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  • Writer's picturePBBC

Mitch Nathanson and the Mystery of the Disappearing Photo Budget

With last year's release of Bouton, Mitchell Nathanson became one of the PBBC's first members. This spring, McFarland released an e-version of first book, published back in 2007, and the story behind it is interesting enough for us to break format and let Mitch unspool the details in essay form. Enjoy.

By Mitchell Nathanson

When you’re the author of a book titled The Fall of the 1977 Phillies: How a Baseball Team’s Collapse Sank a City’s Spirit, you’d think the biggest mistake you could make while shepherding it to publication is failure to insist on final approval of the title. You’d be wrong. At which point you’d wonder just how big that the mistake had to be to outshine that dumpster fire of a title. Mine was.

My error was a failure to obtain the electronic rights to the many photos I licensed for the book, a social history of Philadelphia that bypasses the usual stopping points (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitutional Convention of 1787, blah, blah, blah), and focuses instead on how the fabled Philly attitude came into being. I wanted to put my finger on how Philadelphia sports fans came to boo the way they (we) do, and why they (we) have particular disdain for the Phillies above (or below) all else. As I wrote in the book, Philly fans will boo the Eagles, Flyers and Sixers when those teams struggle, but they’ll boo the Phillies in the best of times. How the hell did that happen?

I dug into the history of Philly’s legendary inferiority complex in relation to New York, and its mid-20th century renaissance when a new guard swept out the corrupt politicos who were suffocating the city. There was also baseball. Lots of baseball. I wrote about the birth of the Athletics in 1901, and how they instantly relegated the Phillies to second-class status. I wrote about how after the A’s left for Kansas City in 1954, Philadelphia baseball fans were stuck with a team they’d never embraced and which felt foisted upon them—even though the Phillies were there first. I wrote about how the city gradually warmed to the club in the early 1970s as it remade itself into an East Coast version of baseball’s gold-standard franchise, the Dodgers, and how it all came to a head on Oct. 7, 1977, during Game 3 of the National League Championship Series at the Vet against … the Dodgers. It was a day that would come to be known in Philadelphia as Black Friday. You can assume that it didn’t end well.

Back to the photos. I went to Temple University’s Urban Archives, where the bones of the old Philadelphia Evening Bulletin are buried. You can exhume them at your leisure in the basement archive, but if you want to use them in a book you must shell out for the privilege.

Those who haven’t published a book may be surprised to learn that the costs associated with image procurement are borne by the author, not the publisher, and I wanted to keep those costs down.

I should also mention that this was 2005 or so, and my first book. I spent a lot of time contemplating images to accompany the text, and after I had selected about 25 of them, the archive guy quoted me a price to purchase the high-res files, and a second price for their licensing rights. None of it was inexpensive. Then he said something to the effect of, “Oh yeah, electronic rights are on top of that.”

At the time, my publisher wasn't even in the e-book business. I could barely afford the costs as they were, and I certainly didn't want an additional fee in service of an electronic version that would never exist. So I passed. And that was that.

Until years later, anyway, when the book—despite its title—seemed to resonate with a certain category of Philadelphia fan. It never became a best seller … or even a good seller, really. But it did okay. People occasionally mentioned that a friend of theirs remembered Black Friday and wanted to read about it, but for one reason or another preferred an e-book. So where’s the e-book, they asked?

Well, there wasn’t one. Almost immediately after the print version came out, my publisher decided to dive headfirst into the e-book business. They couldn't do anything with mine, though, because of my limited photo rights.

Here’s where, a decade-and-a-half-later, I was able to right a horrible wrong. It wasn’t an ex post facto purchase of the image rights, which by then had become prohibitively expensive. But, I said to the publisher, what if I turned the book into a quickie version of the original, serving up only the baseball stuff at a popular price? And re-named it? Yes, we can do that, came the answer. In one swoop I was severed from that god-awful title and received a new lease on e-book life.

That’s how The Ten-Minute Collapse: Black Friday and the Fall of the 1977 Phillies—the baseball-only e-format of the print version—came into existence. If it were a box of chocolates it would be the creams and the jellies and none of the honeycombs. Which, let’s face it, is all we want anyway. It’s one-third the price of the print version, which, as my dad used to say, is a deal. And the title goes down more like honey and less like razor blades.

The ending’s the same, though. So whichever version you buy, make sure you’ve got the Maalox handy.


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