Paterno, Joe Posnanski’s biography of the famed Penn State football coach is the most confounding story in publishing this year – and that’s not stopping, with the book headed to the big screen.
Paterno’s life story went from smart six-figure acquisition to radioactive property as the author got dragged into the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal that rocked the university, making the book an unlikely bestseller when it debuted last week.
Now, with sales slowing, the book faces an uncertain future. And now a movie version starring Al Pacino is set to be shopped to producers and studios next week by ICM, which represents Posnanski and Pacino.
Despite Simon & Schuster avoiding any of the normal promotional opportunities–things like TV show interviews and bookstore signings–Paterno debuted at no. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list.
Publishers Weekly, using figures supplied by Nielsen Bookscan, reported first week sales of 11,439 copies, that would put total sales around 20,000-25,000 (Neilsen tracks about three-quarters of physical book sales and does not include ebook sales in its statistics).
Reviews were tepid, with critics suggesting that in focusing on Paterno’s whole life Posnanski gave short shrift to the Sandusky scandal. Sales cooled in the second week, dropping more than 40 percent in Neilsen Bookscan to 6,623 copies.
Simon & Schuster still doesn’t know whether it has a surprise hit on its hands, or a big-budget flop and the larger question remains: How much continuing public interest is there in the story of the coaching icon whose celebrated six-decade career was overwhelmed by the scandal that consumed his last fewmonths?
The question takes on renewed meaning as The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed an effort to sell movie rights.
When editor Jonathan Karp acquired the book for a reported $750,000 in March 2011 it seemed like a smart bet.
Paterno, then 84 and perhaps the most respected football coach in America, was entering what was likely to be the last leg of his storied sixty-two-year career at Penn State (including forty-four seasons as head coach) and Posnanski was well-regarded sportswriter and author of an award-winning book about the famed Negro League player Buck O’Neil.
The book was pitched as the inspirational story of “America’s winningest college football coach, who changed the country one football player at a time.”
Publication was set for Father’s Day 2013.
Posnanski had secured Paterno’s cooperation and after signing the deal moved his family to State College, Pennsylvania to cover the team up close.
When Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s former assistant, was arrested after a grand jury presentment on child sex charges. Posnanski was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as a proxy for Paterno, who dodged all but a few media requests.
Simon & Schuster reacted to the scandal by moving up the publication date nine months to Sept. 2012 and changing the title from the inspirational The Grand Experiment: The Life and Meaning of Joe Paterno to the more neutral-sounding Paterno.
From a publisher’s point of view, the scandal seemed fortuitous. Simon & Schuster seemed to have a sure-fire bestseller on its hands. Similar timing had taken the memoir SEAL Team Six to the top of the sales charts when its publication followed the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden by a few weeks.
But the fast-moving Sandusky scandal overtook Simon & Schuster’s plans. A steady drip of revelations over the spring and summer suggested Paterno knew more about Sandusky’s crimes than he had acknowledged publicly.
The NCAA hit Penn State with the toughest penalties ever handed down to a school short of disbanding the football team with the “death penalty,” or cancellation of football privileges. Instead, the school was banned from bowl game participation for four years, and ruled that Paterno’s last official win came in 1998 – the first year, according to the grand jury report, that Penn State officials failed to stop Sandusky.
In June, a jury convicted Sandusky, 64, of forty-five counts of sexually abusing young boys. Sometime later this fall, he is expected to be sentenced to life in prison as a “sexually violent predator” under Megan’s law.
Anything associated with Paterno became part of the scandal and with the coach having died in January 2012 of lung cancer, the book became the stand-in for the coach, with critics hoping to learn more about his complicity in Sandusky’s crime and partisans hoping it put the scandal in some kind of context that redeemed his life’s work.
Given its substantial monetary investment in the book, Simon & Schuster took the risky decision to roll out the book without any publicity efforts by the Posnanski.
The gambit seemed to pay off initially as the book debuted on the bestseller list, but with sales slowing in the second week, the publisher has to wonder if the book will generate enough sales to justify the big advance.