A Tale Of Sports Subgenres: A Syntoptical Reading Project

From time to time I like to engage in syntoptical reading, where one reads a lot of books about the same sorts of subjects as a way of gaining insight into what is written and why it is written [1].  Today, I would like to comment on sports books and what sort of types that they fall into based in their scope and agenda and writing.  Even the most cynical of readers may assume that sports books tend to lack many of the obvious agendas that books on other subjects do, but as is true with anything else, the sort of books that are published by mainstream presses tend to have certain audiences in mind and these audiences are gained by the writing of certain kinds of books, and it is worthwhile to explore these in at least some detail so that we may better understand the nature of what is being written and why it is available for us to read certain kinds of books and perhaps not others, whose audience is less well understood or identified.

One type of sports book that I have read is the sports lessons book.  This sort of book is often written by someone who is an undeniable sports celebrity–a successful player or coach or Olympian, for example–who happens to wish to provide insight about a subject such as moral lessons drawn from their experiences, or advice on how to have a good marriage with the difficulties that are involved, or something else of that nature.  This sort of book is often published by a Christian publisher or some other targeted publisher depending on what the lessons involved tend to be.  The audience here are those who are fans of the given writer (there is almost always a co-writer or ghostwriter involved in these works, it should be noted) as well as those who share agreement about the general perspective of the work and the issues being written about in the first place.

Another type of sports book is the sports memoir book.  This sort of book is written by someone about their life not only as a famous athlete but also with that athletic experience put in a larger context.  Often this book is written with a co-writer or ghostwriter as well and can be a very lengthy sort of work.  A wide variety of publishers can deal with these works and they can take a variety of different directions.  Perhaps the work is a puff piece because the athlete needs some money post-retirement.  Perhaps the athlete wishes to tell some lessons in their lives (see the previous paragraph) that indicates a targeted memoir to people of faith or those who read about survivors of child abuse or something else of that nature.  Perhaps the athlete or coach has a striking life history that involves being a refugee or coaching a team of refugees or something else that tugs at the heartstrings and can lead to a greater reading audience.

Still another type of sports book is the sports book that depends on having access of a particular kind at a particular time.  For example, one may be writing a book about a professional team and have access for one particular year and so one writes a book about that year and then determines after the fact what sort of tone the work is going to take.  Does the team end up doing poorly with a drastic shake-up after the season?  Well, then one is writing a book about lost Sundays (if about the NFL) or something of that nature.  Does the team win a championship?  If so, then one has the chance to write a very rare sort of book.  Does the team make the playoffs but lose?  If so, one has a chance to write a tell-most book that can point to a glorious championship window ahead.  Often this book is valued for the gossipy inside information the book provides, because the season in particular is likely not as spectacular as would be hoped, whether one is writing about the sales of yearling horses or the fortunes of the new-look New York Yankees.

Still other sports books are far more technical in nature.  These books are written about the value of baseball cards, or statistical analyses of players, or how-to guides on sports techniques, or books that seek to inform the reader about what types of events are at the X Games or Olympics and so on.  These books have a targeted audience that is usually self-selected.  If you are reading a guide on fantasy sports projections, it is fairly obvious that you are a player of fantasy sports and wish to have an edge by being better informed than one’s opponents.  If one is reading a book on speedskating than you either like playing or watching the sport and want to know more about it.  Few people are going to read a book about the value of playing cards unless they have a collection they wish to evaluate or are looking to build such a collection.  And so it goes.  These books have a purpose, but their purpose is so transparent that audiences do not even tend to think about it.

What we have seen, even without exhausting the potential sort of sports books that could be written (including books about an amazing season or amazing game seen in retrospect), is an indication that there are very easy to identify lanes that sports books fall into.  This is not because there are only a few ways that one can think about sports, but because of the economics of the book trade that limit the sorts of books that one tends to find to ones whose market can be easily understood.  Few people would want to read the memoir of a benchwarmer for a minor league baseball team, unless that benchwarmer becomes an internet personality and draws a higher profile, and so few such books are written.  Few books are written about the techniques involved in rhythmic gymnastics because few people are interested in such a sport, but if such interest increased, more books would be available to meet the available demand.  Canadian libraries might have a lot of books on curling but American libraries will not, for the same reasons.  The need to publish so many thousands of books before a title becomes profitable for an author and publisher encourage publishers to play it safe as to who is given contracts to write books and what sorts of books are published.  The use of ghostwriters or co-writers ensures that the books that are written meet the stylistic conventions that the publisher and avid readers similarly demand, and smooth over many of the rough spots that an author would have if writing unaided by a professional.

Unlike some people, I do not mention these things to criticize them.  Nor have I mentioned the process by which authors seek agents and book proposals are made and advances paid and access is given by particular teams or institutions (like a horse farm) to a given writer for a book to be written or the length of time it takes for books to be researched and written.  All of these factors help determine the potential audience of a book and help determine the success it is likely to have.  The question remains, as is often the case, as to how an audience can signal what types of books they would want to read that they are not getting the chance to read.  Usually it is the pre-existing popularity of someone that allows publishers and agents to determine who it is gets the chance to write a book for a mainstream trade press, so it would appear that if an audience wanted to signal what sort of books they would want to read, they would have to look for material online that has not (yet) had many books written about it.  That popularity would then provide the platform by which someone would then write books about the subject that is currently being underserved.   Let us not expect this process to be quick, but at the same time there are ways to communicate interest in topics that can provide publishers with the data they would need to meet that demand with something of interest.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/09/04/films-a-syntopticon-project/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/01/27/book-review-how-to-read-a-book/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2019/06/04/joshua-kendall-and-the-psychology-of-creativity/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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