Publish and be damned: life and times
working in the sports book business

SJA member ANTON RIPPON has led a varied career, as a freelance sports writer, author and then publisher. Here, in a fascinating account of how the publishing business works, he outlines the rise and stall of his company, Breedon Books

It seemed a doddle, this sports authorship lark.

It was the end of the 1970s, I was freelancing, and I thought I’d like to write a book on the history of the European Cup. So I penned a quick synopsis, shot it off to the first agent on my list, and two weeks later he’d found me a publisher — Mirror Books, then an offshoot of Mirror Newspapers — who offered an advance of £2,000 against future royalty earnings (I seem to recall that, at the time, the Sunday Telegraph was paying £40 plus exes for Saturday match coverage). It couldn’t have been easier.

The book was published and sold reasonably well, although I never received another penny in royalties. And so it went on.

A local publisher up here in Derbyshire was looking to set up a sports list. The company had established itself with titles on local history and industrial archaeology but wanted to branch out. A year later, I’d done books for them on football, cricket, boxing, tennis and athletics, including several under a range of nom-de-plumes as the publishers wanted to give the impression that they had a team of sportswriters working for them. Not just me, hammering away at a manual typewriter on the kitchen table.

Here, the advances were only around £500, but that was still enough to make the jobs worthwhile. And I was enjoying the work. But something was niggling away at me. If I published books myself, then surely I could make more money? Also — and this really was more important to me — I could control the production values and the marketing (few authors are ever pleased with the way publishers market their books).

So, along with Andrew Ward, the son of a former Derby County manager, when I wrote The Derby County Story — as the name implies it was a history of the club (and celebrated its centenary) — I published it myself, calling the imprint Breedon Books for no other reason that it sounded nice.

There were a few hurdles to overcome, not least because the print unions were still clinging to power. But once I had been able to plaster camera-ready copy with the appropriate “NGA-approved” stickers, then The Derby County Story was, , as they say, published to great acclaim.

The club was about to go bankrupt — Robert Maxwell rescued it at the 11th hour as a High Court judge was about to don the black cap — and interest in its history was high. The cash-strapped Rams wanted £1,000 to back the book, which I was happy to pay.

Then I asked about 50 former players to attend a launch at the Baseball Ground — George Thornewell had made his debut in 1919 and there was also a good smattering from the 1946 FA Cup Final, including Raich Carter, Jack Stamps and Peter Doherty, as well as players from the Clough era — and that generated enormous local publicity.

In the end, we sold 5,000 copies — the venture was still being run from our kitchen table — before Gerald Mortimer, at the time sports editor of the Derby Evening Telegraph, suggested a statistical history of the club. Over the years, Gerald had amassed results, dates, line-ups, scorers and attendances for every Rams senior game since 1884. We added biographies of players and managers, a shortened history of the club together with the development of the Baseball Ground, and called the book Derby County: The Complete Record.

But I was nervous. This would be a much more expensive project, a hardback compared to the paperback Derby County Story.

We had already sold one Rams history book. What if no one was interested in another? Especially one that contained mostly statistics. I could have lost everything I’d made on the first venture, and a lot more besides. So we advertised for subscribers. In other words, supporters paid in advance and for that could have their name or the name of a family member or friend included in a list at the back of the book. Inside a month we had 1,000 subscribers at £16.99 each.

The risk had been covered and we were into profit even before the book went to the printers. Altogether the first edition of Derby County: The Complete Record sold around 3,000 copies and, over the next few years, would reappear three times in updated volumes (as would The Derby County Story). We also took the biographical section and put that into a separate book The Who’s Who of Derby County, which again sold well.

In the meantime, club historians from all over the UK began to contact us through the Association of Football Statisticians (AFS). I must admit to ignorance when it came to how many people were collecting statistics on their particular clubs. I thought that Gerald was probably the only one who had bothered to spend years in public libraries all over the country (it turned out that visits to the Football League offices were largely a waste of time; the League’s archives were badly kept in the early years and often posed more questions than they provided answers).

But through the AFS, others came forwards and, in time, some 60 or so Complete Record books on clubs as diverse as Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs, Exeter City, Mansfield Town, Oldham Athletic and even Accrington Stanley. We did one on Manchester United at a time when their club shop was still not much more than a Portakabin in the Old Trafford car park run, if I remember correctly, by Sir Matt’s son, Sandy. It all kept us busy.

I say “us” because by now I had been forced into making a decision: whether to remain a full-time freelance and part-time publisher, or whether to become a full-time publisher and forget about dashing off to Highfield Road or the Victoria Ground after a Saturday morning spent slaving over the latest club history.

In the end it seemed that running the business full-time would be a better option than relying on the goodwill of sports and features editors, any one of whom could move on at the drop of a hat, their successors bringing with them their own contacts, their own ideas. It didn’t pay to become too cosy.

But if I was to develop the publishing business, then I just had to move into proper offices in the centre of Derby and take on staff — at first just a receptionist/clerk, but soon a whole range, from designers to warehouse people.

In those early days, publishing was easy, just like my first foray into sports authorship. Bookshops queued up for our products. Managers at WH Smith were desperate to know what we were going to do next. If you’ve sold 2,000 copies of a £17 book this Christmas, then the bosses will expect you to exceed your figures next year. No good telling them that it was just a one-off.

Then I began to realise that football books weren’t going to be enough. We had expanded too quickly.

So I began approaching local evening newspapers to work with us in tapping into the nostalgia market. It was blindingly simple. They dipped into their archives to lend us around 300 old photographs of their town or city. We produced Images of … or Memory Lane … and paid the paper a 10 per cent royalty (they could also sell books at a discount, full sale or return).

It was a winner all round. The South Wales Evening Post’s Images of Swansea sold around 12,000 copies in double-quick time. Very soon, I had tied up books with newspapers from Aberdeen to Exeter, Dublin to Jersey, and everywhere in between.

And don’t forget that there was no internet in those days. It was all achieved by high production values and good marketing — more than 1,000 fans turned up at WHS in Church Street, Liverpool, to have Joe Mercer, Tommy Lawton and Ted Sagar autograph their copies of Everton: A Complete Record. All three came for nothing, although Sagar did ask me for his bus fare home.

But then, things began to change. In was the late 1990s, and while the advent of high-quality “desk-top publishing” meant that origination costs could be kept down, in 1997, the Restrictive Practices Court ruled that the Net Book Agreement was against the public interest and was ruled illegal.

That signalled the end of many independent bookshops, which went to the wall because they couldn’t compete with the chains. Supermarkets were also now getting in on the act. Whereas, when I started Breedon, the chains wanted 35 per cent discount, now they wanted 50 or even 60 per cent. And it was the publisher who had to absorb the extra. It wasn’t as easy as simply putting up the price of the book to compensate.

The old breed of bookshop manager was also leaving the industry. Where a chap like Charlie Green, who ran WHS in Derby until he retired, had been brought up in the trade and had the balls to order up-front 1,000 copies of one of our books if he thought it would sell, now some university graduate was scared to give us an initial order of more than 10 copies. And then they would forget to re-order.

From just scooping up success after success, we were now chiselling away at a rock face just to maintain our position. That’s why, when, in 2003, I had an offer for the business, I grabbed it, glad to be out of a trade that had changed so much in such a short time. I was nearing 60 and it was time for someone much younger, with more energy, and with different priorities, to take on the task.

I look back on Breedon with a great deal of pride. We’d created a new genre of sports publishing. And until we moved premises in 2000, I’d never borrowed a penny to fund the business. The profit from the first book paid for the second and third, and so on.

But now I was the poacher-turned-gamekeeper who had become a poacher again. Instead of being faced with an ever-increasing number of people who wanted to become authors, and having to decide what might succeed and what probably wouldn’t — the best I could ever hope for was to be right a lot more times than I was wrong (and there were disasters) — I was the one again sending off synopses, sample chapters and covering letters explaining why this particular idea was the one that couldn’t be ignored.

Fortunately, since I took up the freelance life again, I’ve had four books published (only two on sport, though) but I have to say that all the experience I gleaned from 20-odd years as a publisher hasn’t necessarily seemed much use now I’m back on the other side of the fence.

A lot of it is an age thing. It’s desperately frustrating to come up against some young commissioning editor, fresh out of college, who can’t grasp the relevance of anything that happened before the Premier League.

But the publishing industry generally is now a very different animal from the one I entered almost 30 years ago. Most publishers want instant returns, which means that UK bestseller lists are top-heavy with books by “celebrities”. The average, decent — but unknown — author often fights a losing battle for the right to be heard.

For most authors, the economics are pretty dire, too: 10 per cent of writers get 80 per cent of the income, and advances from publishers to authors have shrunk dramatically. Some don’t offer advances at all, which I won’t accept.

True, there are alternatives that didn’t exist when I started out. Not least of these is self-publishing in its various forms. Forgetting the vanity presses, where ego-driven authors pay for the production of a few copies to give to friends, the more serious buy printed stock and distribute it themselves. This is where print-to-order systems can work.

But there is nothing quite as satisfying as receiving a proper offer from an established trade publisher who will back their judgement with a decent cash advance and then get behind the book once it is published. However, getting your idea accepted in the first place is often pot luck and I often think that you just need to catch them on the right day. You can follow all the guidelines about presentation — which is important — and still not capture the imagination of the commissioning editor. And even if you do, the dreaded sales conference might turn it down (“I really like, but the reps didn’t fancy it”).

At Breedon, I made the decisions and sod the reps. I suspect the same applies to Randall Northam at SportsBooks. In my mind, when it comes to publishing, small really is beautiful. A good operator like Randall will have a good enough idea of what will sell. I also applaud Norman Giller’s go-it-alone initiative. I suppose it’s where I came in all those years ago, albeit in very different circumstances.

But big or small, publishers are at the sharp end of a risky business. When I began this piece, I thought I might end it with a few tips on “How To Get Your Book Published”. Now I realise that I don’t have any, other than believe in your idea, promote it passionately, and keep knocking on doors. And when the final one is slammed in your face — well just think of another great idea and start again.

Anton Rippon is organising a 50th anniversary reunion for Redfern Athletic FC in Derby on Saturday, 21 November. Anyone who played (or sat on the committee, or even just watched regularly) and who wants to attend — ring him on 07769 685627 for further details

To read previous columns and reviews by Anton Rippon, click here

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