Without books on history, where’s publishing’s future?

Another day, another rejection note. Successful sports author ANTON RIPPON is concerned about the publishing business

The note from the commissioning editor to my literary agent summed it up. “I’ve had more than a passing interest in the Turf, although not as a gambler, I’m pleased to say. So I know all about the subject here. But while he’ll be familiar to those over 70, younger people would need to be racing buffs like me to know of him. Our sales director is in his 50s and has never heard of the jockey, so not much enthusiasm I’m afraid.”

Booked out: Anton Rippon wonders if there's any future for mid-list sports authors who generate ideas about less obvious subject material

And so another bright idea appears to be about to disappear up its own dustjacket. You’ll have gathered that I wanted to write the biography of a famous – well, I thought he was famous – jockey. It’s a cracking yarn, spread over four decades up to and including the 1950s.

Not just the racing, although that is interesting enough, but the man himself, a flawed character if ever there was one with enough skeletons to fill more than one cupboard. I’ve even tracked down a nonagenarian sibling of my subject and they are prepared to help.

I’m convinced – I would be, wouldn’t I? – that, marketed properly, the apparent fact that no one under 70 has ever heard of my man (I’d argue that anyway; I’m under 70 and I obviously have) wouldn’t really matter. I bet that there are lots of books out there that have done well and introduced people under 70 to all sorts of characters of whom they’d never heard but were tempted to buy into all the same. And were pleased that they did.

I wonder how many people – under 70 or otherwise – had heard of John Tarrant until Mainstream took an imaginative punt on Bill Jones’s Ghost Runner, which was quite rightly shortlisted for this year’s William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award?

It will not have escaped your notice that I’m disappointed, annoyed, miffed even, that my idea has been dismissed on the grounds that no one – well, no one under 70 – has heard of my particular subject. But I’m also dismayed because it also serves to illustrate the larger picture: that established writers who managed to make a living even in the recent past are now struggling to be traditionally published at all.

This month’s The Author magazine – the organ of the Society of Authors – carries a thoughtful piece from its editor, Andrew Rosenheim, who blames in part the rising tide of digital technology – self-publishing, blogs, social networks like Facebook – for the fact that anyone can have a voice these days, whether they have a shred of talent or not.

He’s no doubt correct when he says that there can be few properly published authors who haven’t encountered people who make it very clear that if only they could be bothered, they could be writers, too.
Rosenheim thinks that while it would seem churlish to denigrate any development that encourages the seemingly countless number of people who want to write and be read, it is a bit rich that the opening of these hitherto half-closed doors comes at a time when the traditional role of the author is under assault.

As he says: “Publishers’ lists are being cut, advances offered to authors have taken a draconian hit, and the respectable midlist writer is being edged out of business altogether.”

He certainly hits the spot when it comes to advances. When I ran Breedon Books (of blessed memory) I was paying sports authors £2,000 advances, even in the 1980s. And we were still making a very good living.
Today, I’m asked to write books (mostly on Derby County, which I’d refuse anyway because I’ve already said it all) for no advance at all. That can’t be right. To spend four months of your life working every day for no guaranteed reward whatsoever, you’d have to be pretty desperate to see your name on a book jacket. But there are people who do it.

Sadly, I’ve not even got so far as talking about an advance for my book on that famous (at least to people over 70) jockey. So I’ll try to think of a book that hasn’t been written about someone who people under 70 will have heard of.

In the meantime, if you know of any brave publisher who’d like a book about four times Derby winning jockey Charlie Smirke, “the greatest flat jockey never to be crowned champion”, please let me know and I’ll alert my agent. Even a small advance would secure.

  • Anton Rippon worked as a newspaper journalist in Derby and Nottingham before founding sports publishers Breedon Books, which he sold in 2003. He is the author of Gas Masks For Goalposts – Football In Britain During The Second World War, and Hitler’s Olympics: The Story Of The 1936 Nazi Games
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2 thoughts on “Without books on history, where’s publishing’s future?

  1. As the admirable Anton knows, the publishing world is in a tsunami of turmoil. They are paying the price for allowing the supermarkets and Amazon to sell their books on the cheap. Established bookshops cannot compete and you will find during 2012 several publishers and bookshop chains putting out distress calls as their accounts for 2011 are released.

    We authors (like what I am ©Ernie Wise) live in the Mad Hatter world where a literary giant like Wayne Rooney can be offered millions in advances while experienced wordsmiths are lucky to get more than £2k upfront.

    There’s a myth gathering strength that fortunes are to be made with downloaded e-books. For the handful who have found it a cash cow, thousands – and I mean thousands of professional and amateur writers – are picking up peanuts. I have several books on line for which I earn 85p per sale from the £2.99 asking price. You do not have to be a maths master to know that even a hundred sales will not make you rich enough to buy a pair of Wayne Rooney’s boots.

    I know much of the Charlie Smirke story (but not all of it, like the omniscient Anton), and it is a scorcher. But I will be surprised if one of the mainstream publishers will touch it.

    It is a sad fact that in schools as well as with the younger publishers there is a dwindling interest in history. My advice to Anton is that he snaps up one of the X-factor contestants to tell their story. You would then be welcomed by the sales director who has never heard of Charlie Smirke.

    Yes, I’m smirking.

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