Once-reliable US sports publishing market hits heavy decline

Stacks of For The Good Of The Game, the memoir earlier this year by Bud Selig, Major League Baseball commissioner emeritus. The long-awaited book received mixed reviews and failed to capture a major national audience, in part serving as an example of the tough market in the US for sports titles (Fox Sports Arizona)

  • Sports and recreation book titles now account for less than 1 per cent of all trade books in the US
  • New York Times has stopped producing a bestseller list for sports
  • Rise in audiobooks provides some modicum of hope for the future

If you’re standing in the sports section of your local bookstore or library, particularly during this holiday shopping season, your eyes are not playing fanatical tricks on you. The display space and selection of new sports books have all but disappeared from the shelves. 

In what has become a 10-year batting slump, the decline, or outright erosion, of the sports genre in the US is more than the periodic economic blip. And many writers and literary agents are worried. Since President Donald Trump began his run for the White House in 2015, accelerating the fervent demand within the politics book genre into overdrive, there has been a widening gap of which types of non-fiction books sell. 

Cycles happen, of course. But according to the research firm Statista, sports and recreation titles are now below 1 per cent of all trade books, with none showing up on the top 10 lists of bestsellers in non-fiction through the third quarter of 2019. Among the Publisher’s Weekly top-selling 30 books for this year in the US, there are no sports titles. And in late September, the New York Times stopped producing a bestseller list for sports.

“The current political state and books on politics and current affairs have squeezed out a lot of books, not just sports,” says Mark Rotella, a senior editor at Publisher’s Weekly. “It’s happening in general entertainment books, and talking with people writing science, music or history, they would say the same.”

True. But starting in 1970 with former baseball pitcher Jim Bouton’s explosive tell-all Ball Four, sports books have been a reliably-selling genre, and a steady staple for gift-giving to men every Christmas and Father’s Day. 

Ball Four changed sports writing forever, freeing newspapers, magazines and TV from the century-old way they covered teams and players. What happened behind the scenes of the games was no longer taboo and the sensationalized game coverage of yesteryear became more balanced and newsy. Investigative sports journalism was born.

Former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton signs copies of his new book, Ball Four: The Final Pitch on November 27, 2000 at a Waldenbooks store in Schaumburg, IL. At the time, Ball Four had sold more than five-million copies worldwide. (Tim Boyle/Newsmakers)

The ripple effect was an escalation of sports titles suddenly reaching bookstores and the flood of young adult titles in schools and public libraries. A generation of fans consumed Dan Jenkins’ fictional Semi-Tough, Norman MacLean’s adventure-based A River Runs Through It, and Robert Creamer’s classic Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, among many others. Kids (and future sports writers) grew up on such library titles as Strange But True Baseball Stories and Heroes of the NFL, and popular newspaper columnists and sports magazine writers began producing books. It was a glorious new time for sports fans of all ages. 

Ball Four came out when I was 10 years old, and there had never been a sports bestseller like that,” says Glenn Stout, who has been editor of the annual Best American Sports Writing books since its inception in 1991. “It sparked a flood of really serious sports books, some seriously good writing on topics that were not always flowery, and the genre took off when the economy kicked back into gear in the mid-‘80s, into the ’90s, and the first half-decade of the 2000s. We saw a flood of sports books on every topic. It was magical.”

After John Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink: A Year with Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, and Harvey Pennick’s Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings from a Lifetime in Golf shot to bestseller status in the mid–1980s and ’90s, Laura Hillenbrand’s super-bestseller, Seabiscuit, started the new century on a tasty new wave of sports telling. 

Then, the digital age took hold, the economy tanked, and publishers got rightfully picky about the financial gambles they took with manuscripts. More than 1,000 US bookstores closed from 2000-07. And more than 1,500 in total have closed since 1991. With 43 per cent of books now bought online, non-fiction and overall revenues have been rising in the past couple of years due to eBook and audiobook sales. But sports books have been soft across the platforms for the past six years. And since 2009, overall book author earnings, across all genres, have dropped a whopping 42 per cent.

The fallout has been swift up and down the publishing chain.

“It’s weird when the landscape changes under your feet when you’re so used to it being one way,” says sports author Tim Wendel, who has written 13 books in fiction and non-fiction. When Wendel’s agent began pitching the sequel to his successful and critically acclaimed baseball novel Castro’s Curveball, they found political books were sucking the air from other non-fiction pitches.

“I was surprised by the reaction. I went in thinking it would be a slam dunk with a Big Five publisher,” he said. “We never got a whiff.”

The Big Five publishing companies – Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster – are now each risking only one or two sports titles a year, leaving the field to smaller publishers such as imprints, Triumph Books in Chicago, and university presses that pay far less in advance monies. 

Kobe Bryant promotes his book “Training Camp (The Wizenard Series #1)” at Barnes & Noble Union Square on March 20, 2019 in New York City. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for BN)

Finding the right market

Consider HarperCollins’s gamble with For the Good of the Game, a memoir by often-polarizing former Major League Baseball commissioner and one-time Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig. The book, published this past summer, received mixed reviews, failed to capture a national audience, and also fell short of reaching the expected super-bestseller status.

“The sports category has faced challenges for a long time,” says Foundry Literary Media agent Chris Park, who has placed successful sports books for NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre and sportscaster Ernie Johnson Jr., among others.

“Even when [sports] seems to be doing well, I get a lot of push-back from publishers. The word that comes up with me is a title is too regional. I call it the ‘R-word,’ and I hate it. There are a handful of editors who understand sports are not just regional, but there can be an urgency of the fan base for a specific team, specific players, and a successful sports book can become a bestseller. I come up against this all the time.”

Park ran into this roadblock when the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl in early 2010, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She represented Saints coach Sean Payton, who wrote Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life, a behind-the-scenes look at the team, recovering city, and its first pro sports championship. Berkley Books, imprint of Penguin Random House, bought the manuscript.

“In the end, it was a New York Times bestseller and I’m still getting royalties,” Parks giggled.

Triumph is an interesting player in the sport book business. Founded in 1989, the company survived the 1990s amid a lot of similar competition, publishing sports-related biographies, memoirs, and team stories to the regional audiences big publishers ignored.

In 2008, Triumph found a successful niche with the team series 100 Things [fill in the team name] Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die. It began with Major League Baseball’s New York Mets and Boston Red Sox, and parlayed pro and college sports with many readers’ fascination for lists and short, and often bathroom-friendly reading. Priced at $15, the books also found willing buyers among women seeking quick, easy gifts for men and kids. More than 100 titles have been published in this ongoing series.

“A successful sports title in 2019 requires focus and creativity on every level—from selection of titles to distribution to marketing and publicity,” says Triumph publisher Noah Amstadler. “In the age of cord cutting and social media, clearly the way fans consume sports has changed, and publishers need to evolve with the market.”

Because major publishers are so skeptical about sports titles these days, authors are facing two big obstacles. First, they must develop a storyline that can cross over to the general sports fan, or non-sports audience, and sell nationally. And second, they must be able to land an advance payment worth the long investment of time and research to write the book. The days of six-figure sports book advances are fairly rare these days. Triumph and most university presses pay less than $10,000.

“For understandable reasons, [publishers] want books that’ll generate buzz and tweets and traffic,” says sports author Lonnie Wheeler, who has collaborated with baseball Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Mike Piazza, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, and others. “To a significant extent, Twitter sets the agenda. That said, there are plenty of smaller publishers and university presses that are willing to entertain softer, quieter titles with a more traditional kind of literary merit. Of course, those houses typically don’t have the resources to pay or publicize like the big ones do.”

Finding the right editor

Book editors don’t all have identical sensibilities. You only have to turn one head. That’s why writers and agents rave about editors Rob Taylor and Jamison Stoltz.

Taylor is the senior acquisitions editor at the University of Nebraska Press. When he started there in 2003, UNP had a reputation for keeping classic books in print and buying expiring rights, but rarely purchasing new sports titles. Now they’re producing almost two dozen a year, making sports one of their lead trade publishing categories.

“When I’m looking for a sports book, I’m the same as any non-fiction editor, I’m looking for something we haven’t seen,” Taylor says. “There’s not a lot of competition [in the topic], the story needs to be told, the author is in command of the material, putting in the work, and why I think buyers might be interested. The story should sell itself.”

Stoltz, executive editor at Abrams Press for three years, has a sterling reputation among writers going back to his decade with Grove Atlantic Press. He had spotted Caitlyn Murray’s work covering the US women’s national soccer team and their underlying sociological story beyond the games. Two years in the making, Stoltz, Murray and Abrams were ready when the team won the World Cup this year.

“I’m interested in publishing books that have a longer shelf life, are a little more literary, and the writing and storytelling is a bigger part of the game,” he says. “The challenge is finding something new to say. You can have a huge audience, read about the game and teams, but you have to have something new to say.”

Adds literary agent David Black, who represents Jane Leavy and Mitch Albom, among many others: “I don’t believe this is a foreboding. It is a changing market. Writers need to find fresh ways into stories. Once they do, the market will be there.”

Stoltz, like many in the publishing business, believes part of the problem with sports books is oversaturation of the primary content. Many pro and college teams are on TV for every game, cable TV has endless hours of coverage and opinion, and fans spend the time in between on team blogs and social media. The meteoric rise of the subscription online sports site The Athletic since 2016, among other other emerging outlets, has helped flood the market with wall-to-wall coverage. Sports reading fatigue is very real.

“You have to really make a good case to ask a fan to step away and sink into a 300-page story,” Stoltz says. “That’s the challenge for writers, editors and publishers—finding something original, distinctive, and not just another game story.”

Long-time sports columnist and author Joe Posnanski, who has penned four books is nodding in agreement. “It’s an extremely difficult time for sports books, extremely difficult time to break through.

“What was the last really, really successful sports book?” he wonders. “So the question right now is what sports book is out there where publishing houses are finding a roadmap to success? I think the straight-out, flat-out sports book has a limited market. It always has.”

Former Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman, who has eight books to his credit, agrees, though he maintains faith in the genre.

“I still believe in sports books in a strong way,” Pearlman says. “There’s a million political books we can write. Here’s Trump right now…Why the Democrats suck…Why the Republicans suck…Obama is the greatest, and so forth. But there are so many icons in sports, and icons still sell. That’s limited to once. You can’t write another. There’s a limit, and politics aren’t untapped. I love to do research, no matter the topic, and my books are big topics.”

Pearlman is among the writers fascinated by the potential of audiobooks, which had $940m in 2018 sales and expects to move significantly closer to ebooks’ 28-per-cent market this year. Pew Research says one-in-five Americans are now listening to audiobooks.

“I have been thinking about audio more than ever,” Pearlman says. “I’ve never had so many people say, ‘I listen to your book’, so I feel like people are consuming the content differently, through audio, on the phone or iPad, rather than reading.”

Wendel also sees a wide-open market through audiobooks for new revenues of older titles. With audio consumers listening to an average of 6.8 audiobooks over the past year, Wendel has started recording audio versions of his books from a little studio operation at home.”

“Audio seems to be growing the pie – at least for now,” he says.

A ‘page’ from Imperfect: An Improbable Life, by Jim Abbott and Tim Brown. Many writers and editors expect sales of audiobooks in the US to come closer to ebook sales. (David McNew/Getty Images)

What Sports Authors Are Saying

SportBusiness talked with six veteran sports authors about the state of publishing and the challenges they see in the sports book genre:

Lonnie Wheeler
Author of Intangiball: The Subtle Things That Win Baseball Games, and collaborator with Mike Piazza on Long Shot, Hank Aaron on I Had a Hammer, and a dozen other books.

“It’s a tough go these days for the basic good book, sports or otherwise. At the risk of oversimplifying, publishing houses—especially the major ones—are effectively looking for two things in non-fiction, celebrity or headlines. For understandable reasons, they want books that’ll generate buzz and tweets and traffic. To a significant extent, Twitter sets the agenda. That said, there are plenty of smaller publishers and university presses that are willing to entertain softer, quieter titles with a more traditional kind of literary merit. Of course, those houses typically don’t have the resources to pay or publicize like the big ones do.”

Joe Posnanski
Author of The Soul of Baseball, Paterno, The Secret of Golf: The Story of Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, and four other books.

 “I wonder if the [sports] appetite is as big as it was. Part of sports is this incredible story about triumph over all the odds, but we look at all those books about the glorious summer of ’98 with [Sammy] Sosa and [Mark] McGwire, and then we see how that was driven by all these other elements, steroids and PEDs. There’s a cynicism, in general, a cynicism of sports. It’s hard to overcome all that cynicism.”

Glenn Stout
Editor of The Best American Sports Writing annuals, and author of Fenway 1912, Tales From the Patriots Sidelines, and 25 other books.

“There has been a profound change in the business. Marketing selects the books, bean counters get involved, Barnes and Noble tells them if they will [put it on their shelves], and editors don’t have the freedom to make the decision. That’s done by committee. They don’t want to take risks. It’s a LeBron [James] book. ‘Oh yeah, we can sell a LeBron book.’ Never mind they already have 10 books on that same person.”

Paul Dickson
Author of The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son, The Joy of Keeping Score, and 61 other books.

“I review baseball books for the Wall Street Journal, and one of the things I’ve noticed is a lot of the new books are very hard to read. Analytics are such a factor in the game now and that doesn’t make for great reading. They’re talking about WAR and most of these other new statistical formulas that have gotten so complicated that baseball books just don’t have the characters. We don’t have these dominating figures to sell books.”

Jeff Pearlman
Author of Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, Brett Favre: Gunslinger, and seven other sports titles.

“It’s harder to become a star in sports writing than it used to be. With the proliferation of online content, it’s harder to get a book deal. Back in the day, it was a pathway—Sports Illustrated, New York Times, L.A. Times, being big-time nationally. Now there are so many writers out there, Twitter confuses things, Instagram confuses things, and it’s just harder for the writer to get the individual attention.”

Tim Wendel
Author of High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball, Cancer Crossings, Castro’s Curveball, and 11 other books.

“Sometimes I talk with editors and they don’t know sports as well as some used to. Some long-time editors who used to be primarily in sports suddenly have to do other stuff like history or mystery. I spoke with Rob [Taylor at University of Nebraska Press] at a book expo and started having a sports publishing conversation. I was heading back home on the plane that night and thought, ‘Gee, I can’t remember the last time I had one of those with an editor’.”

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