Wordsmiths working on their skills

Sports literature is now developing into an art form, says John Roberts
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The Independent Online
Unlike dear old JR Hartley, who was reduced to ringing round trying to buy his own book on fly fishing, Nick Hornby is assured of an important place in sporting literature. The author of Fever Pitch, the life and times of an Arsenal supporter, is widely credited with setting new standards in the mud, sweat and cheers department.

Published by Victor Gollancz in 1992, Fever Pitch underlined that there is a market for quality, whether the writer is directly involved in a sport, or is a passionate observer, or simply decides to study the subject.

The success of Fever Pitch appears to have had a profound influence on the nation's publishing houses. "Clearly, you are going to get ghosted autobiographies," Alan Samson, the editorial director of Little, Brown said, "but I would argue that the sports books that are really selling are now the ones where the individual voice of the author is important."

Samson's company published the latest winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, A Good Walk Spoiled - Days and Nights on the PGA Tour, by the American journalist John Feinstein. "We're a trade publisher and therefore the quality of writing is the only criteria," Samson emphasised. "I think the quality in writing sports books has improved. Whether that's led by the publishers I doubt. I think it's probably consumer led. There are a lot of very well written sports books now. I would argue that they didn't exist a few years ago."

Ghosted autobiographies have filled shelves for as long as one can remember, but The Glory Game, Hunter Davies's close encounters with Spurs, opened up the play, and there are examples of outstanding books by lesser known footballers.

Garry Nelson, of Charlton Athletic, is currently making a name for himself with Left Foot Forward, which is reminiscent of Eamon Dunphy's memorable chronicle of a player's lot at Millwall, Only A Game, written with Peter Ball.

"In the past," Ian Marshall, the senior editor at Headline, Nelson's publisher, said, "we have not done diary-of-a-season books, because they tend not to last very long on the shelves. Garry is not the sort of personality we would expect to be the automatic pick-up, and he was doing a book of the type we don't like normally. But, on the other hand, the book itself was so great to read that we knew that it would find a market. We're now over 10,000, which is pretty good."

Headline, as the publisher of Rothmans and Playfair, also know that there is an insatiable appetite for reference books. Football club histories and statistical records have also proliferated. Clubs themselves, aware of the value of copyright and merchandising, have started publishing their own official magazines and books. Instructional books appear to be one segment of the business showing signs of decline.

A number of authors publish their own material. "I think the self-publishing thing has been quite remarkable, particularly in football, but also in rugby league," commented John Gaustad, of Sports Pages, the specialist book shop. "And we've also had the associated fanzine phenomenon," he added.

Gaustad, a New Zealander, founded Sports Pages 10 years ago - "I got sick of never being able to find the books I wanted to buy and thought there must be a few other people out there who had the same problem" - and has played a part in elevating the sports books trade.

He, in turn, considers that newspapers have also done their bit. "The media treats sport more seriously," he said. "I would suggest that if you compared the amount of space the broadsheet papers give to sport now, compared with, say, 12 years ago, I think you'd find there's more space, longer articles, and more reflections rather than just match reports. In a way we're all part of the same trend."

Gaustad knows better than to scoff at the ghosted section. "It's all too easy to assume that they're all going to be total garbage," he said. "There have been some bad ones, but people tend to take them as typical, whereas I think it's a rather more mixed picture than that. I have been rude about them myself over the years, but what I'm increasingly aware of is that for a lot fans out there, who really revere the player, the information they're going to get is exactly what they want."

What constitutes a financial success can vary. According to Gaustad: "It's that wonderful, rather arcane balance between the cost of the production, the cost of the paper, how nicely or how cheaply you are going to do it, and what price you put on it. You can't print much fewer than 2,000 and expect to even cover your costs, although if you're publishing little books yourself, I would imagine you could print four or five hundred and make money."

Little, Brown are confident that they have a strong contender for next year's William Hill Award: a biography of Sir Donald Bradman by Lord Charles Williams, the Labour peer, due to be published in August. The Don, an Australian biography by Roland Perry, is already scoring for Macmillan.

Headline will be at the crease twice in June, first with a review of Raymond Illingworth's experiences as England's chairman and manager, by Illingworth and Jack Bannister, and then with an authorised biography of Mike Atherton, the England captain.

Tampering with Cricket, by Don Oslear, the Test umpire, and Jack Bannister, is the intriguing title of a CollinsWillow offering in May.

In March, before Euro '96, CollinsWillow are publishing an update of the excellent Football Grounds of Britain, by Simon Inglis, although this may not sit comfortably alongside Everywhere We Go, from Headline, an account of football hooliganism by Dougie and Eddy Brimson.