In October, former Philly Mag writer Neal Pollack released his sixth book, Jewball—self-published for Amazon’s Kindle. No contracts, no marketing outside of his Facebook and Twitter, and a few interviews. The book stalled out after selling 500 copies. But Neal believed in the book and pitched the work to a VP at Amazon. Last week, Amazon re-released the book, about a Jewish basketball team in Philadelphia (the SPHAs) in the 1930s that battled the Bund, an American Nazi organization. I talked to Neal about Philly hoops in the ’30s, the future of book publishing, and why there are so few Jews playing in the NBA today.
What initially got you turned onto this story idea?
I belong to a Jewish organization called Reboot, a collection of Jewish intellectuals that meets in the mountains of Utah. I’m not even kidding. It was 2005, and I was in a steam room with a couple of guys, including a Jewish history professor. The NBA playoffs were going on, and they started talking about the history of Jewish basketball, and I had never heard of it before. So I went home and did some research and saw that this was a reality, and that the SPHAs were big news of the time. I saw this as an opportunity to write about Philly without having to write about my time in Philly, which wasn’t that fun.
What was it about Philly that wasn’t that fun?
Early thirties, broke, didn’t know anybody, didn’t work out.
But obviously the city got its claws into you a bit if you decided to base a novel there.
Philly’s got kind of this underdog quality that is really well suited for noir. One of my favorite writers is (former Philadelphia noir writer) David Goodis. It’s a place with a dark undercurrent. When I found out about Jewish basketball, and the SPHAs in particular I thought, “I can do this.” I lived in Philadelphia. You could do a book about Jewish basketball and set it in New York, and then you‘ve got yet another novel about Jews in New York.
You used real people in the book, such as Eddie Gottlieb, who would later own the Philadelphia Warriors, and Harry Litwack, who would coach at Temple. Is there any concern when you add real people to the story that you make sure you get it right?
Yeah, I thought about that, but I didn’t think about it too hard. This is not what these guys were like. [The book is] a wholly fictional take on these guys. The plot itself isn’t really about basketball; it’s really about a gambling debt that Gottlieb has to the German-American Bund, which he almost certainly never had.
What kind of research did you do?
I read books, watched a documentary called First Basket (you can watch a short clip here). I didn’t realize the extent of which Jews created the modern game. Harry Litwack invented the zone defense.
The sport of basketball really was a Jewish game in the 1920s and ’30s. What changed, to the point where a few decades later there were essentially no Jews playing the sport?
There was a point-shaving scandal with CCNY, and that was the moment that Jewish basketball players started to slide away from the game, and move into coaching and managing. And there wasn’t the concentration of Jews in the inner cities that there had been. They began to suburbanize, and basketball has always been a city game. Jewish culture in general became more cerebral and less athletic. But I think Jews still have a lot of love for basketball. Half the owners in the NBA are Jewish. Half of the owners in the NFL aren’t Jewish.
What did you learn about Philly in the 1930s that you hadn’t known before?
I hadn’t realized how active the German-American Bund was in Philadelphia, which was sort of the Nazi Party in America. It was a time when public anti-semitism was much more acceptable. The research on the Bund led me to the plot. Here are some Jewish basketball players fighting Nazis. When I told my seven-year-old son what the plot was, and he said “Awesome,” I knew I was onto something.
In the opening chapter, there is a huge brawl between the Jewish players and the Bund. The players inflict a lot of damage in that brawl. Was this a bit of a revenge book?
I don’t consider this a revenge book. The outcome is murkier than you might think. It’s 2012. I’m over it.
What convinced you to self-publish digitally?
My book advances had been getting smaller, and my last novel had sold so poorly that I wasn’t going to get much of an advance. So my agent asked me if I’d thought about giving it a try. And I said OK. It cost me under $1,000 to put this thing out. Not an expensive venture. I gave it a shot.
You sold about 500 copies in the first few months.
It kind of stalled after Hanukkah. I thought, “Alright this is a great book, but it’s not getting into people’s hands.” So on a whim, I sent an email to the VP of Amazon publishing. I said, “I have this book that I published on Kindle. Would you mind taking a look at it?” And he read it over the weekend, and really liked it and agreed to publish it. And he agreed to do it quickly.
So what does getting picked up by Amazon do for a self-publisher?
What Amazon brings to the table that a self-publisher doesn’t is the marketing. I don’t know if they’ll be able to make the book a best seller, but they are certainly going to sell it. It came out three days ago. They haven’t even really started yet.
What are your goals for Jewball?
My goal was to sell 10,000 copies. To me, 10,000 copies is a very respectable number for a book. If you can sell 10,000 copies of something, you’ve done something. And if I sell 10,000 copies, I’m going to write a sequel. I feel like that’s achievable.
Would you say you’re more nervous or more excited about the future of book publishing?
What are you gonna do? That’s the way the world is going. I think authors live in denial of technology, but it’s happening. It’s like saying TV is bad. Yeah, but it’s there. And it’s fun to watch. You can’t stop the tide. You can’t stop technology from marching along. We live in an era of technological change. Either I adapt, or my dream career of being a professional writer dies. I don’t know if I’m excited or nervous, I just look at it as reality and try to adjust to it.