Help us, fun, you’re our only hope

Last night at this event, I gave a short talk. The focus was optimism about publishing and so on. Below, I have posted said talk in its most recent incarnation (it has been altered several times, including 5 minutes before I was on stage, so it might change here again). The point of the sort of talk it was, namely Pecha Kucha, is to talk for exactly 7 minutes with 20 PowerPoint slides in the background advancing every 21 seconds. This should, in theory, lead to a number of visual jokes, but because I am more of the narrative sort, my slides were simply pictures of WORD’s basketball league. So I’ve posted a few in the text to give you the flavor of the thing.

ETA: There is also video available if you prefer listening to reading, which I will try not to judge you for.

Without further ado:

If there’s one good thing about basketball, from a literary perspective, it’s how handy it is for metaphors. It’s a team sport, but individual effort can still make or break a game. Buzzer-beaters, fast breaks, slam dunks. And so on. Go big or go home.

That’s not why I started a basketball league for book nerds, though. No, I did that because I love basketball almost as much as I love books, and also because I had no conception of how time it would take to run the damn thing, but mostly because it sounded like a lot of fun.

In these occasionally dark days, we spend a lot of time in the book world, digital or not, talking about things that are distinctly unfun, like DRM and formatting and trade paperback original profit margins, and whether we’ll all have jobs in five years. That’s a shame. Because I suspect fun is the only thing that can save us.

Let me put it another way. I could have done two things last March.

In the first world, another version of me—a brunette, let’s say, one who’d minored in business (clearly a much wiser long-term planner than I)—would have sat down and looked at the bookstore she managed and said, alright, self, let’s set some goals for the next 4 months. Let’s aim to get another 100 regular customers for the business by the end of the summer; let’s aim to raise $500 more than normal for the food pantry down the street; and what the hell. Let’s double our press mentions over the summer.

Worthy goals, all. So what could I have done? I could have taken out ads—not in the NYT, but maybe the Greenpoint Gazette, and maybe also on Facebook. I could have had a sale, which WORD almost never does. People would like that. I could have sold raffle tickets for something awesome and given all the proceeds to the soup kitchen. For press, I could spend the summer honing my press releases and buying local bloggers a beer whenever possible.

And who knows? It might have worked. It would have cost some money, it would have slimmed our profits, it would have re-enforced the dominant impression of most reading consumers that books are overpriced, and it would have made The Diamond Bar down the street incredibly fond of me.

Instead, in this world, little old me (having never looked at a profit/loss statement in my life, even a fake one, and having minored in something a little less useful than business, namely English lit) started a basketball league seemingly at random. I did it because I thought it would be funny to see if anybody else who knew who wrote Ulysses loved blocks the way I do, and because I missed basketball, I missed having it in my life. I did it because my co-worker came up with the team name The Updike WASPs and I wanted to see what other names people would come up with. I did it because my boss said it was okay as long as everybody signed a waiver.

I wrote a blog entry and we decorated the whiteboard and cheered when GalleyCat picked up the story. “WORD basketball league: basketball for book people,” we asserted. I expected a healthy 30 emails and a regular pick-up game on Sunday mornings. But the emails kept pouring in, half from Greenpoint, half from publishing. So I held two informational meetings and by the beginning of May, when pre-season began, I had over 100 people signed up. I split them into 8 teams, gave them all a color, and tried to make a schedule.

We played almost every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening until the end of August, except when it rained. The teams started practicing and they all got better, even The Elements of Style, who didn’t win a single game. And I got to know many of them well on the court, better in the bar, and best in the bookstore, where they unsurprisingly had good taste in books. They started running plays and playing zone and recommended books we should have in stock and picked up a birthday present while they were in the neighborhood. A Chicago author contacted us to do an event because he loved basketball as much as we did—we held a brunch after a game one Sunday and packed the basement as he read a short story about a professional basketball player struggling to comprehend the end of his career. At the end of the season, in a surprise upset, number-two seed Spaulding’s Greys: A Confederacy of Dunks beat top-ranked A Tree Dunks in Brooklyn to be the league champs.

And so, in the real world—where I am an occasional redhead with an East Asian Studies degree and no head for tax deductions—by mid-September, I had at least 100 new regular customers, raised an extra $500 for the Greenpoint Food Pantry, and at least doubled our press for the summer. (Thanks to many after-game drinking sessions, The Diamond Bar loves me in this world too.)

All for the cost of a whistle and a stopwatch and a little bit of time. And occasionally my sanity.

Should you all start basketball leagues tomorrow, then, or soccer leagues, or Scrabble leagues? Well, maybe. Probably. Yes. But it won’t save us.

What will save us is fun, and allowing fun to be at the center of what we do. It’s no secret that the book world could be a little better at thinking outside the box, and I think many of us have tried gamely to escape the double-team of pressure to innovate and pressure to keep everything the same. Too often it seems that for we merry band of book-making and bookselling brothers, thinking outside the box just means stepping outside the box, then pivoting, turning back around and looking at the box from another angle and thinking about how the outside of the box looks.

What could save us is doing things in our jobs that make us happy even though they are not related to our jobs in any but the most superficial of ways. I suspect it is in those things that we will find the game-changing slam dunks we so desperately look for in photos from consumer electronics shows. And even if it isn’t always where we find them, we will still have had fun.

This isn’t to say that those of you who can, in fact, make sense of profit/loss statements shouldn’t continue to do so. Even fun takes a little bit of work, as anybody who watched me try to puzzle out the schedule for the basketball league after three rained-out Wednesdays can tell you. And even on the Wednesdays we had games, I still had to receive and shelve and sweep and help customers until game time.

But it is to say: what would you do at your job tomorrow if you were told you could spend 10% of your time, paid, doing something that wasn’t really related to your job at all? What would you do if you could bring the things that you love that aren’t books to work with you and put them on the work to-do list? We are all passionate about books, to the exclusion of almost everything else, but the people we serve—the people we work for—in other words, the “consumer”—are not. What if indulging your other passions could be good for business? What would you do?

And why haven’t you done it? The game’s not over yet. You’ve gotta leave it all on the court.

For more pictures or to stay informed about WORD’s next season of literary basketball, make sure you check out the Facebook group that keeps us organized.

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5 comments so far

  1. Babette Ross on

    Your presentation was great fun!

  2. Garland Grey on

    That was wonderful and great and it made my day.

  3. […] but it’s turned into one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, not quite on the level of starting a basketball league, but definitely in the same […]

  4. […] Leveraging community both online and offline was a primary theme of our December WEBcast, Indie Booksellers and the Digital Transition: Opportunity Knocks?, and was at the heart of the inspiring 7×20×21 presentation two weeks ago by WORD Brooklyn’s Stephanie Anderson: […]

  5. […] (which I sadly could not attend) 7×20×21. The brilliant Stephanie Anderson spoke about her book lover basketball league and how it’s fun that will save the industry (did I mention she’s brilliant and I love […]


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