The men and women who populate the niche market for cricket books in the UK
A man arrives early for a County Championship match at, say, Worcester or Canterbury. He settles into his favourite seat, takes a cricket book out of his bag and begins to read. The scene has the elegiac feel of a poem by Philip Larkin, or of a painting entitled "The Passing of England". Four-day cricket, a smallish ground and a book. Bless.
Already I am lapsing into easy categorisation. For one thing, the tremendous conclusion to the last English season suggested the County Championship was nothing like ready for sepia; for another, every first-class county is searching for ways to increase its revenue, and thousands of supporters now follow the game on social media, laptops, tablets and smartphones. How else would you be reading these words?
However, while cricket fans are far from being technophobes, evidence suggests they do retain a fondness for the tactile and mental sensations to be gained from a book. Those wishing to read the autobiographies of current or recently retired players are catered to by the major houses. Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Sphere have been only too keen to publish the life stories of Stuart Broad, Joe Root and Jonathan Trott. As a rough rule such books are skilfully ghostwritten and deserve to sell well.
There are also a few authors - Scyld Berry and Gideon Haigh are two examples - published by the big houses. Berry's Cricket: The Game of Life was the Cricket Writers' Club book of the year and is shortlisted for other awards; Haigh's Stroke of Genius, which is concerned with Victor Trumper and George Beldam's famous photograph of him, should be similarly honoured. After all, there could, perhaps, be no better way of seeking refuge from the world of Trump than by recalling the age of Trumper.
What the smaller publishers have done is achieve exceptionally high professional standards while not losing the love of their craft, which originally defined the amateur
But what about the thoughts of shrewd county cricketers? Or administrators who were once at the centre of the English game? Or long-dead Test players whose careers deserve further investigation? Or the history of the County Championship itself?
These are the sort of subjects that have been covered in recent years by books published by Fairfield, Pitch, and Chequered Flag, three of the smaller firms whose owners know their businesses may never make them millionaires, yet who derive considerable satisfaction from seeing a cricket book go from the handshake marking initial commission to the morning when the advance copies arrive. That is when they and their authors can see what all the labour has been for. The magic of those moments never fades.
For Stephen Chalke the first such moment came in 1997 when he self-published Runs in the Memory: County Cricket in the 1950s under the now familiar Fairfield Books imprint.
"My original assumption was that I would get a mainstream publisher to take my first book on," he said. "But they didn't and I went down the road of publishing it myself. It was successful and I found I enjoyed the various aspects of publishing. I've never looked for a publisher since. After my first three books I started to publish books by other people as well. I've enjoyed it and I've enjoyed the fact that I can publish what I like in the way I like and not have to fit in with some other company's idea of what is commercial. It suited my temperament very well."
Stephen Chalke: captain of the UK's team of small publishers
© PA Photos
Stephen Chalke: captain of the UK's team of small publishers © PA Photos
Before long, Chalke's warm, loving, yet rarely sentimental, evocation of county cricket in post-war England was beginning to win awards. He travelled the country interviewing old players, preserving their vivid memories on tape before transcribing and editing them and adding a generous dash of social context to marvellous games at, say, Dover, Bournemouth or Bradford. The players were getting on and the grounds were no longer used but the games were kept alive from an era in which broadsheet newspapers covered every first-class fixture.
Just as significantly, Chalke's book At the Heart of English Cricket: The Life and Memories of Geoffrey Howard told the story of the man who had been secretary of both Lancashire and Surrey and was manager the 1954-55 Ashes tour. In the foreword, Scyld Berry described the volume as "one of the most valuable documents in English cricket history".
By 2001, when the Howard book came out, Chalke was an established publisher, although the process by which he became one had been strewn with new experiences.
"I started with very little knowledge of the publishing process and not a great deal of knowledge of the wider world of cricket books or what audience existed for them," he said. "I took every opportunity to ask other people for all the advice I could get. Despite having an MA in English Literature and having read books all my life, I was quite surprised when I had to pull down books from the shelf and discover how title pages worked and what was the layout. What was the running order of opening pages? These were all things that I hadn't really seen before, and then there was the world of getting into shops and publicising your book.
"I try to make viable a book that a bigger publisher would consider as possessing too small a sales figure. You have to do as much as you can yourself. If I had people coming in to pack parcels or do page layout, that would be the profit margin gone. As a small publisher you have to be prepared to put in days when you are lugging boxes of books around or packing parcels. I quite like the variety of work involved in it."
"We really like the cricket market because it is very loyal. People will read any books on cricket whereas the football market is more tribal"
If Britain's small publishers ran their own cricket team, Chalke would probably be either its captain or senior professional. Yet he is often at pains to point out that there are other such firms who plough the same field while performing a slightly different role. One such is Pitch Publishing, which was founded in 2002 and now puts out a staggering 60 titles a year, a dozen of them about cricket.
Such an enterprise requires a larger staff than Chalke, who concedes that he, effectively, is Fairfield Books, but the satisfaction derived from the work is echoed very clearly.
"We don't have great cash resources and we can't always offer huge advances to attract the biggest names," said Paul Camillin, one of Pitch's directors. "But I think what we are able to do is pretty decent and we've given a few authors their breaks.
"We really like the cricket market because it is very loyal. People will read any books on cricket, whereas the football market is more tribal. We are looking for books which are well written, well researched and have a good story. We do it because I think people still love books and we are the same. We may have worked on a book for 12 or 18 months but there's nothing more exciting than when you see the fruition of all the hard work. If the story's good enough, people will want to read about it, and that's borne out by the data."
The range and quality of cricket books in Pitch's catalogue is astonishing. Over the last year or so their list has included The Good Murungu, Alan Butcher's insightful story of his time as Zimbabwe coach, The Hard Yards, Mike Yardy's moving autobiography, and The War of the White Roses, Stuart Rayner's outstanding investigation into t' trouble at Yorkshire over nearly two decades.
Bricks and mortar and everything that's nice: the smaller cricket publishers aren't too fussed about the electronic format
© Getty Images
Bricks and mortar and everything that's nice: the smaller cricket publishers aren't too fussed about the electronic format © Getty Images
"It was great that Pitch gave me the opportunity and took the risk on it," said Rayner. "I tried four publishers but three declined for various reasons. Pitch were hands off during the writing and things didn't intensify until the deadlines were approaching. They let me write the book in the way I wanted to and they then did a great job of turning the book around once they had received the manuscript and photographs. They left me to do what I wanted to do and that was quite refreshing."
Equally refreshing, perhaps, is the absence of aggressive competition between the small publishers. If a rivalry exists, it is of the gentlest variety imaginable.
"It always disappoints me when people come with very good ideas and I'm not in the position to take it on or just don't think I'm the right person to do something," Chalke said. "I'm pleased that Pitch are developing such a good cricket list because there is another port of call for someone with a good idea. They have strengths which I don't have."
That job of getting the books to the readers also exercises the mind of Scott Reeves, the publishing manager of Chequered Flag, which has put out about two cricket titles each year since 2011. Recently these have included Lahore to London, the autobiography of the former Surrey and Pakistan cricketer Younis Ahmed, and Rebel With a Cause, Keith and Jennifer Booth's biography of Jack Crawford, perhaps the most talented schoolboy cricketer of them all.
"As a small publisher you have to be prepared to put in days when you are lugging boxes of books around or packing parcels"
"Being a small operation we need to be able to cover every aspect of it, from commissioning to author's briefs to tinkering with a submission to working with a manuscript," said Reeves. "Some books need a lot of work, some can go out as they are delivered. I need to be aware of cover design, typesetting, indexing and the nuts and bolts of getting the books in front of the customer.
"We don't tend to work through bookshops because they are not so interested in small publishers. The average cricket book buyer is male, retired, and isn't interested in buying online. So we advertise through post and mailshots. If it's a book that I think would interest a mainstream publisher, I'll advise the author they would do better to go there. I try to pick books that will interest our core readers.
"You don't do this to be a millionaire. I'm a freelance writer myself and I have to do other things to pay the bills. I'm surprised how few copies of some books actually sell. What you might expect to be flying off the shelves might only sell about a thousand copies."
The same is true for Chalke, who points out that Fairfield Books has never been his principal source of income and that his hourly earnings from publishing have probably been below the minimum wage. Personal circumstances have allowed him to write and publish some of the most notable cricket books of the last 20 years, including Summer's Crown, a glorious history of the County Championship, first published in 2015, when the centrepiece of the English season seemed likely to be shoved further into the margins.
However, Chalke has also found it rewarding to work with authors who share his love for the written word.
Stuart Rayner tried four publishers before he found a home for his award-winning book on Yorkshire at Pitch
Stuart Rayner tried four publishers before he found a home for his award-winning book on Yorkshire at Pitch
"I'm not the publisher for people who are in it for the money," he said. "I'll go the extra mile to make a book as good as I can make it. I've always enjoyed working with John Barclay because he loves writing and he's interested in the choices he makes when he puts pen to paper. It was similar with Mark Wagh when he did his diary of a season with Nottinghamshire because the writing itself was of interest to him. Sometimes books get too long. You can do more with less at times. David Foot is a master of the short essay on cricketers and I've very much enjoyed working with him."
That theme of enjoyment is shared by Camillin and Reeves, and it is particularly refreshing to find it in publishing, a business often renowned for its bitchiness. What the smaller publishers have done is achieve exceptionally high professional standards while not losing the love of their craft, which originally defined the amateur. It is this that ensures they lavish attention on their books and show concern for their authors.
"I see Fairfield Books as the publisher of decent cricket books which are not going to be published in big enough numbers to interest the bigger publishers but will sell in big enough numbers for a home-based operation like mine," said Chalke. "If I can sell 2000 to 2500 copies of a book, that's a good result for me, but it isn't a good result for HarperCollins.
"I do try to pay the authors - and the subjects - of books fairly. My royalty per book is generous compared with the bigger publishers, but of course, I can't pay the sort of advances they pay because I don't sell anywhere near as many copies. For this reason I avoid working with people whose primary motive is financial.
" You don't do this to be a millionaire. I'm a freelance writer myself and I have to do other things to pay the bills"
"I have published two books where all the proceeds went to charity: Gentlemen, Gypsies and Jesters to Chance to Shine; Team Mates to the Arundel Castle Cricket Foundation. Thanks to benefactors and purchasers making additional donations, the first of these generated nearly £50,000; the second has so far raised more than £20,000. Bob Appleyard gave his royalties from No Coward Soul to the Leonard Hutton Cricket Foundation, supporting youth cricket in Yorkshire. Again with additional donations, the book raised more than £20,000 for the charity. I'm rather proud of what we achieved with these books."
The medium-term plans of Fairfield, Pitch, and Chequered Flag may reassure our spectator at Worcester or Canterbury. All three will publish new cricket titles and none see the e-space as an inviting area for expansion. If a demand existed, they would look to meet it, but the buyers of cricket books are happy with printed pages.
"There hasn't been a particular demand for e-books from the people on my mailing list," said Chalke. "I couldn't see books like Summer's Crown translating well into an e-book format."
"What you are seeing now is that e-book sales are on a plateau of about 25 to 30%, depending on the genre," adds Camillin. "That percentage is exactly where we thought it would be. The book is a tangible, physical product, and if you do it well, people love the feel of it. You can't beat receiving a book on Christmas morning."
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications
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