Yellow Jersey reveals secret to 20 years of successful sports publishing

Yellow Jersey reveals secret to 20 years of successful sports publishing

Yellow Jersey Press is preparing to celebrate its 20th year of sports publishing with a host of promotions and a star-studded event at the Hackney Empire with Penguin Live. The sports publisher said the key to its longevity was steering clear of "bandwagon publishing" to focus on "brilliant storytelling".

Marking its anniversary year, Yellow Jersey plans to deliver a 2018 schedule from names including The Cycling Podcast, William Fotheringham, The Secret Cyclist, The Fantasy Football Scout and Ed Warner. There will also be a focus on backlist highlights, working with retailers, cycling shops and cafes nationwide to supply branded display kits and special offers for their customers.

The highlight of the year will take place on 20th June, with a celebration event at the Hackney Empire in London, entitled "Yellow Jersey Live: Who was the greatest cyclist of all time?" in association with Penguin Live. Yellow Jersey’s cycling experts, including Ned Boulting, William Fotheringham, Jeremy Whittle, Richard Moore, Lionel Birnie and Peter Cossins, will debate which rider deserves to be crowned the greatest rider of all time, with the audience casting their votes on the night.

Commenting on changes in the market since Yellow Jersey launched in 1998, Rachel Cugnoni, publishing director at Vintage and founding publishing director of the press, said the sports section in any bookshop 20 years ago "wasn’t much more than A-Z of ghosted autobiographies", a state of affairs she said had changed for the better.

However, the sports market has had its challenges, particularly in 2017. Transworld began to pull out of the space last June, letting sports publisher Giles Elliott go after it said the market was "rapidly declining". As of December 2017, according to Nielsen BookScan, sales of sports titles were 6% down year-on-year in value and 9.2% down in volume to 1.35 million books sold for £15.6m. 

Yellow Jersey editorial director Tim Broughton, formerly marketing director at Michael Joseph, said key challenges in the market included increased competition for fans' money, and for their time given the amount of free content available online for fans, across blogs, fan sites and zines, not helped by "fewer huge personalities" like Alex Ferguson in the space.

"There used to be a time you could be fairly confident a larger proportion of Man U fans would buy a book about Manchester United. Those days are definitely gone; there is more competition for the money in fans’ pockets, with ticket prices and merchandise in general. And more stories around the club are available for free online," he said. “There are also fewer huge personalities left to do a book in sports. The Alex Ferguson book with Hodder is a prime example. It was absolutely enormous, not only in sport but across publishing; but those names now are becoming fewer and further between. That will obviously have an effect as well.

“It’s now a case of having a higher number of titles that are producing a smaller individual volume [in sales], which again is reflective of the non-fiction market in general.”

Yellow Jersey appears to have withstood the trend going into its anniversary year, with annual turnover "pretty much on £1m for the last three years", according to Broughton. Yellow Jersey has acheived this by focusing on "brilliant stories", and eschewing what Broughton called "bandwagon" or "opportunity publishing", he revealed. In 2017, Yellow Jersey Press is also dedicating half of its 10 title-a-year list to cycling: a sport which, like motorsports, "holds up well", having "few casual fans" and therefore a more dedicated readership despite being a smaller market.

"I think if you were to isolate the sports market, it's been down recently, but it's probably only a mirror of the celebrity memoir market," said Broughton. "We definitely understand there's still demand for great stories ... If you find the right story, there is real longevity."

Examples at Yellow Jersey of seizing such opportunities include books like Friday Night Lights, which continued to sell 2,000 copies last year, and The Sports Gene, which sold 4,000 copies last year despite being four years old. Another example is a book called Kaiser by Rob Smyth, which Yellow Jersey is publishing in July. In the vein of “Catch Me if You Can”, it tells the story of a Brazilian “footballer” who in the 80s and 90s was on the books at five or six of Brazil’s top football clubs. A huge socialite in Rio, he rubbed shoulders with stars like Carlos Alberto. But in his 20-year career, he never kicked a ball - in fact a conman (and a terrible footballer).

Broughton, who confirmed he was currently commissioning well into 2019 and 2020, commented: "These are the stories that I think would be appealing, whether it was framed by a sporting setting or not. These are the kind of stories we are really focused on bringing to people’s attention." 

Yellow Jersey's front list titles for 2018 include: in March, A Journey Through the Year in Cycling from The Cycling Podcast (Richard Moore, Lionel Birnie and Daniel Friebe) and Sunday in Hell by William Fotheringham; in May, Sport Inc by Ed Warner; in June, Full Gas by Peter Cossins and The Secret Cyclist; in July, Smyth's Kaiser and Wasting Your Wildcard by David Wardale and the Fantasy Football Scout; and, in November, Any Colour As Long As It’s Red from Tim Moore.