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Wisden branches out with non-cricket books

Wisden, a name synonymous with cricket, is to publish books on other sports ” after an 86-year gap.

John Wisden & Co is launching an imprint, Wisden Sports Writing, designed to showcase Britain’s best writers on all sports, not just cricket.

The series is to be edited by Matthew Engel, the former editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

The first three writers signed up for the venture include two winners of the Sports Journalist of the Year award, Patrick Collins and Ian Ridley, plus The Guardian’s much-admired Screen Break columnist, Martin Kelner, who is writing a history of sport on TV. Their books are scheduled for publication in 2011.

Collins is universally acknowledged as one of Britain’s most brilliant sports writers, but is now writing his first book. After nearly half a century in the press box, he will be exploring the world of the fan.

His Mail on Sunday colleague Ridley, whose footballing experience includes two stints as chairman of Weymouth FC, will be travelling the country to examine how the game has changed in the 20 years of the Premier League.

Wisden has not published a non-cricket book since John Wisden’s Rugby Football Almanack was discontinued in 1925-26. The cricket almanack is due to celebrate its 150th edition in 2013, and will not be affected by the new project.

“We intend to publish only a handful of books each year,” said Engel, “and the aim is that every one of them will be of very high quality. Wisden has always aspired to excellence, and we want this series to reflect our values: elegant, intelligent and witty books that will transcend individual sports and say something about life.

“The main criterion, though, is whether they are books I want to read, and I think that’s a pretty good basis on which to edit anything. Our first three authors are all in the top echelon of their profession, and I’m confident they are going to set an unbeatable standard.”

Wisden is now owned by Bloomsbury, the publishers of Harry Potter, through its A & C Black subsidiary. It was founded by the Victorian cricketer-cum-entrepreneur John Wisden and for many years was one of Britain’s leading sports equipment manufacturers, most famous for its cricket gear (“Dear Sirs, Your Cricket Balls again gave great satisfaction. Please send me half-a-gross for next season at your earliest convenience. I am, yours truly, WG Grace”).

Wisden’s publishing excursions outside cricket were less successful, though. The rugby almanack began with some trepidation, and the preface to the inaugural edition, 1923-24, warned that the new book was “a hazardous venture… the cost of production, in these days, being so high”.

In the second edition, the editor, C. Stewart Caine, confessed that sales had been disappointing, and the third began with a stern warning: “a considerable increase in the present number of subscribers is imperative”. It was seen no more. Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, in contrast, has appeared without fail since 1864.

Although none of the first batch of books will be on cricket, Engel hopes that works on cricket and many other sports will follow: “It’s just a question of finding the right authors and the right subjects.”

Engel will be working closely with Jill Coleman, the managing director of A & C Black, Charlotte Atyeo, A & C Black’s sports and fitness publisher, and consultant Christopher Lane, the former managing director of John Wisden.

“However tough it was for publishing in the 1920s, it’s harder now,” said Engel. “But I firmly believe that readers want high-class writing. And I’m hugely encouraged that Bloomsbury share that view.”

Jill Coleman said: “We’re very excited by this new imprint, and we aim to attract the very best writers. Wisden has a tradition of great writing, and we believe that can be every bit as effective for sports other than cricket.”

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