The Future of Cricket PublishingMartin Chandler |
An anniversary is always a good excuse for a look back, and it is now more than five years since I first wrote a preview of what readers could expect from cricket publishing in the coming months. Perhaps more significantly 2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of my becoming a collector of cricket books, as opposed to an occasional purchaser of material to read on long train journeys.
The realisation of the two landmarks coinciding got me thinking about the whole subject, and then someone kindly sent me an article that appeared in a recent edition of the MCC magazine by Jon Culley, entitled The State of Cricket Publishing. I make no claims therefore to breaking new ground in this feature, and acknowledge at the outset that had it not been for Culley I would certainly not be articulating my thoughts on a subject very close to my heart.
I wondered first what my preview would have looked like if I had been preparing it thirty years ago. We had a recession in the UK in the late 1980s, after a prosperous start to the decade, and 1984 was the middle of what became known, not always affectionately, as the great cricket book boom.
My own favourite genre is the story of cricketers’ lives. In 1984 I would have been looking forward to plenty of books which, if not all pure autobiographies, were of that ilk. Former players Jim Laker, Tony Lewis, Dickie Bird and Peter May were four. There were a clutch of current players; Bob Willis, Alan Knott, Bob Taylor, Alan Lamb, Richard Hadlee and Graham Gooch. Veteran writer Alan Gibson and broadcaster Don Mosey were two more.
There were some superb biographies too, some individual and some collected. Modern men Clive Lloyd, Ken McEwan and Geoffrey Boycott featured, and from days gone by Bob Wyatt and Percy Chapman. There was a first ever account of the life of Neville Cardus, and the collected biographies were an excellent crop. There was the story of the Gunn Family, a set of profiles of the great Yorkshire slow left armers and a triple biography of Jack MacBryan, Charlie Parker and Ciss Parkin.
The game’s history was not overlooked in 1985, 19th century subjects like the Golden Age, the art of Nicholas Felix and an account of Shaw and Shrewsbury’s tour to Australia of 1884/85 appearing. In addition there were tour accounts, anthologies, books of stats and photographs as well as one of the great books of instruction, Mike Brearley’s Art of Captaincy.
The books I have mentioned all came from publishers who, if the word “major” might be inappropriate to describe them, “mainstream” would not. In addition Brearley’s classic and Willis’ autobiography apart I cannot recall any of them appearing in paperback. The other feature is that all were English publications, and the biographical works, with the exception of those on Hadlee and McEwan, were about Englishmen, and it must be doubtful whether, but for their county careers, their stories would have appeared.
As I look at the final draft of my first preview for 2015 the differences are stark. The interest of major publishing houses in cricketers’ lives has all but disappeared, tour books of current series are virtually never published and writings on the history of the game are no more popular. But this is balanced by two things, firstly the ease with which books can either be self-published or produced on a small scale, and secondly the number of new books appearing in particular in Australia, but also from the game’s other major centres.
Culley spoke at some length to David Frith for the purposes of his article. Frith is an important figure in this because his thirty plus cricket books started to appear in the late 1960s, and he is still working almost half a century on. He has seen the wheel turn full circle. His first book was a biography of Andrew Stoddart. He had to raise the cash to publish that himself, in a limited edition (a copy of the dust wrapper of which accompanies this feature). As his reputation grew a major publisher republished it, and a fine biography of Archie Jackson, and by the 1980s Frith found publishers for everything he produced.
But in the second decade of the 21st century even the great man finds it difficult to find backers. His last book, a fine collection of articles entitled Frith’s Encounters, was rejected by numerous publishers before Von Krumm Publishing, previously just a vehicle for Patrick Ferriday’s own books, took a chance on it. A new edition of his debut publication to mark the centenary of Stoddart’s death by his own hand has attracted no one*, nor has a full biography of John Edrich. The latter is particularly ironic given that Frith’s second book, as Edrich’s ghost for a mid-career autobiography which even the man himself says is as ordinary as ordinary can be, was published by Pelham, then a major player.
It is true Frith is 77 now, so it might be thought he is past his sell by date, although the quality of Frith’s Encounters and his recent contribution to Masterly Batting rather give the lie to that one. It is also true Frith does not suffer fools gladly, and may not always be the easiest man to publish, but then Ferriday seems untroubled by the task, and I and many others have always found Frith a helpful and willing correspondent, so I don’t buy into that one. The simple truth is that as with cricket itself, to borrow the title of Alan McGilvray’s autobiography, the game is not the same so far as its publishing is concerned.
Why aren’t publishers interested in the Edrich biography? The answer can only be they don’t think it will sell enough copies. So why then in 1985 did books about Wyatt, Chapman and the Gunns appear? After all none were ever superstars, and there would be many more now with memories of Edrich than in 1985 had any real recollection of that year’s subjects.
It is not the only reason but personally I place a large part of the blame on Sky. When commentary was in the hands of the BBC there was much talk of the heroes of the past, and some of them still held a few records. They are rarely mentioned now though, and any new follower of the game watching a Test series unfold could be forgiven for thinking that cricket only started in the 1970s. If a name from further back in the past does crop up now the chances are no one in the commentary box will know very much about the player concerned, so neither he nor his contribution to the game will be dwelt on.
Tim Berners-Lee must bear his share of the blame as well. Thirty years ago if Jim Laker mentioned the Lord’s Test of 1930 on commentary anyone who wanted to know a little more about Percy Chapman’s solitary Test century had no real choice but to go out and buy David Lemmon’s book. In 2014 all they have to do is google Chapman’s name and they will easily find out sufficient to satisfy their curiosity.
Culley’s view is, on the whole, fairly upbeat about the future of cricket publishing. Leaving aside for these purposes my own deep seated attachment to the printed word, as opposed to the ebook concept, I can see his point. The ACS are up to volume 39 in their Lives in Cricket series now. Without them, even in 1985 conditions, I suspect we would only have seen two of their subjects (Frank Foster and MJK Smith) in mainstream books, and possibly one other (Johnny Briggs). There have been many other publications in recent years, many of them in the nature of pamphlets or booklets as opposed to full length books, that have shed light on more obscure corners of the game’s history, few of which would have seen the light of day in 1985. They are the sort of offerings that were all but unknown just half a century ago.
The single most thought-provoking point arising out of Culley’s article, for me anyway, comes from a story Stephen Chalke told him. Playing for his wandering side Chalke was asked by an umpire, so a man who presumably had at least a degree of predisposition towards anything written about the game; “Why are cricket books all so bloody boring?” It is a fair comment, but all the occasional book buyer will ever see nowadays is the story, sanitised by the desire not to breach his contract with his board, of a name player. And yes books like that are generally bloody boring, so if that is all that is easily available what is going to turn the casual reader into a voracious consumer and acquirer of books about the game?
I have often wondered whether the size of book dealers’ mailing lists have shrunk in recent years, and whether the average age of their customers has risen over that time. Culley spoke to each of John McKenzie, Mike Down and Christopher Saunders without asking those two questions. I fear the answer to both would probably be yes. It is notable in my view that those three gentlemen have not been joined by anyone else in recent years. It is true we now have Sportspages as well, but that business has grown out of old favourite Bodyline Books, so doesn’t alter the fact it would seem the antiquarian book trade is no longer an attractive one to seek to break into.
The demise of the traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ book shop was signalled as soon as the internet arrived, and now with sites like ebay, Amazon and ABE anyone can be a book dealer. Despite that I would have thought there would always be room for the specialists, the men and women with the contacts, who know where particular books are as well as who is in the market for those items, but no one seems to have any desire to join the handful who have dominated the marketplace for so long.
In his mission statement that appears to this day on the front page of the book review section here at CricketWeb Archie Mac quoted from a foreword to RS ‘Dick’ Whitington’s 1981 biography of Keith Miller. That foreword was in turn written by Jim Russell, who drew a famous Australian cartoon strip, the Potts, for 62 years. Russell quoted fellow cartoonist and perpetual joker Arthur Mailey there are 7,584 people in the English-speaking world who buy every book on cricket published. Like the man’s big spinning leg breaks I suspect he may have been overstating his case just a tad, but the point remained a valid one for some time.
There aren’t anything like 7,584 people in that category now though, and the number is shrinking all the time, and that is the problem cricket literature faces. At the moment I think Culley is right, and despite the dwindling interest of the big boys the ease with which the smaller players and individuals can get books to market and garner enough sales to justify their outlay results in a ‘win win’ situation for collectors. But I don’t think that will last – we are all getting old together, and whilst I jokingly ascribe my love of all things cricketing to being a very sad man indeed I know that in reality I am essentially perfectly normal, and what instilled in me my love of cricket history was listening to men like Richie Benaud, Jim Laker and John Arlott talking about it.
I wonder how the marketplace will change in the next five years? There will certainly be more of the dreaded ebooks. There will also be other electronic resources as more and more older publications are digitised. Precious little of that will appeal much to the Mac and myself, but I am sure we will adapt, even if we do behave like a pair of old curmudgeons whenever the subject crops up. But I do foresee interest in the game’s history withering on the vine. That will not be any sort of reflection on the state of the game, which I hope and believe will go from strength to strength, but there is no sport other than cricket where anyone would contemplate writing up the life of a man who enjoyed a modest career a hundred years ago, and as interest fades such publications will slow to a trickle.
Can the necessary enthusiasm to keep things going amongst the game’s new public be created? I certainly believe it can, but it is not something publishers or administrators can achieve – the only organisations who can do that are the broadcasters, but much as I would love to see and hear it I can’t see David Frith and Gideon Haigh being invited to join the Sky commentary team – which is a great shame because they would enrich the experience immeasurably.
*After this article was written I was delighted to learn that Von Krumm have confirmed that they will be publishing the new edition of the Stoddart biography in time for the centenary on 3 April – the provisional title is “Stoddy” – England’s Finest Sportsman