ANTON RIPPON interviews James de Wesselow, the man behind the Racing Post‘s recent output of sports books
My old dad – a newspaper linotype operator in the days of hot metal – liked a bet. Well, he liked more than just the one bet. But he kept it quiet. Or at least he thought he did. Long after he’d retired, I’d often see him in town, emerging from a bookies’.
To preserve the charade that I didn’t know, I’d pretend that I hadn’t seen him. The day they took him into hospital – he died of stomach cancer, probably not helped by the fact that he’d chain-smoked from the age of 14 – he fumbled in his pocket and produced a betting slip that he slid into my hand.
There was something to come back on it, he said, and would I collect it for him. I knew then that he’d reached his own finishing post.
But if he tried to keep his gambling to himself, he never bothered to hide his love of horseracing. The history of the so-called sport of kings fascinated him. The horses, the jockeys, and the owners – he lapped up anything he could find to read on the subject.
His racing library was wide-ranging. Pre-war books like Just My Story by Steve Donoghue (champion jockey 10 times between 1914 and 1923), Sam Darling’s Reminiscences (Darling trained two Derby winners; his son, Fred, a record-equalling seven) and From Gladiateur to Persimmon, written in 1901 by the splendidly named Sydenham Dixon (also known as “Vigilant” of The Sportsman) sat alongside the likes of Claude Duval’s Lester: A Biography and Willie Carson: A Biography, the latter published in 1980, a year before my father died.
So, despite what you might think, horseracing has always had its literature, not all of it written by Dick Francis (or by Mrs Francis, if you believe Graham Lord’s unauthorised 1999 biography of Francis). There were certainly some raised eyebrows when the Racing Post then led with a story that it was Mary Francis who was the true author of the books, and had been from the start. But that is another story.
Since then, of course, the Racing Post itself has been busy publishing books. My father would have enjoyed those featured recently on sportsjournalists.co.uk, like Winning It All Back by Gary Wiltshire and Go Down To The Beaten: Tales Of The Grand National by Chris Pitt.
So when I asked Racing Post Books and Raceform managing director, James de Wesselow, if racing is the rich new area in sports publishing, I think I probably already new the answer.
“I wouldn’t say racing is a new rich area. It’s always been there, in that there is a good core of racing enthusiasts who follow their sport with real passion and dedication.”
De Wesselow worked in the print and veterinary software sectors for five years, having previously successfully led a sale of the privately owned Raceform business to Trinity Mirror in 1999, was appointed to his present position in April 2008.
He said: “The Racing Post Group, whose main business is the daily newspaper, its sister website and increasingly its mobile apps, has always had a small book publishing operation. This was expanded when the Raceform business was acquired and the combined group publish their titles under two imprints, Racing Post and Raceform, the latter being mainly form and statistical titles.
“From 2003, we’ve expanded the range of titles to include biographies and illustrated titles. My boss, Alan Byrne, when he became CEO in 2007 was very keen to refocus our efforts on producing titles that appeal to our racing readership and customers and we spend a great deal of time and focus trying to do this.
“Within the sector, there are various niche markets which overlap. For example, general enthusiasts who will purchase our annuals such as new season and festival guides, or a more betting and analytical customer who may want our statistical and form titles.
“In addition we publish a number of one-off titles, such as jockey biographies and illustrated titles which may appeal to a slightly different section of our market. Obviously there are large overlaps.
“We have a small team to try and generate ideas into our pipeline. Brough Scott, one of the founders of the Post, heads this. Brough is great at opening doors and his enthusiasm for the sport and business is really infectious. We always hope to receive ideas and this is an important element for us.
“Like all book publishers we have to work very hard in ensuring we produce titles which will appeal to a wide range of these enthusiast and are available in as many distribution routes as possible, including digital.
“Today, of course, the publishing market is challenging. But we’re fortunate in that we have a great umbrella – the newspaper and its website – to market and sell our titles. In addition we sell through all the principal book trade outlets including online and ebooks. We also place a big emphasis on cross-selling to our database of customers who may have purchased other racing titles from us.”
Which is all a world away from the day my old man decided to read the thoughts of Sam Darling.
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