The concept of too much information does not exist in sports.
Forget that the Internet gives sports fans—from the weekend warriors looking to maximize their workout to the trivia buffs looking to settle a dispute—sports reference books remain relevant, even popular. The sales figures show instructional guides, annuals, and even almanacs rubbing elbows with the inspirational narratives and starry biographies.
The March 2 Nielsen BookScan report in the category of adult nonfiction sports and recreation included at least five baseball annuals, two retrospectives of the 2012 Super Bowl–winning Seattle Seahawks, and how-to guides covering everything from bodybuilding to paintball guns.
Publishers aren’t surprised to see those results—for a variety of reasons.
“People want information, and they want trusted information from a reliable source,” says Melisa Duffy, brand manager for the sports titles within the Dummies brand, which is part of John Wiley. “They want to know the information they get is accurate and presented in a way that is easy to understand. We’ve found that customers don’t necessarily just have one question about a sport—they want an encompassing view. Customers want to know the rules and regulations, and they may need some how-to advice as well. And it is always fun to have a bit of trivia and history thrown into the content.”
Duffy points out that many of the Dummies sports reference books are written by notable figures, such as baseball legend Joe Morgan and football Hall of Famer/TV personality Howie Long.
“While the Web makes massive amounts of information available, much of it is of questionable value,” says Rick Hollwedel, consumer division–sales director at Human Kinetics. “In this environment, well-qualified, well-recognized experts have as much appeal as they ever did, maybe more. Their books, regardless of format, still attract buyers.”
Authors also drive the success of titles at Triumph Books, notably the NFL Draft 2014 Preview (April) by Nolan Nawrocki and Baseball Forecaster and Encyclopedia of Fanalytics by Ron Shandler and BaseballHQ.com (a division of USA Today Sports). “It is not an accident that many of the most successful sports reference books are annuals that have been published for decades,” says senior acquisitions editor Noah Amstadter.
“Nolan Nawrocki’s analysis of draft prospects came to be respected as the best in the business. Nolan directed Pro Football Weekly’s draft coverage for more than 10 years,” he explains. “Ron Shandler was two decades ahead of the Moneyball era: Baseball Forecaster has been published since 1986. The information in these books provides value—much more than a player’s basic statistics from the previous season. And over time, the authors have built an audience that anticipates the release and makes it a point to purchase a copy each year.”
Sports books also provide a remedy for other annual events, including Father’s Day—which, lest you forget, falls on Sunday, June 15 this year. Grandfathers and fathers can be finicky customers, observes Bill Wolfsthal, associate publisher at Skyhorse Publishing, and “sports books, including reference books,” make terrific gifts.
“We design our books as gifts, keepsakes that people like to have on their shelves or share with a friend—neither of which is possible with a Wikipedia page,” says Sarah Malarkey, Chronicle Books’ executive editorial director.
When Father’s Day passes, publishers will not have to wait for Christmas for consumer demand to revive. Duffy says certain Dummies titles “see seasonal spikes in customer interest, which is understandable given sports seasons. We also see increased interest around each Olympic event.”
Libraries are also a market, says Wolfsthal: “Even though they have smaller budgets than in the past, they are still important for all books, particularly anything that can be used as a reference tool.”
The audience for sports books, especially instructionals, is diverse. Says Hollwedel of Human Kinetics: “Whether it is parents attempting to coach youth sports because their kids are playing, runners and triathletes hoping to improve their race times or manage injuries, or high school or college coaches looking for ways to enhance their team’s performance, there is a very broad spectrum of involvement possible in sport. We address all aspects and levels.” Indeed, Human Kinetics specializes in books on sports and human performance, and publish the classic Strength Training Anatomy by Frédéric Delavier.
And don’t underestimate the desire for readers to get an edge away from the playing field.
“Our readers are fans, fantasy players, even professionals in the world of sports,” says Amstadter, who adds that Nawrocki’s annual NFL Draft Preview is “regarded as the Bible of draft analysis. It is carried by scouts, agents, and members of the media—sports talk radio hosts purchase the book and read sections aloud on the air.”
“Sports reference books don’t seem to interest the ‘major’ publishers these days,” Wolfsthal says. “We find that, published properly, they can sell well in a first edition, and sometimes in many editions.”
Publishers of all sizes are hoping for just that with this spring’s offerings.
Skyhorse Publishing has six titles available now or coming out soon that are related to the sport synonymous with spring: baseball. Among its releases is Having a Career Day: 101 Incredible Baseball Feats by Stan Fischler and This Day in Philadelphia Sports by Kevin Reavy and Brian Startare. Both are slated for June.
Chronicle Books’ contribution to the national pastime is the recently released How to Speak Baseball: An Illustrated Guide to Ballpark Banter by James Charlton and Sally Cook and featuring illustrations by Ross MacDonald. According to Chronicle, “This handsome guide to the language of baseball decodes the amusing, clever phrases that pepper commentary about the sport.”
Little, Brown’s The Hall: A Celebration of Baseball’s Greats: In Stories and Images, the Complete Roster of Inductees by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum takes an insider’s look at baseball’s Xanadu. “Never before has the Hall of Fame published a complete registry of inductees with plaques, photographs, and extended biographies,” the publisher promises. “In this unique, 75th-anniversary edition, read the stories of every player inducted into the Hall, organized by position.”
A number of publishers want to inform readers about underappreciated or even new sports. Over at Rowman & Littlefield, part of new sports editor Christen Karniski’s mission is to find untold and entertaining stories about sports. This includes “acquiring reference works on sports that aren’t as studied as baseball,” such as Tom Dunmore’s The Encyclopedia of the FIFA World Cup (April), in plenty of time for the World Cup that begins in June, and Boxing: A Concise History of the Sweet Science by Gerald R. Gems.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offers a look into an emerging sport with May’s Spartan Up! A Take No Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life by obstacle course racing guru Joe De Sena, founder of the popular Spartan Race. According to Susan Canavan, senior executive editor at HMH, “We are seeing this burgeoning sport explode for the weekend warriors. And so it’s not surprising that books that cover this sport will begin to emerge rapid fire too. We saw this happen when the popularity of mixed martial arts soared. The obstacle course racing is the next new thing.”
Sometimes it’s about giving an old sport a new twist. At International Marine/McGraw-Hill Education, nautical titles frequently straddle categories, becoming “hybrid instructional books that combine strong narrative with critical how-to information,” says Molly Mulhern, editorial director of International Marine. She cited the new Sailing a Serious Ocean by John Kreschmer as an example, calling it a “riveting retelling of transatlantic storms meets hardcore information—for example, hurricane strategies and sail combinations.”
International Marine will introduce The Art of Seamanship: Evolving Skills, Exploring Oceans, and Handling Wind, Waves, and Weather by veteran sailor Ralph Naranjo in April. A month later comes a reference book with a less serious slant: Jack Tar and the Baboon Watch: A Curious Guide to Nautical Knowledge for Landlubbers and Sea Lawyers Alike by Captain Frank Lanier.
“While sailors and those already fond of the sea are the core market for International Marine,” Mulhern says, “sailing is a sport of mystique and curiosity for armchair sailors and general readers eager to read about the adventures offered by sailing.”
Mainstream sports have not become passé. Gotham Books has already released two golf books this month: the data- and scientific-driven Every Shot Counts: Using the Revolutionary Strokes-Gained Approach to Improve Your Golf Performance and Strategy by Mark Broadie, and Own Your Game: How to Use Your Mind to Play Winning Golf, where putting and short-game master Dave Stockton stresses successful mental techniques. In April, sports medicine specialist Dr. Vijay Vad, with an assist from Dave Allen, offers a guide to injury-free running in The New Rules of Running: Five Steps to Run Faster and Longer for Life.
“In today’s marketplace, there is a great deal of interest amongst sports enthusiasts to delve deeply into the histories of their favorite athletes,” says Greg Kubie, publicity manager for Random House. “Autobiography acts as a window into the lives of the world’s great sports heroes, providing a firsthand account of the hard work, conflict, and controversy that have come to define their careers.”
To that end, Random House will release I Am Zlatan: My Story On and Off the Field by Zlatan Ibrahimovics, the autobiography of the gifted and controversial Swedish soccer star, which has received strong reviews in Britain.
Also going the autobiography route is retired Yankees legendary relief pitcher Mariano Rivera. With help from New York Daily News sports journalist Wayne Coffey, Rivera reflects on his career—including his struggle to maintain his Christian values in Major League Baseball—in Little, Brown’s The Closer (May). For those craving to hear more about the Sandman, Skyhorse Publishing just released Facing Mariano Rivera: Players Recall the Greatest Relief Pitcher Who Ever Lived, a collection of 150-plus testimonials, edited by David Fischer.
Michael Jordan doesn’t have an autobiography coming out, though veteran basketball writer Roland Lazenby takes on the basketball deity’s life in Michael Jordan: The Life (May). Little, Brown claims it is “the first truly definitive study of Jordan: the player, the icon, and the man.” Meanwhile, sports biographer Jeff Pearlman examines a legendary team in Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s (Gotham Books).
Superstar athletes are not the only ones with stories. Rick Reilly’s latest book, Tiger, Meet My Sister… and Other Things I Probably Shouldn’t Have Said (May, Blue Rider Press) compiles the ESPN columnist’s best work from the past five years.
Upcoming books also highlight the fascinating lives of the overlooked. Gallery Books has two. They Called Me God: The Best Umpire Who Ever Lived features umpire Doug Harvey, along with Peter Golenbock, offering anecdotes about Harvey’s career umping in the National League. And sports agent J.B. Bernstein’s Million Dollar Arm—for release in April, a month before the Jon Hamm movie hits multiplexes—describes how a pitching contest he organized in India unearthed major league talent.
Trainer Idan Ravin is a fixture in the world of pro basketball, where he was worked with superstars such as Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. Ravin describes what makes these pros tick, in The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Heads of Basketball’s Best Players (Gotham Books, May). For those who prefer basketball’s past, Lew Friedman profiles the creator of the game’s quintessential move in Jump Shot: Kenny Sailors—Basketball Innovator and Alaskan Outfitter (WestWinds Press).
Long-snapper is an anonymous position, but Carson Tinker at the University of Alabama garnered national attention when his girlfriend was killed in the house they were in during the 2011 Tuscaloosa Tornado. Tinker recalls how God helped him and the community during this trying time in A Season to Remember: Faith in the Face of the Storm (B&H Publishing Group, May), written with Tommy Ford.
Even nonfans are getting involved. In I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever (Grove Press, May), best friends Ben Blatt and Eric Brewster—the former loves baseball, the latter hates it—embark on the optimal baseball road trip based on Ben’s algorithm.
Reference remains a big bat in the lineup of sports book. Variety—even in the same book—is the straw that stirs the drink.