Magic opportunity for small publisher

It is a sad consequence of the effect of the recession on the book business that even great stories told by famous names might struggle to make it into print as publishers become increasingly anxious to avoid taking risks.

The life of Garry Birtles, the carpet fitter who became a double European Cup winner with Nottingham Forest and then Manchester United’s most expensive player, is a terrific tale that has begged to be told -- but almost 20 years after his last professional game it might be hard to convince a commissioning editor worried about his margins to agree.

Happily, publishing does not begin and end with the big London houses and the Garry Birtles story is now sitting on bookshop shelves thanks to a three-way collaboration that will, with luck, provide more evidence that, in the sports book business, small can be beautiful -- and, more to the point, profitable.

My Magic Carpet Ride, just released by Reid Publishing, has seen the light of day after Birtles teamed up with Nottingham-based football writer Ian Edwards and local publisher David McVay.

They have targeted a relatively small audience but believe there will be enough interest, particularly in the Nottingham area, to sell in sufficient numbers for all parties to see a worthwhile reward.

The risk is shouldered by McVay, a former professional footballer turned successful journalist and author, but apart from the upfront costs involved in printing, much of the outlay is in man hours and motorway miles.

“In broad terms, a printer will charge about £2.50 per copy for a hardback, and perhaps £1.50 for a softback,” he said. “So for an initial run of 1,000 copies in hardback you are looking at up to £2,500 to get the book produced.

“We have been working with MPG Biddles in King’s Lynn, who are competitive in terms of price but produce a good quality, well designed product.”

Getting their books into the shops can often be a barrier to success for small publishers, with large distribution firms demanding a substantial slice of the cover price in return for nationwide coverage.  Add that to the retailer’s cut and the profit for publisher and author takes a big hit. Better, in McVay’s eyes, to identify your likely sales hotspots and target them direct.

“Dealing with small, independent shops is straightforward enough,” he said. “They ask for a specific number of books and I’ll deliver them.

“Of course, independents these days are few and far between and it is the big, national chains that you want to have your books.

“You can deal with head offices but in my experience it is worthwhile going to the branches in the areas you expect to do well in and speaking directly with the local manager.

“We have very good relationships with the branch managers at Waterstones and WH Smith in Nottingham, for example, and that certainly helps.”

McVay also undertakes the work involved in publicising his books, organising signings and in-store promotions, or contacting newspapers, local and national, in the hope of generating publicity and reviews.

"There is a lot of work involved but the great thing is that you have full control of the project, whereas writing for another publisher you can feel a bit marginalised," he said.

In his case, contacts have helped.  He currently writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph titles and has a good relationship with the Nottingham Post, where he cut his journalistic teeth in the 1980s after playing for Notts County, and exposure in their pages, where Birtles writes a regular column, has been invaluable in publicising My Magic Carpet Ride.

“Henry Winter, the Telegraph football correspondent, also did a little piece,” he said. “It is great to get some national exposure.”

McVay hopes to sell copies in Manchester and in Grimsby, where Birtles -- now a regular contributor to Sky's football coverage -- ended his career, but it is mainly the Nottingham area that offers the best hope of a substantial take-up.

“Anyone who thinks that to sell 1,000 copies of a book is a piece of cake is wrong but with hard work and if you target the right market it is achievable.

“It is a three-way equal partnership between Garry, Ian and myself and if we can sell 1,000 there will be a return for us all.  If we can sell 2,000 or more it will have been a worthwhile experience.”

For ghostwriter Edwards, who got to know Birtles as a football writer on the Nottingham Post during the striker’s second spell at Forest, just seeing the book in the shops is a reward.

“From a personal view, to have written a book -- something I’d always wanted to do -- is a source of personal satisfaction.  But I’ve always thought that Garry had a great story to tell.

“He was getting paid £60 a week fitting carpets before Forest signed him and he goes on to win two European Cups.  Then he goes from the fantastic highs he experienced at the City Ground to the desperate lows at Manchester United.

“After he had finished his career at Grimsby, he ended up driving round in a white van selling fish for a while and even had a period on the dole.  Can you imagine someone winning the European Cup nowadays having to sign on the dole?”

Although concentrating largely on Birtles as a player and what he did on the field, the book also offers a glimpse into the life of a footballer during his era, and in particular into life in Nottingham.

“He has always been a Nottingham lad, wherever he has gone, a real homeboy with a real affection for the city,” Edwards said.

“Talking about the European Cup seasons, he would describe coming back from away games, landing at East Midlands airport and ending up in a club in town, talking to the fans.

“He has a lot of memories about being a footballer in Nottingham in the ‘80s and it was fascinating to listen to him talking about places that don’t exist now, clubs and shops and the like.  It painted a picture that was really evocative of what Nottingham was like as a city at that time.”

Follow the link to buy My Magic Carpet Ride through Amazon.

My Magic Carpet Ride is also available from Reid Publishing, at a discount price of £15.00.

For more on football, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.


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