In recent years professional sports has been plagued by scandal. Steroids, gambling referees, dog fighting: the list goes on. Books examining and exposing the actions of cheating athletes have been published in abundance. Despite the public's fascination with exposé journalism, few of these titles have sold well.
Kathy Pories, Algonquin editor, argues that the essence of sports—and books on sports—isn't about those who cheat. Readers want to know about the people who have exceptional skill, devotion and passion. “Call me a Pollyanna,” she says. “But I'd much rather watch and understand a game than hear about players whose success went to their heads.” David Hirshey, senior v-p and executive editor of HarperCollins, doesn't believe the era of scandal books is over. He simply thinks the recent “spate of books chronicling steroid use in baseball [has caused] a certain amount of fatigue toward that genre. But that fatigue will go away as soon as the next great investigative book like Game of Shadows comes along.”
No matter the reason, the genre's fall lineup is exposé-free. This season's books are a celebration of successful teams and regional heroes. Sports publishing has gone local. Josh Leventhal, publisher of MVP Books, thinks the scandal trend has temporarily run its course. He believes sports fans are looking to escape the difficulties of their own lives by cheering on their teams. Learning about the dark side of their athlete-heroes destroys the fantasy. To supply enthusiasts with the right books, MVP focuses on publishing titles for a regional audience rather than attempting to reach a national one. “In some regions, the passion for sports and the local teams is so strong that you can sell more copies more efficiently than you might on a national basis, provided that the book gives them something new to satisfy their hunger for information,” Leventhal says. He also contends that local media outlets are more likely to cover a book that has local connections, thereby creating a range of retailers beyond bookstores. But “the potential upside is much greater with a title geared to a national audience, quite simply because the customer pool is that much larger,” he adds. The Ultimate Super Bowl Book: A Complete Reference to the Stats, Stars, and Stories Behind Football's Biggest Game—and Why the Best Team Won by Bob McGinn is an attempt to capture a national audience, though Leventhal admits MVP has focused its sales and promotion efforts to a number of specific regions, in addition to pitching the title to national media.
“With a short list of exceptions like the Green Bay Packers and the New York Yankees, most fan bases are predominantly regional,” says Bob Snodgrass, publisher of Ascend Books, which focuses 95% of its promotional efforts to within 200 miles of the city a particular book covers. The company's publicity campaigns concentrate on the media outlets that reach the fans, including local sports-talk radio programs, regional magazines, newspapers and team Web sites. “Ascend will release two books this fall that are sure to capture the attention and hearts of Kansas City sports fans,” says publications coordinator Kerry Comiskey. For Chiefs Fans Only!: 50 Years of Moments, Memories, and Milestones That Made Us Love Our Team by Bill Althaus and Rich Wolfe and For Jayhawks Fans Only!: Wonderful Stories Celebrating the Incredible Fans of the Kansas Jayhawks by Matt Fulks and Rich Wolfe offer anecdotes and highlights from both teams' illustrious histories. Hoping to also appeal to a larger audience, Ascend will release Hoops Heaven: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame by Jack McCallum and others. The book's authors “call upon years of covering Hall of Fame athletes, coaches and events that encompass basketball,” according to the publisher.
The competition for shelf space and national media attention drives Skyhorse Publishing to search for books with “a definable audience in mind,” says Bill Wolfsthal, associate publisher and director of sales and marketing. “Publishing books with regional appeal makes sense because it's easy to identify and reach a defined audience.” This fall Skyhorse has the perfect title for the “Cheeseheads” of Green Bay, Wis. Life After Favre: A Season of Change with the Green Bay Packers and Their Fans by Phil Hanrahan is Skyhorse's attempt to make the most of the heartbreak and betrayal felt by Packers fans the season after their iconic quarterback retired only to re-emerge with the New York Jets. The book chronicles “a Wisconsin [native's] return to Green Bay to cover the Packers' tumultuous season following the departure of their legendary quarterback.” Though most sports fans have grown weary over Favre's endlessly covered retirements, his latest return, as a member of the Minnesota Vikings, has ignited the passion of the entire northern Midwest region, much to the pleasure of Skyhorse.
Another title on Favre's season with the Jets is Wiley's No Substitute for Sundays: Brett Favre and His Year in the Huddle with the New York Jets by Steve Serby. The book “brings to light juicy new information about Favre's season with the Jets,” according to Wiley senior editor Stephen Power. While Power believes that catering to a particular region is “a great place to get the marketing ball rolling,” he doesn't accept the notion that regional sports publishing is the newest trend. “Sales show that, historically, while a large percentage of the sales of a book on a team or player will sell in the subject's home region, more than half of the book's sales still come from outside that region.” Power notes several other key factors that influence the sale of sports books. “Connecting with the fan is important. For example, being a star athlete isn't the only aspect that draws in readers. You usually also need a compelling story outside of the figure's career, such as Tedy Bruschi's stroke or Kevin Everett's paralyzing on-field injury.”
Although publishing books about and marketing to a regional audience is a safer way to guarantee modest sales than attempting to conquer a national audience, most publishers argue that even the most regionally specific sports book can garner national attention and sales numbers. “I think that books with a strong regional appeal have a built-in, highly motivated customer base: the fans,” says Harry Helm, v-p/associate publisher of editorial for FaithWords and Center Street. “They are a focused base that is conceptually easier to energize than a national audience. So with sports titles that have a strong regional appeal, I think our expectations are more likely to be met or exceeded.” This built-in customer base can also propel a book to national attention, which is what every publisher with whom PW spoke believes his or her titles can achieve. Helm hopes that James Brown, the host of CBS's The NFL Today, can benefit from his national platform. Brown's memoir, Role of a Lifetime: Reflections on Faith, Family and Significant Living, “teaches readers how to discover life's purpose for themselves,” according to the publisher.
“If you can get a regional title to break out nationally, that would be the best of both worlds,” says Kevin Hanover, v—p, director of marketing, and acquiring editor for Da Capo Press. “Regional books that perform just regionally will not typically surprise you much. It is when they break out of the region... that you really have something on your hands.” Hanover cites Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger as an example of a breakout book. Since its publication in 1990, this account of the Permian Panthers of Odessa—the most successful high school football team in Texas history—has been turned into a film and a television series. Hanover hopes that Lance: The Making of the World's Greatest Champion by John Wilcockson can be an equally lucrative title. Lance Armstrong, the book's subject, is an even more polarizing figure than Favre. Armstrong's successful fight against cancer and seven Tour de France victories are an inspiration to some, while his rumored steroid use is an outrage to others. Wilcockson “draws on dozens of interviews with those who know [Lance] best to trace Armstrong's remarkable yet controversial journey in vivid detail,” says Hanover. He argues that athlete biographies are a successful sports subgenre because “in today's celebrity-driven culture, a biography on a well-known athlete is just as appealing to sports readers as a biography would be for readers in politics or entertainment.”
“For me, and I believe for other fans, sports serve much the same purpose that soap operas serve for other people,” says Eamon Dolan, v-p and editor-in-chief of Penguin Press. “They're ongoing narratives that we follow avidly for years. The athletes and coaches are the stars of those narratives, and that makes them intrinsically interesting.” Few players are more fascinating than Lebron James. As a high school junior James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. After high school he was selected as the #1 overall pick in the NBA draft. He has gone on to win the NBA Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, all accomplishments achieved before the age of 25. Shooting Stars by Lebron James and Buzz Bissinger analyzes the “attributes... that have led to [James's] incredible success,” according to the publisher. James alone warrants national media attention, but combining him with Bissinger will surely keep this Penguin Press title on shelves across the country. (The book hit PW's bestseller list for Sept. 28.)
Mitch Rogatz, publisher and president of Triumph Books, agrees with Hanover that sports books are similar to other subjects, but he argues that in sports publishing a title's main element for success stems from the connection the athlete makes with the reader. And while he agrees that regional personalities are more likely to make that connection, it isn't always a given. “Books that fail to make a one-on-one connection are likely to sink as if they're in quicksand,” says Rogatz. Which is why Triumph is banking on a less controversial figure in The King and I: An Unlikely Journey from Fan to Friend by Howdy Giles (see sidebar, p. 20).
One figure who has connected to fans both on a regional and national level is Roy Williams, the University of North Carolina's basketball coach. Having coached at two college basketball powerhouses (he was also at the University of Kansas for 15 years), Williams's fan base is significant. He has won 81% of the games he has coached; he has led two of his teams to NCAA championships; and he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007. Unlike many of his colleagues, he has survived his 21-year career without any major humiliation (save for the minor controversy regarding his departure from Kansas). His upcoming autobiography, Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court, will be a chance for audiences to connect with the popular coach, says Pories of Algonquin. Hard Work has been endorsed by John Grisham (who wrote the foreword), Barack Obama, Dick Vitale, Dean Smith and Buzz Bissinger. “Although there will be huge interest in Coach Williams's book in North Carolina, we anticipate the book having national appeal for a couple of reasons,” says Pories. “First, the UNC Tarheels have won two national championships within just five years; second, President Obama has put them in the spotlight as one of their biggest fans, asking to play pickup with them while he was on the campaign trail, and then picking them as winners in his much publicized bracket. Most importantly, in college basketball, the UNC-Duke rivalry is the most intense and most watched rivalry in the country. In other words, North Carolina basketball just has a bigger reach.”
Another college basketball coach with a book due out this fall is John Calipari. Though highly successful, Calipari's personal and professional ethics have been the subject of many national headlines. His teams have twice been forced to vacate their seasons because of recruitment violations, and the NBA once fined him $25,000 for racially insensitive remarks (Calipari coached the New Jersey Nets from 1996 to 1999). The many ups and downs of Calipari's life are the motivation for Free Press's Bounce Back: Overcoming Setbacks to Succeed in Business and in Life. “What [Calipari] learned from his experiences was the importance of having the right attitude when dealing with life's major impediments. Allow him the privilege of coaching you through what may, at times, seem to be an insurmountable challenge,” according to the publisher.
Not typically known for controversy, Serena Williams recently landed negative media attention for her outburst at the U.S. Open. Though arguing with a judge in most other sports wouldn't make the local evening news, in tennis it meant days of lambasting Williams by commentators from all professions. Written before the incident, On the Line by Serena Williams with Daniel Paisner examines the challenges Williams faced throughout her life, including the shooting of her older sister. The winner of eight Grand Slam titles, Williams embodies what it is that Rick Wolff, v-p/executive editor at Grand Central, contends drives readers to sports books. “Sports fans are always fascinated by the individuals who win championships,” claims Wolff, who argues that with sports books, one has to be very careful in determining the intended audience. “Don't get me wrong. Regional sports books can do very well, and making that jump to a national audience is always a very calculated risk. However, when a sports book hits big, it can hit in big, big numbers.”
Although this fall's sports books attempt to connect fans with their favorite local teams and players, publishers unanimously agree that when the next scandal breaks, books on the topic will surely follow. Or as Hirshey of HarperCollins says: “We may not [have seen] a Mackenzie Phillips—like memoir this fall, but if someone found out that Ty Cobb tried to get to second base with his mom, I assure you the book would be on shelves by Opening Day.”