Doc Martyn’s Soul: An Athletic Book?

The October 13 issue of Publishers Weekly included an article on the perils and possibilities of publishing sports books. Bob Minzesheimer’s article focused on the apparent disconnect between the popularity of sport in this country and the relatively small number of sports titles published and the even smaller number of those books that achieve great sales.

What Minzesheimer had to say certainly caught my attention; the University of Nebraska Press has long published a relatively large number of titles in this genre. In spite of the cautious tale spun in that article, our sports titles are regularly some of the best performing books we do from both a units sold and dollars brought in standpoint. According to Nielsen Bookscan the top 200 best-selling titles in 2013 contained not one sports book. Eight of our twenty-five best sellers of 2013 were sports titles. We have a great sports editor and our marketing team has tapped into some powerful and connected contacts that we use to help promote our sports titles. Our authors are engaged and active and many of them are well known either in the sports journalism world or the SABR community.

The author of the PW piece and luminaries from larger houses and well-known independent bookstores offered their opinions as to what makes a great sports book. Strong characters, a larger story than simply the game itself, and a more literary nonfiction approach to the writing appear to be the consistent themes. UNP’s sports titles tap into those themes on a regular basis, but we also use the university press tactic of niche publishing. Many of our sports titles focus on core groups of fans or experts or aficionados because those people are target audiences and they buy books. That’s not to say that books for those groups don’t include strong characters and larger stories, it is just that we know our market and we know how to reach out to those people with the kinds of books in which they are interested.

So, while sports books may not account for a large percentage of titles published nor make up a large portion of the books sold in the US each year, for UNP they represent both. As an indication of the position then hold in our list, the PW article lists forty-four new and forthcoming sports books of note—six are from UNP and our imprints. Authors come to us with great sports projects because they know we care about sports, understand the market, and place great value on publishing sports books. Readers look for the UNP brand because they know they will get a book that has been well written and well edited and that looks beyond statistics and journalistic writing style. For the author, reader, and publisher this combination is a winning one.

Publishers Weekly might suggest that sports are a long shot for success and there may well be a smaller market than our national obsession with everything involving a bat, ball, or athletic endeavor would indicate there should be, but for this university press sports represent a value bet with a great chance of paying off.

-Martyn (@martynbeeny)