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Secrets of a sports publisher

The inside story of how it all works at BackPage, the book publishers founded by Scottish sports journalists Martin Greig and Neil White.


This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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The word ‘niche’ tends to suggest an area of nerdy special interest, undeserving of great attention. In fact, niche audiences are gold-dust for content creators. Niches are populated by people who are very passionate about their subject area.

Submissions and Commissions
We have never commissioned a book from a proposal submitted by a writer, or indeed an agent. A frank admission from a publishing house now in its eighth year, but it’s true. Why? Well, we have a very firm idea of what we want to publish and the writers we want to work with. Given that we only publish a few titles a year – a maximum of three – it becomes less surprising.

I should say that our approach is not elitist. Many publishers do not accept unsolicited proposals. We do… though we do have carefully drawn-up criteria on our website. Not all writers who make submissions take the time to fulfil these criteria. The few who do, we give more of our time to. We aim to reply to all serious submissions, though it takes a while (we get approximately 150 per year).

We know what it is like to be on the other side. BackPage was born out of a book proposal myself and Neil worked on together in 2008-9. It was 7,000 words, not including the sample chapter. We worked bloody hard on it. It wasn’t picked up; didn’t deserve to be. It was interesting and worthy but not sellable enough. However, through the process we realised we worked well together and started BackPage (we don’t publish our own work).

Writing – and finishing – a book is very tough. It demands huge amounts of mental stamina. So it is important to spend time on the proposal, carefully considering whether this is an idea you are prepared to sacrifice a year of your life to. That’s a very challenging question, even if the answer is ‘yes’.

As publishers, the challenge for us is to remain open-minded and be alert for the proposal that ticks all our boxes.

Pirlo Uncovered
In April 2014 we published Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography I Think Therefore I Play. It has been our bestselling book. We have never been surer of a title’s success. Publishers are often coy about their sales figures, but I’ll tell you exactly how many we’ve sold… to the end of February 2017, 74,464 copies.

In March 2014 I went to Madrid to do some promotion for our Spain book and try to hook up with Pirlo, who was in Madrid for the Spain v Italy friendly. The ghostwriter of Pirlo’s book, Alessandro Alciato, was also at the game, and I caught up with him in the bowels of the Vicente Calderon afterwards. “You do realise this book is going to be massive?” I said. He looked at me as if I had two heads. He had no conception of Pirlo’s status outwith Italy.

Pirlo’s genius achieved proper recognition in the UK after he picked apart England at Euro 2012 with a spellbinding array of passing. As he enjoyed an Indian Summer at Juventus – and his beard took on lustrously biblical proportions – so the cult of Pirlo grew.

We sent the manuscript to the translator, Mark Palmer, who reported back with increasing excitement. The idiosyncratic voice of the subject shone through, he said. This was Pirlo in full football philosopher mode. The book was short – less than 40,000 words – and brimful of insightful, eccentric tales. Mark did a wonderful translation and our designer, Kouki Gharra, nailed the cover.

So, the content was strong, it looked beautiful and it was zeitgeisty. Publicity? Well, we started the hashtag #PirloThursday with killer quotes from the book in the lead-up to publication. It went viral. Launch publicity was enormous. It took over our lives for a fortnight and seemed to reach every corner of the globe.

The first print run disappeared in three days. We have been hitting the ‘reprint’ button ever since.

If you were to draw a graph representing the traditional publicity model for books, it would show a flatline in the lead-up to publication, a skyscraper-like spike around release date, then back to a flatline. This is flawed. We explain our alternative approach to every writer. We call it  ‘A book is for life not just for Christmas’.

The whole point of a book is that it has a permanency beyond other forms of expression. Some writers will have a hardcore following – their equivalent of 1000 true fans – who instantly buy everything they publish. The vast majority of readers, however, arrive at books in their own time. The traditional book-buying spike comes in the lead-up to Christmas, but the summer holiday period is a popular time, as is Father’s day.

So how should a writer/publisher approach publicity? Make no mistake, the launch period IS very important. We have used different strategies for launch. For example with the Pirlo book we gave free extracts to every national newspaper.

In total, this amounted to 6,000-7,000 words entering the public domain on publication day. I Think Therefore I Play is only 38,000 words. So, we gave away nearly 20%. For free. Why? Well, we could have accepted a serial fee from just one newspaper, but the value of any deal was far outweighed by the awareness generated through hitting multiple titles.

The counter-argument is that people may read all the extracts and decide they have consumed enough without buying the book. That’s possible. But we would argue that those people are far outweighed by others who pick up on bits of the coverage and have their interest piqued. It is not about press-ganging readers into instant purchases. It is about creating awareness, particularly in the early phase. 

As for authors…  they must dominate conversations that are happening in their niches. This does not mean spending their lives on Twitter, though social media is a vital awareness tool. It is being the first port of call, the expert voice, the conversation-leaders in their field. This long-term, more holistic commitment to their subject matter generates the most valuable type of publicity – word-of-mouth recommendations.

We launched a crowdfunding campaign – via Kickstarter – in 2015. By the end of day one I was burnt out. I must have refreshed that ‘total’ screen every two minutes in those first 24 hours. I restricted myself to two peeks a day after that and quickly restored my mental health.

The campaign was a fascinating experience. It taught us valuable lessons about audience engagement. We hit our target of £30,000 fairly promptly and ended up at £41,679. This was a success, but it was only part of the story.

The campaign itself was to raise money for the continued production of The Big Interview with Graham Hunter podcast. We had launched it in April of that year and its unexpected success – and high costs of production – led us to launch the Kickstarter. But for a product that was fairly new, it was something of a risk.

Why crowdfund? The obvious answer is to raise money. But content creators should not approach it with pound signs in their eyes. Rather, it is about mobilising your core audience and delivering value in a way that makes them feel a part of your product or project.

Yes, ultimately, you are asking them to put their hands in their pockets, but a cynical, pass-round-the-hat approach will lead to failure. As with so many things, it is about telling your story properly and offering value.

What does all that mean practically? Be honest – draw back the curtain on your project, show your audience the inner workings of what goes into making the thing you are crowdfunding – transparency is key; deliver value on the rewards – make them decent! Record a good video; get your message out through all forms of media –newspapers, radio, TV, blogs, social media influencers (don’t spend all of your time on Twitter – it’s bit of an echo chamber). And don’t check your total every two minutes!

As with so much these days, the information is out there, if you can be bothered looking for it. Tim Ferriss’ blog post on hacking Kickstarter was invaluable. Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking was a revelation.

Economics of the Madhouse
In 2009, just as we were starting BackPage, we read a blog by Iain Dale, the MD of Biteback Publishing, who specialise in political titles. Eight years later, it remains an interesting read, but it was his use of the phrase ‘economics of the madhouse’ that resonated with us. At that time, we were attempting to find a viable business model for an industry which was shifting on its axis.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to batter you with spreadsheets and figures. But you might be interested to know where the money goes in publishing a book. Let’s take a standard £9.99 paperback. The average discount we give retailers (including Amazon, WH Smith, Waterstones, wholesalers such as Gardners and Bertrams) is approximately 54% – or £5.40. That leaves BackPage with £4.60.

So, retailer discounts account for the biggest slice of the publishing pie. These discounts have steadily risen since we first entered publishing in 2009. When Amazon entered the market they commanded a 60% discount, so other high street and online retailers, and wholesalers, sought a greater slice of the pie in an effort to compete.

Maybe you’re thinking: “£4.60 is still not a bad return.” Hold that thought. Our books are stored in a warehouse the size of 10 football pitches, from where they are dispatched to retailers all over the UK. The services offered by this distribution company cost around 10% of the invoiced value of every book, so roughly another 45p comes off the BackPage total. We’re down to £4.15.

Print costs vary, but most paperbacks come in around £1-1.50 per book, if you are lucky. The bigger the print run, the lower the per-unit cost of the book. If we get the cost-per-unit down to £1.25, we are patting ourselves on the back. Which brings the BackPage total down to £2.90.

Then there’s the author royalties. These can vary, but the average for a paperback sale is about 9% of the retail price, which is 90p. So, the BackPage total drops to £2. And that’s before we factor in any promotion and marketing fees – or the per-book price of up-front costs such as advances, cover design and typesetting. Also, many companies employ a sales force who present their titles to key buyers at the major retailers. We used to employ a sales agency – who charged the same as our distributors, thereby accounting for another 45p – but we simply could not afford to lose any more from our cut.

What is the solution to a business model that leaves the content creators – authors and publishers – with very small slices of the pie? Well, if the creators want to make a living then they need to ‘do volume’ – publishing jargon for selling shedloads of books. Also, direct sales… buy a book direct from a publisher and the author and publisher get a bigger cut.

The book no-one knows we published
The word ‘niche’ tends to suggest an area of nerdy special interest, undeserving of great attention. In fact, niche audiences are gold-dust for content creators. Niches are populated by people who are very passionate about their subject area.

In 2012 we published a book called Football Manager Stole My Life, by Neil BackPage and fellow FM addicts Kenny Millar and Iain Macintosh. The title tells you everything. Fans of the game tend to be obsessive.

Neil, an almost-recovered FM addict (he still plays the handheld version), had the idea to do a book on FM. The format was inspired by another of his obsessions – the film The Big Lebowski. In 2007, Canongate published a magazine-style book called I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski which explored the fan culture surrounding the Jeff Bridges classic. Given that the same fan culture has spawned very popular Lebowski-fests around the world, it was not hard to detect the presence of a sizeable niche.

Ditto Football Manager, a game which sells approximately one million copies on release every year. We had a great time exploring the fan culture around Football Manager. We asked for contributions and were inundated with tales of obsession. A squaddie emailed to tell us about the time his platoon were under mortar attack but he was struggling to tear himself away from FM – his team were in a cup final, after all. The book sold well and it got us thinking more about gaming.

In 2013, we read an award-winning article by a gaming journalist called Keza MacDonald on a game called Eve. It blew our minds. We contacted Keza and later developed a book based on the cult computer game Dark Souls – a notoriously difficult game. Keza’s relationship with Dark Souls went back to before its launch: she was part of an email group of gaming journalists called the Chain of Pain, who, given pre-release copies, swapped tales of heartbreak as they tried to fathom how to survive in this pitiless new world. The Chain of Pain community expanded to over one million members, or ‘fellow sufferers’.

The project started as digital-only, but we ended up doing a paperback. However, we wanted to try something different. We knew we had a niche audience of a quantifiable size, and two authors – Keza and fellow gaming writer Jason Killingsworth – who were influential voices in the Dark Souls community.

I mentioned earlier the value of direct sales to publishers and authors. If you’re a Dark Souls fan, you are more likely to be following Keza or Jason on Twitter and reading their journalism, than browsing in Waterstones or WH Smith for something to read on gaming. Direct sales would generate a much better margin for us and, significantly, an improved royalty for the writers. So, we made the paperback available exclusively through us. It’s a brilliant book and has sold well. And for every book we sell directly, it’s the equivalent of selling two or three copies through retailers.

There is a clear disconnect between the mainstream sport books we publish and You Died: The Dark Souls Companion, so we set up a separate site with a blog that the authors update regularly and which has the all-important direct buy button.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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