Memo to HarperCollins: Don’t Sit on Roberts’ A-Rod Book!

In the late-afternoon hours of March 10, executives at the publishing house HarperCollins met to resolve a changeable dilemma: When to publish its bombshell biography of Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez by Selena Roberts, the star Sports Illustrated reporter who broke the story of Mr. Rodriguez’s use of performance-enhancing drugs?

She’d been on contract to write the book as of the fall of 2008, but her reporting gained urgency as she continued work on the book, leading to her revelation, reported on Sports Illustrated’s Web site on Feb. 7, that Mr. Rodriguez had tested positive for steroid use in an anonymous and nondisciplinary drug test in 2003, when he was shortstop for the Texas Rangers.

Suddenly A-Rod was making his way regularly from the back sports dress page to the front of the paper, and the book was an even hotter commodity: No other sports story in modern memory has had so much juice for so long.

Not wanting to lose the momentum of the story, they moved the sale date from mid-May up to April 14. It was, of course, a big task. She hadn’t had long to write the book in the first place, and these last several weeks cannot have helped her momentum on the book.

And then, crap! Mr. Rodriguez got that hip injury, and the quick-fix surgery, and he’ll be out for all of April, and some of May. It started to seem like the season opener news-peg wasn’t going to work anymore: The sports press might well just be starting to enjoy a month off from covering A-Roid.

The question was whether to push the pub date back again, to coincide with Mr. Rodriguez’s return to the game in May.

When the HarperCollins folks left the room, they were leaning toward April 28.

If Ms. Roberts needs the time to deliver the book we’re all expecting from her, then great! But if they are worrying about the effect of the A-Rod news cycle on the sales of the book, well, they shouldn’t.

“You never take a break on A-Rod,” said Leon Carter, the Daily News’ sports editor. “From day one, when he signed on as a Yankee on that Valentine’s Day weekend, we did 100 pages on A-Rod in the first month, and this is long before we got the detail from this year. You never take a break from him. He is the one athlete who has transcended his sport in what you call the Britney Spears arena. You want to know what’s going on with him every day.” 

Mr. Carter said there was a period of 27 days in which the News had him on the back page for 20—and some of those days he was on the front page as well.

“He has an amazing capacity to make news when you least expect it,” said Tom Jolly, The Times’ sports editor. “So although you’d think that the next month would be A-Rod free, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not.”

In other words, regardless of where A-Rod stands in the news cycle the day the book comes out, David Hirshey, executive editor of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, may not be taking one important factor into account: the sheer interest in the book itself. Why wait for your book to make nice with the sports covers when you can make the sports covers cover … you!

Shortly after Ms. Roberts’ steroids story broke in Sports Illustrated, Mr. Hirshey told The Observer: “I assure you she has more drug revelations as well as other news. Not everything that Selena has on A-Rod’s steroid participation has come out yet.”

“I’m not going to second-guess the publisher, they know more about their business than I do, but we certainly won’t stop writing about A-Rod when there’s news,” said Mr. Jolly.

In other words, while A-Rod is ducking out of the news cycle, doing isometric exercises in Colorado, Mr. Hirshey has the perfect opportunity to start up a whole new A-Rod news cycle of his own. The sports press will only oblige him.

And incidentally, they may also want to watch their backs.

“If they have a good book on A-Rod, you don’t hold it,” said Mr. Carter. “Eventually, whatever you have, someone else is going to find out anyway.”

And isn’t that why Ms. Roberts broke the story for SI in the first place?

jkoblin@observer.com

Memo to HarperCollins: Don’t Sit on Roberts’ A-Rod Book!