The Death of Australian Sports Books
In Affectionate Remembrance
of Australian Sports Books,
Which died after a long illness
Deeply lamented by an ever-diminishing circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances
NB: The pages will be cremated, and the ashes recycled
in an occasional best-selling celebrity autobiography.
I STARTED WORKING IN sports book publishing nearly 30 years ago, at two small operations, first at Lester-Townsend Publishing and then at Ironbark Press. I was lucky — I got to learn from the great publisher Gary Lester and I worked on a succession of terrific books that usually had a first print run of 10,000 or more, and often eventually sold many more than that.
Those were the days. This year, for the second year in a row, no sports book sold more than 15,000 copies for Father’s Day in Australia, even though there were notable books published involving rugby league, the AFL, rugby union, the Olympics and horse racing.
Sports books were once a staple gift for Father’s Day — it was not unusual for a well-publicised new-release about a high-profile figure to sell 30,000 copies or more during August and the first few days of September. Christmas was even better. But a scan at the sales figures for the past few months show that just about every new sports book is struggling. As he did throughout his football career, Johnathan Thurston is proving exceptional. Overall sales will pick up in the fortnight before Santa comes to town, but not by enough. No wonder publishers these days are ordering print runs closer to one thousand than ten.
It’s not as if this year’s crop of sports books is no good. A vast range of titles have been published, by accomplished authors such as Greg Growden, Mike Colman, Gideon Haigh, David Middleton, Mike Clayton and Charles Happell, James Coventry, Peter FitzSimons, Martin Flanagan and George Megalogenis, and about subjects as interesting and diverse as Ralph Doubell, Cecil Healy, Peter Norman, Joe Darling, Bill Lawry, Rod Marsh, Shane Warne, Dylan Alcott, Sir Hubert Opperman, Lauren Jackson, Bob Murphy, Sam Mitchell, Greg Miles, Darren Gauci, Winx, Johnathan Thurston, Sam Thaiday, AFL Women’s, the Norm Smith Medal, the original Socceroos and the London to Sydney Marathon. There are plenty of good books on sale, and some are special, but too few people are reading them, or even know about them.
So what’s gone wrong? I have my theories, many of which are supported by a 2017 survey of Australia’s reading habits that was undertaken by David Throsby, Jan Zwar and Callum Morgan from the Department of Economics at Macquarie University for the Australia Council for the Arts. Among the survey’s findings was that men are now far more likely to be non-readers than women, which hurts sports books because it’s long been accepted that males are much more likely to read a sports book than females. (Gary Lester always stressed, after reminding me again that sports books are very often purchased as gifts, that they are usually bought by women for their men: from grandfathers to grandsons and everyone in between.) The survey also showed that almost 40 per cent of frequent readers are over the age of 60, compared to just over 15 per cent who are under 30, which is not good news at a time when the sports industry is focusing much of its energy on youth. A third finding was that Australians on average spend about seven hours reading each week — including books, the internet and other media — of which about 70 per cent is reading for pleasure. Which at first glance doesn’t sound too bad. ‘Books themselves are facing new forms of competition for readers’ time and attention,’ Throsby, Zwar and Morgan continued a little ominously. And then they added:
‘In particular, anecdotal evidence suggests that the proliferation of social media has drastically changed reading patterns and behaviour. Our data indicate that almost two-thirds of Australians read social media, blogs or content on the internet every day, compared to under 30 per cent who read some form of book every day. Accordingly, we asked respondents about their reading habits compared to five years ago and, if they answered that they are spending less time reading nowadays, how are they spending this time instead. Respondents were asked about both their time spent reading a variety of media for pleasure and about books specifically …
‘The results show that people appear to be spending slightly less time reading books compared to five years ago, but more time reading overall.’
I’ve deliberately italicised the previous paragraph. I can’t help thinking that this change of routine has hurt sports books more than other genres. The survey goes on:
‘Participants who spend less time reading books than five years ago because they spend more time on other leisure activities (almost two-fifths of our respondents) were asked what were the other activities that were absorbing more of their leisure time. The results affirm casual observation regarding the proliferation of social media: the data show that 52 per cent of respondents spend more time on social media these days, with as many as 76 per cent among under 20s and 20 to 29-year-olds.’
Why read a sports book when you can spend an hour reading or even posting on an online forum, or discussing the latest issue or rumour on Facebook or WhatsApp? It can be hard for a book that went to the printer two months ago to compete with ever-updating sports websites. Why buy a sports history book when the entire Sports Illustrated vault is online? Do you want to read a Melbourne Cup book, or watch every running of the great race on YouTube? Why read a Steve Mascord book when you can follow him on Twitter?
(I genuinely enjoyed publishing Steve’s book Touchstones: Rugby League, Rock’n’roll, the Road and Me in 2017. His work was compared to writers as varied as Herodotus and Nick Hornby, and the book received plenty of publicity. But hardly anyone, it seems, had time to read it. Or maybe, with Steve almost omnipresent on social media, they already felt they had.)
Finally, the survey cited word of mouth as the most common driver of book sales. This, remember, is across all genres. But if people aren’t reading sports books, they’re not going to talk about them. On Christmas morning, books get unwrapped and then go quickly onto a bookshelf, after being briefly glanced at or maybe not at all. Some will end up in a Salvos store or a Lifeline sale. Few recipients will go back to the giver and say what a fantastic book it was; neither of them will ever know. I put together five Ricky Ponting cricket diaries between 2006 and 2010, all of which sold into five figures, but I always wondered how many of them were ever read. My guess was one in ten, which might have been optimistic.
One deterrent Throsby, Zwar and Morgan didn’t focus on, but for me it’s an important one, is the simple cost of buying books, which relates in a way to the fact so many stories on the internet are free, but also to the way the book industry distributes its product. Gideon Haigh, the best writer of cricket books of his generation, has just released Crossing the Line, an engaging 184-page small-format paperback which his publisher, Slattery Media, describes on the back cover as the first of a ‘Sports Shorts collection [that fits] into your back pocket on the way to the game’. I admire Haigh and Slattery Media for their enterprise, but with a retail price in independent bookshops of $24.95 their little book costs a dollar more than the much heftier autobiographies of Thurston and Warne at Big W. With sports books, because they are so often purchased as gifts, if the price is the same, size matters. Steve Waugh’s 800-page autobiography — which had a recommended retail price of $49.95 but was discounted to half that from the day of its first release, and then looked very impressive as it took up half the space under Christmas trees all over Australia —proved that for me.
Is the situation beyond repair? It might not be, but only if the sports industry gets behind sports publishing — not by injecting funds but by helping to create a conversation about sports books. By ‘sports industry’ I mean the top sporting organisations, the media, the fans, the sponsors, the authors, the stars of whom the books are about. A well-researched and well-written book is a terrific advertisement for a sport, but it’s rare for busy sports administrators to see it that way. It’s also uncommon these days to read a genuine review of a good Australian sports book, as opposed to a free plug. In London overnight, the 30th winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year was announced. Australian publishing is awash with book awards; sporting titles used to be among the best-selling books in Australia; there is no prize like the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in Australia. Which is a shame, because as sales of sports books in Australia diminish by the year, the need for an incentive such as that provided by a highly respected award becomes ever more apparent.
And that’s not just an ‘incentive’ for authors; such awards are also a very effective spur for booksellers, reviewers and buyers. A book on the William Hill shortlist is more prominently displayed in shops and is more likely to appear in the literary sections of the major newspapers.
As the leading UK sports literary agent David Luxton told The Guardian’s Sean Ingle: ‘Over 30 years it [the William Hill award] has shone some serious light on a genre of writing that was not appreciated as it should have been … Every time you enter a bookshop, and see the range and quality of titles on display, you understand the massive difference it has made.’
Crucially, the sports books themselves have to be excellent, especially the ones that are guaranteed to sell in at least reasonable numbers because of the high profile of the subject matter. This is why I was so disappointed by the three best-selling sports books of 2018 — the autobiographies of Johnathan Thurston and Shane Warne and the authorised biography of Winx. None of the three books are terrible. In fact, they are all fine, but none, in my view, are brilliant, the sort of work that gets sports journalists and commentators raving about all sports books, encourages bookshop owners to expand their sports sections, and convinces buyers and readers alike to return to those bookshops more regularly than they have done in the past.
All authors, but especially those responsible for guaranteed best sellers, must aim for the stars. But maybe, as sales decline, the opposite is happening. Even with the flaws in the top-sellers, I think the overall standard of Australian sports books remains very good, but in the last few years I’ve seen glimpses of a depressing future. I wish the catalogues of the big bookshops promoted the best books available, not the ones the publishers paid to put in. Never again, as happened to me not too long ago, do I want to hear a player manager say, ‘Mate, it doesn’t matter what you write. We’ve already got the advance.’ Similarly, I don’t want to work again with the author who presented to me a manuscript for a biography with significant chunks of the hero’s story missing and a serious number of factual errors. That’s facts, not typos, inappropriate adjectives or missing commas. The ‘author’ can write, so I asked why the manuscript was so poor. ‘For the money I’m being paid, that’s what you get,’ was the reply.
In many ways, this blog is a cry for help. ‘There was a time when high street bookshops were a wasteland for sports writing,’ Sean Ingle recalled of British sports book publishing, as he wrote of the impact of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. ‘The entire subject was usually relegated to a single shelf in a dusty corner.’
Australian sports book publishing hasn’t reached that stage yet, but there have been times — as I walk the streets looking for a book that I know has been published, I expect will be good, but I can’t find on the shelves — when I fear that one day soon it will. Maybe what’s happening is just natural attrition, and out of the ashes a smaller yet somehow stronger business model will emerge. But I still remember certain sports books I read when I was a kid, and important books that spurred my love of sport as a teenager and helped shape and provoke my thinking as an adult. Simply put, sports books are important. We can ill afford to lose them.