Some time in 2015, sports journalists Digvijay Singh Deo and Amit Bose got in touch with me regarding a project. For a long time, they had been mulling over a book on Indian Olympians and the (largely unknown) experiences these sportspeople had had representing their country on the biggest sporting stage in the world. What struck me was the idea of having intimate first person accounts, not restricting the book to a defined time period, and looking beyond the sports person’s performance in their particular event.
During our preliminary meeting, Singh Deo showed me pictures of himself posing with athletes like Novak Djovokic, Monica Seles and other legendary names. I had heard about his incredible access to all Indian sports stars, and so I wasn’t really surprised when he received calls from two such stars during the meeting.
I began pitching the idea a few weeks later, confident about getting offers from almost every major publisher. The responses were more than underwhelming, to put it mildly. While some publishers questioned the very popularity and relevance of the Olympics among Indians, others felt that nobody watched Olympic sports except during the event. Not for the first time, I was told that only cricket books sell in India.
It’s just cricket
Thomas Abraham, CEO of Hachette India, who published Sachin Tendulkar’s globally-bestselling autobiography, has an explanation for the dominance of cricket-centric books in the genre. “It’s more a question of the levels achieved in other sport – and very few sports match the levels and passions of cricket.” Unlike Juggernaut’s Anish Chandy, who has turned down all non-cricketing proposals because “if no one’s watching them odds are they won’t read them,” Abraham feels there may be interest in books by a handful of stars from other sports, such as Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza, Pullela Gopichand or Mary Kom, but points out that their books have already been published.
Just as with books on cinema and Bollywood, then, a cricketer is preferred over a non-cricketer. Likewise, even an “as-told-to” memoir is preferred over an authorised or unauthorised biography. And such is the box-office attraction of cricket that Dilip D’Souza turned Sachin Tendulkar’s last Test at the Wankhede Stadium into a full-fledged 250-page book titled Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar! Imagine attempting a book on Abhinav Bindra’s last shooting event or Sushil Kumar’s final wrestling bout, even though both of them are legendary Indian sports personalities.
Is there a reason, though, that not even books by sportspersons who command such extraordinary following in India become the biggest sellers? There is. Most publishers complain that sport memoirs or biographies in the country are mostly hagiographical accounts. They are waiting for the day when an Indian sportsman writes a book like Andre’s Agassi’s Open – brutally honest, inspiring, with a life-changing impact on many of its readers.
Only the stars matter
But what of books about sports rather than about sports stars? According to Sameer Mahale, who heads sales at HarperCollins India, “Books on the history of sports have seldom sold more than couple of thousand copies.” Ironically, it is in this unpopular genre in which some of India’s best sports books, among them Ram Guha’s Corner of a Foreign Field, and Rahul Bhattacharya’s Pandits from Pakistan, have been produced. Stellar examples of what publishers call “narrative non-fiction”, these are books that, as Abraham says, “You would read whether you have an interest in the sport or not.” Except not enough people do, clearly. As for reference books – data /lists /trivia /quiz – those are for diehard fans, who are a defined constituency.
With publishers unwilling to make big bets on most sports books, a regular non-fiction book will not even fetch an advance royalty of Rs 1 lakh. It was because of the poor advance that I had to call off a deal for a book about the socio-political implications of cricket in a predominantly Muslim region in Bihar. The author, a senior journalist, couldn’t even cover his travel costs, leave alone take time off from his day job to do it.
Other than the players themselves, it’s only the so-called co-author of the memoirs of a sporting superstar who can hope to earn big bucks. Yuvraj Singh’s cancer memoirs,
The Test of My Life: From Cricket to Cancer and Back was sold to Random House India for a reported Rs 60 lakh. Some of that money must have gone to co-author Sharda Ugra. Recently, Sourav Ganguly’s first cricket book, A Century Is Not Enough, co-written with sports journalist Gautam Bhattacharya, was acquired by Juggernaut for what is believed to be an even higher sum.
Just as the stars are not willing to be brutally honest or to stoke controversy – read Sachin Tendulkar’s memoir Playing It My Way for the classic example of copybook writing – many books about sports are cursorily done. Senior journalist Manish Kumar, who is working on a book on hockey, states, “The lack of strong research, an understanding of the subject and a holistic approach is evident in some of the recent sports books.” Give it time, counters Abraham, adding, “We just do not have enough output to compare to the best in class yet.”
This is a genre where timing matters. Publishers are quick to sign up cricket books to synch with the IPL or the World Cup, Olympics books to synch with the Games, and books on or by medal-winners soon after their achievement. Abhinav Bindra’s memoir is a case in point. I am sure books on PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik are being pitched too.
After half a dozen rejections, Singh Deo and Bose’s book, My Olympic Journey: 50 of India's Leading Sportspersons on the Biggest Test of Their Career, finally found a taker in Penguin Random House. In this case, the publisher has actually projected a first print run of 5,000-7,000 copies, versus the 2,000-2,500 copies that other publishers would probably have been looking at. The book was a bestseller in its category and in the top three in the overall sports category right from the time it was made available for pre-order on Amazon.
Kanishka Gupta is the CEO of the South Asia’s largest literary agency, Writer’s Side.