Sports book writing – from Express to espresso

NORMAN GILLER catches up with some old friends and discovers a new, fast and cheap publishing technique

My regular reader will know that I keep banging on about pioneering publishing ideas and challenges that can provide exciting opportunities for journalists. My thanks to an old Fleet Street colleague of mine, John Jenkins, for pointing me in the direction of a revolutionary and instant printing process.

First, an introduction to John. He was my Editor when I started my local paper career with the Stratford Express in the 1950s, and he developed into an energetic entrepreneur after back benching at the Daily and Sunday Express and night editing at the Daily Telegraph.

For many years he wrote football match reports for the Sunday Express at London grounds before reporting for his Saturday evening subbing shifts. He was a colossus of a newspaper journalist who switched to the world of magazines, launching three publishing companies and including The Greyhound, Choice and, later, the Writers’ Forum in his stables.

Now based in Dorset after flirting with golf club ownership in Spain, senior citizenship has done nothing to brake his enthusiasm and energy. He is in demand as a university and college lecturer on journalism and creative writing, and has come up with a cracking self-publishing idea.

The generic title is called, simply, FAQs – as in Frequently Asked Questions – and the first in the series has the sub-heading: From ambitious writers and the answers.

I strongly recommend the £7.99 paperback for anybody with thoughts of writing in any field, and it is well worth reading as a refresher for experienced writers. I quote from one chapter that I found particularly revealing:

“I enjoyed an espresso and a Danish recently while my latest book was being printed. In fact the book, all 200 pages of it with a colour cover, was finished before I had consumed the last of the coffee. The cost was less than £30.

“Words like sensational are over-used and I have treated with scepticism that this is possible. But in the spiritual home of booksellers — London’s Charing Cross Road — in Blackwell’s bookshop I was finally convinced.

“The Espresso Book Machine, invented by American entrepreneur Jeff Marsh, will do for today’s world what Gutenberg’s press did for publishing in the 15th century.

“The machine opens up vast possibilities. By next summer, Blackwell’s plan to have a million classic and out-of-print titles available for you to order in the shop.

“As I discovered, if you turn up with a book already formatted on a disk or memory stick as a PDF file, you can have your own copy run off by the time you have finished a coffee.

“It comes to you literally warm off the press. If you want another copy it will cost around 2p per page. The finished product — anything from 4.5 inches square to 8.5 x 11 inches — is as good a paperback as you can buy anywhere.”

John and I have both gone down the self-publishing road as we drink in the last of the summer wine, but we are novices compared with Randall Northam, who followed us on to the Express newspapers roundabout before launching his vibrant SportsBooks publishing company in 1995.

Randall started out publishing the all-embracing ATFS Track and Field Annual, and has expanded to include the Nationwide-sponsored football annual that used to go under the title of the world’s oldest football book, the News of the World Annual.

As you will see from his neatly designed website, Randall has a muscular presence in the marketplace with a shelf-load of specialist sports books, many of them written by SJA members.

My attention was grabbed by two fascinating paperbacks.

Finn McCool’s Football Club is beautifully and sensitively written by Stephen Rea. He left Belfast to make New Orleans his home, and found in Finn McCool’s Irish pub a football haven and heaven. But it suddenly became hell as Hurricane Katrina hit, and pub football team plans were shattered along with the heart of New Orleans.

There is a lot of humour, pathos and unbearable tension as Stephen paints a moving and inspiring picture of how the team was rebuilt against the background of horrific hurricane scenes. Price: £8.99

Chapped Legs and Punctured Balls, a small but perfectly fashioned pocket book of nostalgia from Paul Cooper, the founder of the Give Us Back Our Game movement. It is packed with wit and wisdom that will strike a chord with anybody who used to play street football, with jumpers for goalposts and kicking an old leather ball with a lacerating lace. What a pity Randall could not work some dubbin into the cover to give the book the complete scent of those golden days of our youth. Price: £5.99

I not only recommend Randall’s books but also his website blog, much more interesting and informative than mine [Editor’s note: Don’t beat yourself up too much, Norm].

There is a particularly moving column this week on the recent passing of David Burnside, a silkily skilled footballer from the 1960s. Randall was due to publish his autobiography next year.

Just one story Randall passes on: “Bristolian David was taken as a 15-year-old schoolboy star on a visit to Ashton Gate whereupon he encountered the grizzled old Arsenal and England hatchet man Wilf Copping seeing out the last of his playing days.

“‘Are you the young man who will eventually replace me?’ asked Wilf.

“‘Well, I hope so,’ said a nervous young David.

“‘Then, you’ve got to be hard,’ said Copping.

“‘He started to nut the dressing room door,’ David told me. ‘I decided I’d better join West Brom.’”

David — who could make a ball sit up and talk — always had a stack of stories to tell in his west country burr, and I hope Randall goes ahead and publishes his story. Perhaps while sipping a coffee.

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

Click here for more recent articles on journalism, sport and sports journalism

Book tickets for the glittering SJA 61st annual British Sports Awards, being staged in London on December 9 – click here for details and booking form