Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Neal Pollack's novel "Jewball" is Kindle-only: "I got the message"

Neal Pollack, normal size

"Would you like paper or digital?"

That seems to be the debate these days for an increasing number of authors. Neal Pollack (self-described as "midcareer, midlist, middle-aged, middlebrow") makes his new book Jewball available exclusively on Kindle, and it came about as a slow realization that the Kindle was more than just mass-market fiction.

Pollack's writing has veered dangerously close to "eclectic," from his days as a blogging scourge in Seattle to adventures as a new father told in Alternadad. His 2010 book, Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, began as "a comedy about my journey through the bizarre and pretentious world of yoga culture" -- until he wound up in daily yoga practice and now can talk to strangers "about the Ashtanga lineage until their eyes begin to grow cloudy."

Jewball is his meditation of the real South Philly Hebrew Association basketball team, part sports history and -- with a background of Philadelphia in 1937 -- told in a noir novel style. Pollack comments in a recent interview at Propeller that he wanted to give the story an energy that most historical fiction lacks. He weaves together the historical elements of Philadelphia's German-American Bund patriotism and the developing Jewish basketball team in a hard-boiled narrative that he imagines might have been written in the 1930s.

The noir novel elements, he admits, he hopes make the story more entertaining for readers. There are some stylistic twists ("Cops rarely make an appearance") and writing historical fiction meant that he tried to stay close to the facts of Philadelphia at the time. "It's about a time and a place and a vibe," Pollack says in the interview. "There is no mystery, just a story."
I have a pretty ambivalent relationship with Philly, but it's definitely a potent setting, full of grit and intrigue, that doesn’t get as much play as, say, Chicago or Boston. Jews in Philly rarely get talked about; New York dominates the conversation, for obvious reasons. Some of Jewball does take place in New York, but it’s definitely a Philly novel. I liked the idea of a whole team having a chip on its shoulder because of where it's from.

Jewball is Pollack's sixth book and first novel. He chose to publish exclusively on Amazon's Kindle after discovering some very surprising facts about the growing e-book market. Here is an except from the Propeller interview, in which Pollack discusses the variables of print and digital publishing for an author.

PROPELLER: How and when did you first start thinking, from an economic standpoint, about doing a straight-to-digital book? And was there a moment when the aesthetic experience of reading on a particular device — I’ll assume the Kindle — won you over?

NEAL POLLACK: When my latest corporate-published book advance was half of the last one, which was half of the one before that, I got the message. The traditional publishing model was great because you got paid a decent amount of money to work on a book, and, yes, you had to wait for it to come out, but at least there was a little credit in the bank account waiting for you. Now, though, you still have to work on the book, but for a lot less money, and for a publisher that is increasingly less interested in devoting resources to books that may or may not succeed.

This isn't a mark on my publisher — I work with some great people there and they try very hard to make and sell good books for me — but the economics of the business don't favor a writer in my position. As for when I started enjoying the Kindle, I got a Kindle about 18 months ago, downloaded a book, read it, thought, this is okay, and then went back to reading regular books. But when I traveled with the Kindle for the first time, now that's when it won my heart. I'll never have to lug a shoulder bag full of books on a trip again. In that sense, it's one of the greatest inventions of all time.

PROPELLER: One of the nice things about writing is that it doesn't cost anything to create the product — you just sit down at the keyboard, which is far different from someone saying, "Dammit, I finally am going to start that restaurant I’ve been dreaming about! I’ll just go ahead and go $70,000 into debt to get the thing open, because I believe in this restaurant..." The economics of digital publishing don't require a huge financial risk. Are there other risks, though, or challenges you feel you're facing by using this publishing model with Jewball? And what kind of things are you doing to address those challenges?

NEAL POLLACK: I wouldn't say it doesn't require a huge financial risk. Yes, the capital outlay is pretty small for writing — I write my books on the same machine where I check my fantasy-baseball stats and watch my porn — but the outlay of time is tremendous. So if I put in hundreds or thousands of hours on Jewball and then only get 500 downloads (and, subsequently, less than two thousand dollars), then my per-hour rate is pretty laughable.

But I can't think of it in those terms, at least not exclusively. Jewball is a book I've been dreaming about for years. I enjoyed writing it, and now I'm on the verge of trying to sell it digitally door-to-door. I'm going to work hard and send out hundreds of emails and Tweet and Facebook and Tumblr the sucker until my eyeballs bleed. If it flops, I've got no one to blame but myself, but at least I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that I went down on my own terms. Self-publishing is the future, or at least a big part of it, and I’m proud to be giving it a try.

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