi speak about his book, I was sorry that "Open" was not written in his own cadences. Agassi has a distinct, expressive style, which quickly emerged from the pack of more obviously rehearsed remarks. Descriptions of his relationship with his father rivet..As a boy, despite his youth,. he was clearly his father's equal as a gladiator.
It's too bad the book doesn't have more discussion about how far a parent should push, what to do when a kid's passion doesn't kick in, and when a parent should back off. Lang Lang, a world renowned pianist, clearly loves performing now, and has made peace with a pushy father.
The noted parenting expert, Alice Ginott Cohn, while lecturing in South Korea, where her books are best sellers, informed Asian parents that their children would be successful, because they wouldn't follow a parenting program that didn't insure success. Her position is similar to Joel Drucker's. Passion has to kick in.
What lessons can be learned from someone who hated his profession, failed, and then returned to the top of that game? While Agassi claims to have hated tennis, he succeeded in winning many Grand Slams and an Olympic Gold Medal. Can you do that if you lack passion? Wall Streeters ofen talk about how they hate their work as they laugh all the way to the bank.
Answering one question from the floor, Agassi couldn't make up his mind about what turns out to be tennis served up love/hate. He waffled, musing that tennis had given him so much maybe he had some love for it.
Another question from a gentleman who wanted to know about the status of homosexuals, gays, and lesbians in the sport caught Agassi off guard..His answer was muffled and brief. I couldn't catch a word. Some people close to the game think that this book should have been called "Out" not "Open" and that Agassi would be a perfect spokesman for athletes who hide their sexual preferences.
I once wrote a piece in Tennis Week magazine about why gay athletes don't come out. When I asked sports reporter Frank DeFord about this, he laughed while responding: "Money, money, and money." Martina Navratilova is estimated to have lost $20 million in endorsements when she was outed. Interestingly, she says that she played better tennis afterward.
Five million is an enormous advance for a book especially during difficult times for publishing. Both Clintons got more than this, but he had been President of the United States for eight years, and Mrs. Clinton was active throughout his career as well as a politician in her own right. Both books earned back their advances.
Young mothers in a Financial District book club in New York didn't think the Agassi advance was odd at all. Celebrities get this kind of money. Publishers think their books sell. These reading mothers, however, were not tempted to buy "Open."
Agassi's claim that this is "a book for the ages" is based on the path he has provided for people who fall down a template to pick themselves up and regain their game. He was ranked 141 in the world and came back to number one. But 141 isn't as bad as it sounds. There are thousands of professional players below 141. Serena Williams has fallen off the charts and come back. Kim Clijsters stopped playing to have a child and returned with a very low ranking only to win the US Open this year. She refrained from claiming she has big lessons to teach us.
The Knopf publicity department insists that this is not a tennis book. But why would one consider reading the book unless they know and love the game? Insiders suggest there's a story here which would help lots of people (Agassi claims this is his objective) which is not being told. I follow Voltaire's dictum, dignity for the living, and truth for the dead. Agassi can choose what he opts to reveal, but then why tell Katie Couric on "60 Minutes" that you must tell all about crystal meth under the title "Open." Perhaps Navratilova was angry with Agassi, not for lying about meth, but because he claims to tell all and doesn't.
We get a good novel, perhaps dictated by Agassi to Moehringer a la Henry James, and like James' secretary, Moehringer does not get cover credit. Moehringer has said that the American memoir is always about escape. This book, one man's memoir fictionalized (made literary?) by another, strikes me as a smokescreen for truer stories roiling beneath the surface.
It will be interesting to see how "Open" sells. Knopf is trying to make it an "Event." Agassi launched its promotion on "60 Minutes" and will perhaps shed tears on Oprah. Do "events" sell when they're cast in book form? I bet this one won't, given the performance of tennis as a subject in publishing.. Still, some tennis and publishing insiders think it will. From the get go, Amazon offered the book at an almost 50% discount, which does not suggest that advance copies were being ordered at a fast clip.
Bennett Cerf who founded Random House, of which Knopf is a division, memorably said that successful books were like the seeds of flowers that push their way, by chance, through cement and flourish. Celebrity books do not necessarily insure success.
In Part II of this look at publishing I will discuss a "gorilla" author who is bringing Barack Obama's campaign techniques to the publication of his book.