It wasn’t until the end of May that Keith Wallman, editor-in-chief of Diversion Books, got the full manuscript for what is now Rick Pitino’s My Story. Part memoir and part assessment of the evolution of college basketball recruiting, the book is primarily what its title states: Pitino’s take on the FBI investigation that led to his 2017 firing as the head basketball coach at the University of Louisville. That a marquee name like Pitino landed at Diversion, a midsize publisher that began as an e-book-only operation in 2010, was thanks to tight timing requirements and a competing title from a Big Five publisher.
Pitino was fired from Louisville after a federal investigation implicated a number of people working for (or connected to) the university’s basketball program in a sweeping scheme of bribery and fraud. Although he was never implicated in any wrongdoing by the FBI, his desire to clear his name, according to Scott Waxman, Diversion’s founder and publisher, was strong. With that in mind, Waxman said, Pitino decided he wanted to write a book in February.
Around the same time, Pitino learned that Penguin was planning to publish its own book about the scandal: The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino, by journalist and author Michael Sokolove (author of Warrior Girls), which hit bookstore shelves on September 25. So Pitino’s team—which included his agent, David Vigliano, and his coauthor, Seth Kaufman—began looking for a publisher that could get his book out before Sokolove’s. Waxman, it turned out, was able to help.
Waxman, who admitted that Vigliano likely didn’t think he’d be selling the book to Diversion when he took on the project, said he nonetheless came to the table with the most attractive offer. Not only did Diversion promise to get the book out in less than six months but it also offered Pitino the profit-sharing model available to the house’s biggest authors: a small (or no) advance in exchange for a bigger cut of the royalties.
Waxman said Diversion has filled a niche, claiming that it’s become increasingly hard for the big houses to crash books. Publishing a book in less than six months is “a real headache for them.” Although launched as an e-book-only house, Diversion has evolved, Waxman explained, into something of a standard midsize publisher.
Pitino’s book, one of Diversion’s bigger “gets” as titles go, landed in stores September 4 with an announced 20,000-copy first printing, and the publisher plans to go back to press for another 10,000 copies. That print run is large for Diversion; the house currently releases 30–40 titles annually, with average first printings of about 5,000 copies.
Talking about where Diversion sits in the current trade publishing ecosphere, Waxman—speaking with Wallman by his side—said the goal of the print program is to choose wisely on books that can perform in the marketplace but, crucially, have legs on the backlist side. Citing the drop-off in the midlist and the fact that the big houses don’t want to take chances on titles that call for first printings of under 20,000 copies, he said Diversion’s competitors are houses like Pegasus. “In a lot of ways, we’re like what St. Martin’s Press was 20 years ago,” Waxman noted.
Wallman, who came to Diversion from Lyons Press, concurred. He said that though almost all of Diversion’s books now come through agents (which is a shift from the press’s early, e-only days), the publisher can be nimble and publish to specialty audiences—audiences, he noted, that big houses probably don’t want to target, as they look for titles that they can “knock out of the park.”
With this template, Diversion focuses heavily on nonfiction—business, sports, true crime—but it does a smattering of novels. Wallman cited the range of categories that Diversion will publish as one thing that sets it apart from other midsize houses, many of which, he added, “can be very specific general interest.”
And the Pitino book, coup though it may have been, is not an anomaly at Diversion. The press will be publishing Pitbull’s memoir in May 2019. Though Waxman was coy about the specifics of the book, or how it landed at Diversion, he did say that the rapper, like Pitino, was attracted to the publisher’s royalty-share model.