United upstaged in heavy reading boom by $40,000 celebration of Super Bowl

The latest in the trend for behemoth tomes weighs 35kg and is not made for bedtime reading. By Mike Rowbottom
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Denis Law was back on the Manchester United training ground last week. As was Lou Macari. And Paul Parker. And, bless his socks, Mickey Thomas. The occasion for this grand reunion was a photo-call of past and present players whose images - captured by the leading US sports photographer Walter Iooss - figure in what can honestly be termed a large-scale publishing project.

United - the Manchester United Opus - was launched for pre-orders yesterday at Old Trafford by Sir Bobby Charlton and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but anyone rushing to buy it may be well advised to pause and consider a few pertinent statistics. Weighing 5st 7lb - 35kg - and measuring half-a-metre square, this is not so much a coffee-table book as a coffee table.

And the cost? Well, let's look at the cheaper end of things first. There is a print run of 9,000 containing the signatures of both Charlton and his fellow knight Alex Ferguson which would only set you back $5,300 (£3,000). You could spend more - $7,100 (£4,050) - for one of the 1,000 versions which also include signatures from Eric Cantona and Bryan Robson.

And if you are really determined, you might get your hands on the very first copy which will carry with it the autographs of 50 past and present players. There is no price on it yet, but one City collector has already put up a reserve price of £250,0000 at Sotheby's, where it will be auctioned off and the proceeds donated to the Unicef charity.

The man behind this enterprise is Karl Fowler, a former director at Goldman Sachs who has set up his own management group, Kraken Sports and Media. Presumably Fowler's background in corporate investment makes him comfortable with the asking price of the Manchester United books, one that is comparatively modest to that of his first grand publishing project which marked the 50th anniversary of America's Super Bowl.

The NFL Super Bowl XL Opus, as its name suggests, was timed to emerge on the day of this year's Super Bowl contest on 6 February. The first 1,000 copies retailed at $40,000 (£22,800), with a further 19,000 copies priced at a bargain basement $4,000 (£2,800).

A spokesman for the company was unable to supply specific figures this week on sales, although he did comment that they had been going "remarkably well". Fowler, who is planning similarly grandiose sporting tomes on Wimbledon, Formula One, the Ryder Cup and Diego Maradona, is sanguine about the financial prospects.

"We've put up a lot of initial capital, but if it sells as we hope we'll recoup it and end up in profit," he said. "Because of the channels in which we are selling the books we are not handcuffed to giving retailers 50-60 per cent of the cover price, which is a big factor."

Those channels include the company website, and carefully selected outlets catering for the collectors' market. A reading room has been prepared for the venture in Harrods, where prospective buyers will be offered champagne and browsing rights.

The Super Bowl book will be handled by the commercial behemoth that is NFL marketing, which involves three million credit card holders and 36 million members of the network cable station. Even so, the price is significantly greater than the obvious precursor to this venture - the multi-award-winning GOAT (Greatest of All Time) - A tribute to Muhammad Ali, a half-metre square photographic study of the career of Ali which was published two years ago by Taschen.

A total of 10,000 signed copies of GOAT were printed (yes, signed; it took Ali two years) at a basic price of £2,000, and only a handful remain to be sold, according to a spokeswoman for Taschen. Those wishing to pay a bit more were invited to shell out £5,000 for a package that also included signed prints by Howard Bingham and original artwork by Jeff Koons. Eager purchasers included Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Tom Cruise and Madonna, whose own lavish offering to world of publishing, Sex, appears decidedly poky in comparison.

Selfridges, one of the main British outlets, has currently sold 20 at £2,000 and 13 at £5,000, with a number of Premiership footballers said to be among the purchasers. As an investment, it is hardly straightforward. The price includes delivery, but unlike Taschen's previous mega-book Sumo - a photographic collection by Helmut Newton that was not, as the title suggests, on the subject of Japanese wrestlers, but as the author suggests, involved naked women - it does not come with its own custom-built display table.

The news of Kraken's pricing policy for the Super Bowl book took even the Taschen spokeswoman aback. "Forty thousand dollars for a book? I don't think so," she said. "I would rather buy a flat for that money if I had it. And 20,000 is a large print run. Good luck to them, but it will be very difficult to sell them, particularly at that price."

By design, the Super Bowl book weighs exactly one kg more than GOAT, and Fowler has already been in touch with the Guinness Book of Records to confirm its status as the heaviest sports book ever.

The content is also heavyweight - 400,000 words written by leading sports writers, with a wealth of photographs and illustrations of every play of every game. Those paying top whack also get a special page with the autographs of every (living) Most Valuable Player from the 40 Super Bowls. The whole hand-stitched package is contained in a silk-bound clamshell presentation box.

The Manchester United book is identically presented, and contains a selection of articles contributed by respected journalists such as Hugh McIlvanney and The Independent's own James Lawton which includes a rare interview with Charlton about his memories of the Munich air disaster. Such is the interest in the club in China that there is likely to be an additional print run of 1,000 in Mandarin.

Fowler has been working on this large-scale project for two years. "I collected books, and rare books, and I was a big fan of photography," he said. "So, for me, this is not work, this is passion."

Meanwhile, The Hand of God has been busy on behalf of the Maradona book, with the subject signing 5,000 autographs for the most expensive versions. So concerned was Fowler to ensure their safe arrival in London that he flew them in from Milan by private jet. No wonder the prices are stratospheric.

Pricey or not, however, the projected tome on Formula One has already received 500 pre-orders. "We have had a lot of interest in these books as corporate gifts," Fowler explained.

They certainly fit the bill as a grand gesture. But don't run away with the idea that these tomes are the grandest in the world. That distinction is currently held by the volume so familiar to us all - Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across The Last Himalayan Kingdom, which weighs in at a tad over nine stone and measures 5ft x 7ft.

Now, that is not so much a coffee table as a dining table.