BMW got huge publicity and probably sold a few cars with their BMW Films campaign a few years back, in which the company commissioned several famous directors to create short films that featured various BMW models. Now BMW is trying again with BMW Audiobooks, “a unique series of specially-commissioned short stories showcasing the work of some of the finest contemporary writing talent.” A new story will be available for download every two weeks. Now, this being BMW, I’m sure the product placement will be done in a classy way, but I can’t help but think that this does little more than turn “some of the finest contemporary writing talent” into shills writing ad copy. And lest BMW think they are being innovative, it should be known that another car company was seen paying an author to get characters into its cars less than two years ago.
Opening Day is almost upon us, and that means that this year’s baseball books are already upon us. My friend Derek was once a Baltimore Orioles fan like myself, but then the Nationals swept into Washington, DC, and stole his heart away. I consider him a traitor, of course, but in his defense, I’m told that watching the Nats play at RFK has become one of the joys of summertime in the Nation’s capitol. Being a big Nationals fan, Derek has been bugging me about one baseball book in particular. National Pastime is an account of the Nationals debut season by Washington Post baseball writer Bruce Svrluga (an excerpt is available). The season was exciting and worthy of a book not only because the Nationals were unexpectedly contenders last summer, but also because the team became a phenomenon in a city that had gone without baseball for decades. It’s the sort of baseball story that baseball fans love (Even so, I’m still an O’s fan.)Every once in a while, though, there’s a baseball book that draws interest beyond diehard fans. A couple of years ago it was Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball that turned baseball on its head. This year it’s the book Game of Shadows by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, which presents, it seems to me, incontrovertible evidence that Barry Bonds’ monster performance of the last few years was, in fact, steroid-fueled as so many had suspected. Ever since Sports Illustrated ran an excerpt of the book a few weeks back, this has been the number one story in baseball. It seems likely to stay the number one story for a while, too. ESPN The Magazine recently ran an excerpt of another Bonds book, Love Me, Hate Me by Jeff Pearlman. That book will be out in May.Perhaps as important as baseball (and Bonds’ steroid troubles), though, is fantasy baseball. I’ll be tearing it up this year in a league put together by fellow blogger, Jeff. My team is the Ravenswood Ravens, a reference to both my neighborhood and Edgar Allan Poe. The team’s success will rely equally on my managerial prowess and on a breakout season by Wily Mo Pena. Fantasy baseball has clearly become a huge business in recent years and a summer long obsession for many sports fans. In Fantasyland, Wall Street Journal writer Sam Walker does what many of us fantasy baseball fans seem apt to do all summer, and that is chronicle the ups and downs of our fantasy team to anyone stuck listening to us. What sets Walker apart, though, is that he’s a sportswriter, a job which affords him real life contact with the players on his fantasy team. I don’t have access like that, so when I need fantasy tips I turn to the baseball geeks at Baseball Prospectus. Their annual Prospectus is indispensable, and this year also I managed to get my hands another new book of theirs, Baseball Between the Numbers, in which the BP folks use their formidable mastery of numbers to shatter more myths about the game.Update: Sam Walker is blogging this week at Powells.com.
Some media pundits suggest that, as the new owner of the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch has set his sights on taking down the New York Times, or at least giving the paper a run for its money. So it was with no doubt some glee that the Times was able to report that the WSJ is a bit more thin skinned than Murdoch would have you believe.The Times yesterday reported on a parody of the WSJ, My Wall Street Journal, created by Tony Hendra and with contributions from Andy Borowitz, Richard Belzer and Terry Jones. Apparently, the WSJ wasn’t too keen on the tabloid format send-up and actually sent people around the city trying to snatch up copies before they landed in the hands of the general public. Or as the Times cheekily put it: “It seems someone at The Wall Street Journal really likes a biting new parody of the paper – likes it enough, in fact, to leave at least one newsstand with no copies remaining for anyone else to buy.”Media spat aside, it is also interesting to see an attempt at a one-off publication like this, particularly in the age of the internet. Fishbowl NY explained the business model:The goal is to break even and, ideally, make money on the printing. “The business model is pretty simple, Hendra says. “Sell a lot of them.” Manhattan Media will be “well into break even territory” if half of the 200,000 available on newsstands are sold (an additional 50,000 will be sold in bookstores). At $3.95 per paper, the company will gain almost $1 million in revenue – an amount Murdoch “loses on the New York Post before lunch,” Hendra jokes – if the print run sells out.They are even available at Amazon, sold as a “Single Issue Magazine.”
Michael Chabon’s official Web site doesn’t get much attention from the author. He’ll post longer items from time to time as well as the occasional cryptic note about the various projects he’s working on. Chabon has now, however, decided to pack it in with this Web site business:Lately I have been suffering from Repetitive Strain Injury that makes typing a chore and clicking an agony. As I have been spending less time online I have found that I’ve lost interest in the web as a whole, and in my site in particular. I’m tired of having to maintain www.michaelchabon.com, but I hate that it gets stale, and so quickly. Yet I don’t feel comfortable with or have any interest in getting somebody else to do it for me. So I’ve decided, not without regret, to take it down, a little at a time, starting with the posting of my monthly Details column.On the other hand, Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union will be arriving in May.
Today I met the author Nick Hornby. He was passing through town and he decided to stop in to sign copies of the new paperback release of Songbook (which, unfortunately, is a million times less cool than the hardcover book and CD combo that McSweeneys put out). He told me that he is halfway through a new novel, but he didn’t offer any details about it. He did, however, say that he is hard at work adapting Dave Eggers’ memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for the silver screen. Should be quite interesting if it ever comes to fruition.
Last week, Max directed our attention to a major new piece of reporting on the financial crisis: a Portfolio article by Millions favorite Michael Lewis. The author of Liar’s Poker, among other books, Lewis is a gifted explainer of an industry badly in need of explanations. In the Portfolio piece, for example, he immerses us in the world of short-sellers who saw the subprime meltdown coming. However, the key paragraph – wherein trader Steve Eisman has an epiphany about how investment banks are leveraging subprime bonds – resorts to a sports metaphor, and thus fails to demystify an elusive instrument at the center of the financial crisis: the credit default swap (CDS).”When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats,” Lewis writes.But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower. The only assets backing the bonds were the side bets Eisman and others made with firms like Goldman Sachs. Eisman, in effect, was paying to Goldman the interest on a subprime mortgage. In fact, there was no mortgage at all. ‘They weren’t satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn’t afford,’ Eisman says. ‘They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over! That’s why the losses are so much greater than the loans.’I’ve heard financial insiders inveigh against peons who “don’t know a credit-default swap from a turnip,” but how are we to wise up, if explanations only come in the form of metaphors (athletic or agricultural)? Grabbing a fig leaf from the N+1 playbook, as it were, I decided to ask a friend in finance to explain the Peyton Manning analogy, as simply as possible. Here’s what he had to say (wait for “the rub”):Assume the following: Eisman buys a crappy mortgage security (say, a $1,000 bond from a mortgage given to a strawberry picker who makes $14,000 dollars per year). Say the mortgage rate the strawberry picker pays is 15%. This means he’s agreed to pay $150 a year to Eisman. But Eisman is worried that the strawberry picker will default because the guy’s house value has collapsed and his income is drying up. Thus, Eisman wants to buy insurance on the $1,000 he’s loaned. The way he does this is via a credit default swap.A CDS is essentially an insurance policy on a loan, and here’s how it works. Eisman finds a counterparty willing to sell him insurance on his loan (a big investment bank like Lehman Brothers). Eisman agrees to pay the bank a fixed rate every year for protection of the mortgage security he owns (the crappier the loan, the higher the rate). Let’s say for the $1,000 loan to the strawberry picker, his rate will be 10%. The bank pays him nothing on a regular basis, BUT, if the borrower defaults, they pay him the full $1,000.So: if times are good and everyone makes payments on time, the payments are structured as follows: The strawberry picker pays $150 per year to Eisman; Eisman pays $100 per year to Lehman (which then uses some of the cash to provision for losses, and uses the rest to make more loans). The strawberry picker gets to keep his house, Eisman keeps $50 per year (loan payment from strawberry picker minus the insurance premium he pays to Lehman), and Lehman gets $100.Got the structure? Now here’s the rub.Imagine Eisman never actually had exposure to the loan in the first place. Being the brilliant skeptic he is, Eisman would never lend $1,000 to a strawberry picker with little income. He thinks that strawberry man is doomed to default on that loan, and he actually wants to bet AGAINST him. So instead of giving the loan and buying insurance, he just buys the insurance (hence the often used and rarely understood term “side bet”). To do this, Eisman still has to pay the “premium” for the insurance he’s bought, and since it’s a risky loan, the rate is high (e.g. $100 per year in the example above). [Though he stands to win $1,000 if the loan defaults.] In effect, Eisman is paying a “subprime-like” interest rate to Lehman every year! That’s what Lewis was getting at.I would have used a different metaphor. I would have said it’s like a New Yorker buying a bunch of home insurance policies in New Orleans because you are expecting that there will be a massive hurricane coming to wreck them. Now lets say that the insurance company took the money you were giving it, didn’t provision for the coming doom, and instead, used that money to lend to more people building and buying houses in New Orleans.That’s leverage upon leverage upon leverage. And that’s the mess that is unraveling before us.
I think I may have mentioned the USA Today bestseller list before. It’s fun because it ranks the top 150 books, not just the top 20 like most lists, and I also like it because it doesn’t separate books by category, so you can see how those self-help books stack up against those mystery novels. I also think it’s interesting to see which classic novels make appearances on the list. For example, this week – barring classics making the list due to movie tie-ins – we’ve got Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird at 93. I also recently noticed that you can use the search box at the top of the list to search its entire ten year history. For example, I now know that Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which happens to be next to me on the shelf) was on the list for six weeks in late 2003, peaking at 108. Interesting.
I just got back from the Baltimore Orioles game, my first at Camden Yards in several years. I had forgotten how close, compared to Dodger Stadium, the fans sit to the field. Even when I sat in the “Dugout Club” field level seats at Dodger Stadium, I didn’t feel as involved in the game as I do at Camden Yards. It’s much more a city park surrounded by tall buildings, compared to Dodger Stadium’s desert crater feel.Tomorrow I head up to New York on the train. There is wedding planning to be done with Miss Millions, but hopefully some diversions as well.This morning, at a local bookstore, I saw McSweeney’s 13. It’s amazing looking. I’ve got a copy on its way in the mail. Also in book news, Bill Clinton’s keynote speech at Book Expo was well-received, and retailers are salivating over the expected sales numbers for his memoir. And for the Brits, check out this awesome deal being offered by The Times. When you buy a copy of the newspaper you get a bestselling paperback for 99 pence. Now that’s a great reading initiative. (Better than “One Book, One City” anyway)
Mrs. Millions and I are headed to Los Angeles for a few days starting tomorrow morning. We’re excited to see how LA is doing since we moved away, and we’re especially enamored with the idea of taking few days off from the Chicago winter (although it hasn’t been too bad here these last few days.) Among many other activities, I plan to visit the book store where I used to work. That’ll bring me back to the roots of this blog, remind me of the good old days. All in all, it should be a pretty busy trip; lots of friends to see and some family, too, and lots of In ‘n’ Out Burgers to eat. Wifi isn’t free at the hotel, apparently, and we’ll be staying with friends some of the time too – so expect little or no blogging.However, I implore you to please direct your browsers toward The LitBlog Co-op on Monday morning where the newest LBC pick will be revealed with much fanfare. The nominees will be announced over the course of the week, as well, (and there will be an appearance by yours truly.) Next week is LBC Week. See you then.