Q/A with author of new Manziel e-book: Challenges were somewhat significant

Johnny Football, aka Johnny Manziel, should help deliver Fox Sports a strong rating tonight for Texas A&M-Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

The Heisman Trophy winner as a freshman is the hottest thing going in college football. People want to know more about him.

HarperCollins sought to get in on the hoopla with a new e-book: Johnny Football: Johnny Manziel’s Road from the Texas Hill Country to the top of College Football.

Written by Josh Katzowitz, the book is more like an extended 11,000-word profile. Priced at $1.99, it is designed to capitalize quickly on the interest surrounding Manziel.

In a Q/A, Katzowitz talks about the challenges of turning around the project with such a tight deadline, and what this type of e-book could mean for the future in publishing.

When did you receive this assignment and what were the challenges of doing such a book on short notice?

Let’s see. I got the first email from my editor, Adam Korn, on Nov. 15 about exploring the idea of writing an e-book on Manziel. I sent him my pitch Nov. 20, and I followed that with Chapters 2 and 3 on Dec. 5. I emailed him Chapters 4 and 5 two days after that, and then, after Manziel won the Heisman Trophy on Dec. 8, I had to turn in the first chapter/intro and the final chapter/epilogue two days after that. The challenges for me were somewhat significant. Since I cover the NFL for CBSSports.com, I didn’t pay extremely close attention to Manziel’s season. After I got the assignment, I spent about a week just researching and interviewing before I even wrote a word.

HarperCollins/William Morrow wanted 10,000-11,000 words for the e-book, so it wasn’t a ton of writing. But with the research and the interviewing and the dictating and the re-reading and the editing and everything else that goes into writing a book – aside from just the plain old writing – it was certainly a time crunch. The funny thing is: in my two previous books, I was a little bit late getting my book to the publisher. On this one, I nailed the deadline.

What kind of access did you get from Manziel, his family, Texas A&M coaches?

My access to Manziel was pretty much what everybody else got. Not much, because of A&M coach Kevin Sumlin’s rule about freshmen not talking to the media. Nobody could get him until after A&M’s regular season was complete. Then, it was teleconferences and pre-Heisman press conferences. ESPN obviously got some additional time with him for the Heisman ceremony, but by the time I could have gotten any extra time with him, most of the book was done anyway. I did drive to College Station-Bryan, Texas and spent part of an evening with Johnny’s mother and sister. Despite the media crush they were experiencing (just by being related to Manziel), they were very accommodating.

What kind of behind-the-scenes access did you get during Heisman presentation?

It was tough, if not impossible, to get any one-on-one time with Manziel, but watching the way he dealt with the media and the way he carried himself during this process was really impressive. Plus, I did the typical “reporter who’s desperate for color walks slowly behind the subject praying for something to leap out at him after the final press conference” move, and with the A&M fans screaming at from the floor above him at the Marriott Marquis, I got the final scene of the book. Behind-the-scenes stuff during the Heisman weekend isn’t much different than a pregame MLB clubhouse, in that there’s not a ton of news, but sometimes, you stumble onto something noteworthy.

What were able to learn about Manziel? Any surprises?

I found out some great information about his very colorful family history. Even though his great-great uncle, Bobby Manziel, came to this country without much money, he became sparring partners and friends with Jack Dempsey, and they struck it rich together discovering oil in east Texas. The Manziel’s basically ran the town of Tyler, Texas, and some people think they still do (and those people might be right). As far as I can tell, none of that history was written about during this year of Manziel hype. I enjoy leafing through newspapers of the 1950s and finding out info like this, so for me, that was one of the most rewarding experiences I had during this project.

How tough is it to do a biography on someone who is so young?

It would have been tough if I had to write 100,000 words on a 19-year-old who’d been in the national spotlight for only about three months. But I didn’t have to write that long, so together with his family history, the discussion about why Manziel is perfect for the A&M offense, the highest of the highlights of the 2012 season, and what Manziel’s family was going through at the time, I ended up writing too many words and having to cut. But if I can compare it to the music industry, I wasn’t releasing a 12-song album with this book. Instead, I was releasing a single for the radio. If I had to write a full LP about Manziel, it would have been tough to accomplish.

Anything else?

This was my first experience writing an e-book, and I’m interested to see if they really are the wave of the future for the book publishing industry. It’s hard to imagine the print products dying out completely, leaving us all holding our Kindles and Nooks. But that uncertainty is also what’s kind of cool about working in the media landscape today. I always thought it would have been awesome to have lived in the 1940s, worked for a big-time paper and competed in the real newspaper wars. But this is a really cool time to work in the media, mostly because it’s the Wild, Wild West out here and nobody really knows the future. Hopefully with books like Johnny Football, we can figure out how to get there in one piece.

Journalism dilemma: Notre Dame beat writer, Chicago Tribune make decision about Heisman vote

Rule of journalism: Reporters don’t make news. Reporters cover the news.

The line gets blurred when sportswriters participate in things like college football polls, Major League Baseball awards, and Hall of Fame elections. Their votes become the news that they later have to cover and critique. Conflicts are inherent in such a process.

Brian Hamilton, the Notre Dame beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, felt uneasy about having a Heisman Trophy ballot this year. The question of possible bias because of Irish linebacker Manti Te’o resulted in the Tribune using an internal staff poll to determine Hamilton’s vote.

The section revealed the quandary in a story in Sunday’s paper. He wrote:

We’re in the business of creating as little question as possible — preferably none — about how we conduct our business as journalists. And the Notre Dame beat writer at the Chicago Tribune casting a vote in a Heisman race involving the Irish’s most prominent player in years creates enough questions to make us uneasy. Did you vote for Manti Te’o because you’re biased toward Notre Dame? Did you not vote for Manti Te’o because you’re biased against Notre Dame? Did you vote a certain way solely because you didn’t want it to look like you were biased a certain way?

I talked to Mike Kellams, the Tribune’s associate managing editor for sports (also my former editor), about the situation. He said Hamilton approached him about his vote a few weeks ago.

“He said, ‘I think this is something we should talk through.’ He was right,” Kellams said. “He hasn’t dealt with this before. It’s been a while since Notre Dame had a top candidate for the Heisman.”

Hamilton could have simply decided not to vote. However, if Te’o lost by one point because the Notre Dame beat writer decided to pass, they would have had to call in extra security at Tribune Tower. That element looked as if it influenced Kellams’ decision.

“I don’t disagree with that point,” Kellams said. “However, my thought was if we don’t vote, we change the outcome. Those points aren’t going to be awarded to the other players, not just Te’o. If we do participate, we change the outcome. Either way we were making a decision that was going to have an impact.”

Ultimately, Kellams decided to use a panel of five Tribune writers and editors who handle college football for the paper. Teddy Greenstein, who covers Northwestern, was not included since he had his own Heisman vote.

The results of the internal poll saw Hamilton’s vote go for Te’o. Naturally, right? Notre Dame is the Tribune’s hometown team. Well, not exactly. Hamilton had Te’o listed second behind Collin Klein. I’m sure he heard from some Notre Dame fans Sunday. And Te’o barely won the Tribune poll over Klein.

The Tribune’s dilemma illustrates why several newspapers won’t allow their sportswriters to vote for awards and Hall of Fame selections. Even within Tribune Co., Kellams notes the Los Angeles Times has its writers on the sidelines for votes.

The issue, I believe, is going to escalate with the upcoming Baseball Hall of Fame ballot that features Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa for the first time. The writers will be generating major news by making a statement about the steroid era, a period the majority of them all covered.

Kellams is well aware of both sides of the argument. For now, he is comfortable with his writers participating.

“This wasn’t a new discussion for our department,” Kellams said. “There’s no denying that if the writers are being asked to vote, they are going to create the news they have to cover. I wouldn’t argue if they (Heisman, Hall of Fame, etc) decided to do something different. But if we’re asked to participate, I believe our writers have the ability to separate themselves and make the right decision…If we believe they exercise good judgement every single day of the year (covering sports), I expect that they can exercise that good judgement when it comes to casting a vote.”

It will be interesting to see how the Heisman voting committee reacts to the Tribune’s decision regarding Hamilton’s vote. Will it demand that it should be one-voter-one-vote? Will Hamilton be invited to vote next year? After all, Irish quarterback Everett Golson is only a sophomore and could find himself in the Heisman picture in 2013.

Kellams wouldn’t speculate on the Heisman’s reaction. He also wouldn’t say that other papers follow should suit if they have a beat writer who covers a top candidate in the Heisman race.

“I feel good about our process in this case,” Kellams said. “It was the right way for us to do it under the circumstances.”