Chris Cleave, author of Gold: A Novel, recently remarked on the BBC that with sport being so rich with drama why more authors hadn't chosen to set their stories in the world of professional sports. Cleave was fortunate that his previous published novels which were not in the sports fiction category. He was already an established and well-reviewed name in the literary world. For a debut novelist like myself writing a work of sports fiction was a far more risky move.
Bailey of the Saints was born from a disappointing visit to the airport bookstore. Nothing from the shelves was quite what I was looking for. I wanted a break from crime, spy novels, and those well-meaning novels about the impoverished from some forgotten backwater of the globe struggling with life in inner city London. In short I wanted to be entertained. I wanted the sort of book I could read quickly whilst lounging in the sun.
Had I been female, this would not have been a problem. The range on offer for the female reader is comprehensive. A well-known fact to the publishing industry is that women buy more novels than men. So naturally publishers and agents feel compelled to cater for this audience, but perhaps it's time they considered why the number of men reading novels, certainly those in the 18-34 demographic, is falling.
Having failed to find anything I did what a large number of men do - picked up a copy of the daily newspaper and left. If it wasn't for the sports pages many men wouldn't read anything at all. And this got me thinking, why is nobody writing for this untapped market.
Sports fiction does big business on the other side of the pond. Big name authors such as John Grisham regularly turn their hands to the genre. Yet here books dealing with sport largely consist of the biography and the autobiography. For every personal story worth telling, there are three-dozen which aren't, but somehow make it to publication. Pedestrian tales of premiership footballers which prove nothing of insight into the character other than the sort of tales which are commonly doing the rounds of the after dinner speaking circuit. The rest is cliché and padding.
Having worked in professional sports for over a decade and having been around professional footballers for a lot longer than that, I decided to set my novel in the world of professional football. I'd covered the sport from the English Premier League to the A-league in Australia and New Zealand, and it was the gulf between those two leagues which I thought had all the elements needed for crafting an original novel.
The first 6,000 words I wrote in one continuous stream of writing. I showed that early work to a variety of readers and was encouraged by the feedback. Placing it on the Harper Collins website Authonomy proved an interesting exercise. I received over 1,000 comments, 97% of which were positive, and surprisingly I also drew a large number of female readers - Americans at that - who were keen to read a book set in a sport they knew little about and told from a male perspective. A chance perhaps to get inside the head of the opposite sex. Out of nearly 3,000 submissions those early chapters of Bailey of the Saints were voted into the top five. It earned me a glowing review from Harper Collins, but no publishing deal.
This was perhaps my first inclination that getting published would not be easy as getting a great review. I did the usual step of firing off an introduction letter to prospective agents. I received what I can only describe as stunning indifference. Those bothered to respond told me "Sorry, we don't do football." It left me wondering if I'd set the novel in the world of finance whether I'd have been told "Sorry, we don't do banking." Whilst I was prepared for rejection, I was not prepared for that rejection to come before they'd even read a single word of the novel.
From those agents who read the sample chapters the feedback was positive and encouraging. More than once was I told,"You are obviously a good writer, who can tell a story but...the problem is we wouldn't know how to market this."
Two separate agents both told me that they thought the novel would do well if I was prepared to sell it as a 'ghostwrite' it for a professional footballer with a high-profile. Even the support of Footballing heavyweights such as Kenny Dalglish who recommended the book onto his own publishers and Graeme Souness who read and then backed the novel with blurb for the cover failed to sway the agents. "Look, the trouble is", I was told, "Football is non-fiction, and football fans don't read fiction."
I had to question their belief that having an interest in football, somehow lobotomised the reader and made them incapable of imagining a world where football could be fiction. It was catch 22. If the accountants and the marketing departments predict potential sales on current sales then how could realistically judge the market for a novel which didn't fit into any of their already existing categories. It's now folklore how many times JK Rowling was written off because nobody would be interested in a boy wizard, and late bloom of the vampire novel caught many of guard - now the shelves bulge with the bloody things.
It wasn't always this way, once upon a time Nick Hornby published Fever Pitch and football went mainstream and reached the middle classes. Whilst football has not dwindled in the public's interest it seems a readership which the literary world seems happy to try and satiate with a few high profile autobiographies. This may sit well in the current mantra of throwing a book deal and vast sums of money at any trending celebrity, but it's short-changing the reader.
As for myself, Bailey of the Saints was eventually published at the end of 2011. FourFourTwo awarded the novel 5 stars, and ESPN gave it the sort of a review any writer would dream of. The rest of the non-sporting media is yet to take notice.