Sports Book Of The Year: Ferguson gives way in heavyweight market place

Populist titles have failed to attract judges seeking the blend of quality, originality and readability
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WHEN THE riot police were called to Sir Alex Ferguson's book signing, his publishers knew that the public appetite for sports-related titles was on the up and up.

"It was launched on a wet Friday night in Aberdeen," Bill Campbell, the commissioning editor at Mainstream, one of the country's foremost sports publishers, said. "We had to call in mounted police to control the crowds and I thought `Ah-ha, there might be something in this'."

It should be noted at this point that the scenes above did not occur when the Manchester United manager was promoting his latest tome, Managing My Life, but in 1985, when his account of his time at Aberdeen, A Light in the North, was released.

As the 11th William Hill Sports Book of the Year is announced today, it is obvious that Ferguson is not alone in having seen 14 years of almost constant success in the intervening period. The sports book genre is also in rude health.

"Prior to us, there were only a couple of moribund, straight-laced publishers who did ghosted biographies of big sporting names," Campbell said. "While we also did that, I was always interested in pursuing something a bit more meaningful, socially relevant, interesting. There are a lot of big, big issues to be looked at in sport. Quality and originality are the main things we look for."

Mainstream, which produces between 40 and 50 sports titles a year, now competes with extensive lists from numerous mainstream publishers and several specialists. It remains, however, the only publisher to have had two winners of the Book of the Year - Donald McRae's Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing in 1996 and Stephen Jones's Endless Winter: the Inside Story of the Rugby Revolution in 1993. It also has a contender for this year's award (Ian Stafford's Playground of the Gods, the story of how one man tested himself alongside some of the world's finest sportsmen) on an eclectic short list of five that also includes two books on Muhammad Ali, a social history of cricket and an account of the season of an unfashionable Italian Serie B team, Castel di Sangro.

That Ferguson's Managing My Life has not even made the short list is not only evidence of how many titles now compete for shelf space in the genre, but also how established writers have turned their hand to sport.

David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, Joe McGinniss, an award- winning American journalist and Mike Marqusee, who was short-listed in 1994, for example, are responsible for King of the World, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro and Redemption Song respectively on this year's short list.

The trend they epitomise has also cemented a change of emphasis in the way sports books are now judged. "When you look at previous winners, it's the more literary ones that have won," John Gaustad, the founder of the Sportspages bookshops and the chairman of the Book of the Year judging panel, said.

"That's not something we've done deliberately or to exclude populist titles. It has just happened. The winners have been judged to be the best books to read. They should be of interest to people who don't fanatically follow a sport, people who are not devotees. The best books tell you as much about life as about the sport. It is a dreadful cliche but it's true."

Gaustad added that autobiographies have not featured heavily among short- listed titles or past winners for a good reason. "Quite often you can hear the tape machine going round. They sound spoken, not written. A good book needs to be well written."

Winning today's award will not only help the successful book to sell - Bill Campbell estimates that his company's previous two winners would normally have sold around 5,000 copies each but went on to sell around 30,000 - but should also see it gaining some literary respect. "Winning the William Hill makes a book transcend its category," Campbell said. "It means you jump from the ghetto of categorisation and are recognised for a great piece of sports writing."

The Past 10 Winners

1998 Angry White Pyjamas - An Oxford Poet Trains with the Tokyo Riot Police by Robert Twigger.

1997 A Lot of Hard Yakka by Simon Hughes.

1996 Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing by Donald McRae.

1995 A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour by John Feinstein.

1994 Football Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper.

1993 Endless Winter: The Inside Story of the Rugby Revolution by Stephen Jones.

1992 Fever Pitch: A Fan's Life by Nick Hornby.

1991 Muhammad Ali - His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser.

1990 A Rough Ride: An Insight into Pro Cycling by Paul Kimmage.

1989 True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny by Dan Topolski and Patrick Robinson.