Bear with me — this comes back to publishing…
There was a rule change just prior to the start of the National Basketball Association season, and I think the NBA’s decision sheds some light on the options the publishing industry has for increasing interest in books.
The new rule reads, in part: “A player who receives the ball while he is progressing or upon completion of a dribble, may take two steps in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball.”
It is believed to be the first time any league, at any level anywhere in the world, has explicitly allowed two steps.
As the article notes, the rule has always been one step, and that’s been true at every level of basketball. However, as the article also notes, the NBA has been allowing two steps for years, so this rule change only reflects reality. Or at least reality as defined by an unenforced one-step rule, which may be a great deal different than an enforced two-step rule. (Predictable NBA double-speak denial here. Phil Jackson on the obviousness of the sham here.)
Why did the NBA allow two steps against their own rules, and why have they now written this admission into the rulebook?
Enforcement of the one-step rule has been hit-or-miss at every level of basketball. Archival footage shows NBA greats, from Magic Johnson and Pete Maravich to Bob Cousy and Julius Erving, getting away with two steps. Borgia, whose father was also an NBA official, said he cannot remember a time when NBA referees did not allow two steps.
Others insist allowing two steps represents an NBA strategy to aid scorers and make the league more exciting. Legendary point guard and current Knick broadcaster Walt “Clyde” Frazier says the league relaxed traveling standards some time ago to increase scoring.
Enforcement may be hit-or-miss at every level of play, but that’s partly because the traveling call is inherently hit-or-miss. Unlike, say, a missed basket, which is obvious to everyone, a traveling call requires assessing multiple moments which play out in various ways. Did the player pick up his dribble early, but still only take one step (or, now, two)? Precisely because referees have to wait until a player completes a series of moves to know it’s an infraction, it’s not clear a player is traveling until fully after the fact. Even a foul — which is also a tough judgment call in many cases — has only one inciting incident. Traveling is now a multi-step judgment call, which, at the professional level, plays out at blinding speed in a forest of giants.
Enforcement is also not proportionately hit-or-miss when comparing the NBA with major college basketball. You can watch whole NBA games and never see a traveling call, while college games regularly feature such calls. (More proof that the NBA has been lax about the one-step rule for some time.) As to whether the rule has been relaxed in order to increase scoring and excitement (you get better power dunks off a two-step stampede to the rim) I don’t think there’s any question that that’s the case. And I don’t think the NBA is alone in this regard.
In professional baseball all sorts of things have been done to increase scoring and excitement. In 1969, after Bob Gibson and other pitchers demolished hitters the previous year, the mound was lowered from 15″ to 10″. The strike zone is constantly being changed to give hitters a better chance. And of course the wink-wink approval of steroids in baseball was driven by the resulting increase in home runs.
In professional football rules have also been changed over the years to increase scoring. Moving the hash marks closer to the center of the field, eliminating bump-and-run coverage of receivers, and protecting quarterbacks with special rules that keep them out of doctor’s office are all examples of pro-scoring changes.
The NBA itself has instituted similar changes. A few years go you could hand-check the offensive player with the ball, meaning place a hand on that player’s hip. Now you cannot do that. (Thank you Derek Harper!) The NBA also allows preferential treatment for star players (unofficially, like the two-step travel until now), including protecting them from hard fouls and allowing them to commit infractions that lesser players would be called for.
As clear as the pro-scoring rule-changing trend has been in America’s major sports, it’s really only a reflection of American culture. Thanks to changes in the way our government legislates and enforces financial rules, we’ve been through a dot-com implosion, a housing bubble, the Enron/Anderson implosion, and a mortgage-market-turned-asset-market-turned-global-market meltdown in the past ten years — all of which were predicated on new rules (called, laughably, laws) regarding the way companies could be structured, and how valuations could be calculated. (EBITDA, anyone?)
These changes to financial rules were made (or enforcement withheld, as in the NBA traveling example in prior years) to help players (people with money) score more often (make more money). Had the government not made these changes, or had it enforced laws already on the books, these disasters could have been mitigated or perhaps even prevented. Unfortunately, while defense may win championships, it doesn’t put butts in the seats or sell assets in the markets. Because buying and selling (and talking about buying and selling) are more important to the American economy and American psyche than acting in a rational manner, nobody wants to play defense. Funding the SEC adequately so it can catch the likes of Bernie Madoff (who should have been caught anyway, at least twice) is playing defense, and defense is boring. Opening the financial floodgates to con men and shysters: now that’s sexy.
So changing rules (laws) to add excitement and thrills is not an aberration, it’s the whole point. But even that is just a means to an end, with the end being making money. If you don’t sell tickets (or stocks), you can’t make a buck. Ergo all of the rules changes in sports, and all of the rules changes in government, and even the apparent partisan insanity of our political discourse, is geared toward one thing: making a buck.
That’s how (un)complicated it is. If you want to make a buck, you break the rules, refuse to enforce existing rules, or change existing rules, so that making a buck is easier.
Where does that leave the NBA? Well, they’re fighting the same battle that publishers are fighting, and the TV Networks, and the online gaming services, and the porn channels, and the shop-till-you-run-out-of-credit-and-we’ll-give-you-more-credit channels. They are fighting for attention, and I think this rule change is going to make it easier for them to attract attention.
Here are five reasons why:
1) The league’s stars are now going to start taking two-and-a-half to three steps, challenging refs to take away the mind-blowing, high-light-reel dunk they just threw down.
2) It still comes down to enforcement, and traveling is not an easy call to make consistently. Now that the call takes longer and has more moving parts, and the refs have more opportunity to be screened from critical aspects of the play, it may be more difficult for them to make a call with certainty.
3) Coaches are going to exploit the new rule by increasing the number of two-step plays they run. Steve Nash may average 20 assists a game. LeBron may average 40 points a game. (Remember: this rule applies to post players as well. How is anyone going to block out or defend against Dwight Howard if he gets two steps on the block?)
4) Defensive players are now dead meat. It’s one thing for an offensive player to take a single step and then have to commit. Two steps means you can change direction within the rules of the game, and no defensive player can stick with an offensive player during a change of direction. Two steps for Kobe Bryant? You’re kidding, right? On every play? Seriously???
5) Making the traveling rule two steps now lets everyone know they can get away with it. It’s not just Kobe slashing to the rim, it’s the twelfth guy on the bench making a herky-jerky move before jumping up (for a third step) in order to make a pass.
All of which means that there will be more amazing dunks and incredible behind-the-back, no-look lobs on ESPN every night, and Dwight Howard may not have to learn a post move after all.
And this is the way things work. You look at what sells, and if it’s not selling well enough you change the rules so it sells better. You make sure people get their excitement, then you hit them up for cash. There’s no reality, no truth, no meaning, no history and no tradition greater than the twin thrills of figuring out what you can sell and what you can charge.
Which brings us to publishing.
Can anyone think of ways in which the publishing industry might change the rules in order to sell more books? Anyone?
From where I sit, I can see a few things the industry might do, if it understood the advantages of changing the rules in mid-stream, bucking convention, giving the customer what she wants, and just generally pandering for sales like everybody else:
1) Expand the definition of what a book is. Right now a book means either a block of hardcover concrete, a cheap-o paperback knockoff, or pretty pictures. Can anyone think of a way to provide books as, say, portable digital content?
2) Get past the DRM distraction. The world is awash in petty thieves and the cultural mores of the moment are against you. This means you should:
A) Stand on principle.
B) Give your stuff away free.
C) Make your stuff cheap and readily available so you undercut the two main motivations for stealing. Later, when computer control of product is more robust, you can go on a government-backed anti-piracy rampage and jail expectant mothers.
The correct answer is: obvious.
3) Wait for your anti-depressants to kick in, then remind yourself that hardcover sales and book-industry sales are not the same thing. You want all the sales you can get. If the future is in famous-author toilet seats, you want to own that market. If the future is digital content, you want to own that market. You also want the best authors coming to you and saying, “I don’t really want to put together my own Smashwords-readable file, so what would you charge to do that for me?” (Yes, you’re now also a service business, but your business is not screwing people.)
4) Listen to your customers.
(Hint: your customers are called readers.)
5) Get past the nostalgic (and completely false) idea that the book industry is or ever was all about hardcover books and cultural moments. There will always be a few Ferraris guzzling among the world’s hybrid compacts. There will always be a few movie stars compared with all of the amateur actors on YouTube. And there will always be hardcover books for the cozy-fire set, even though what the market is demanding today is a portable read. Hardcovers are books you leave at home on the coffee table where they look oh-so perfect, like the cover shots on Architectural Digest, which is what you’re really thinking about if you’re advocating for the preservation of the hardcover in a market that needs long-range, fuel-efficient, low-cost readable content.
The NBA wants Kobe Bryant at the rim and it doesn’t care how he gets there. Major League Baseball wants home runs, and it doesn’t care which drugs they come from. The NFL wants touchdowns, touchdowns, touchdowns, and its willing to put a diaper on the quarterback if that’s what it takes to get them.
The slams dunks and home runs and touchdowns of the publishing industry are called good reads (not good books), and they are created by people called authors. What the publishing industry should be doing is trumpeting good reads in the same way that the NBA trumpets posterizing dunks. Yes, the dunker (author) is important, too, but it’s the action of the game — the moments of the game — that sell the player, not the other way around.
Where is the platform-independent marketing effort for content as entertainment? Where is the industry-wide campaign showing famous authors at work, reading a line or two that cracks them up, or makes them smile, or makes the audience want to hear more? Where is the action? Where are the words? Why play by the old rules?
Update: The first crack in the NBA’s new rule.
— Mark Barrett