An Independent Publisher with a Major League Attitude

Sports Publishing LLC Scores Big Publishing Points
Sports Publishing LLC is on a roll. Founded in 1989, the Champaign, Illinois-based sports specialty publisher was chugging along slowly and surely, when suddenly they scored big in 2001, with the release of two best-selling books. Dale Earnhardt: Rear View Mirror, now has over 220,000 copies in print, and Americaís Heroes: Inspiring Stories of Courage, Sacrifice and Patriotism -ñ with more than 600,000 copies in print -- became the companyís first title to ever place on The New York Times Bestseller List.

Americaís Heroes spent nine weeks on the NYT list, peaking at number ten on January 6 of ë02. Revenue generated by its sales helped Sports Publishing print and release a total of 69 titles in 2001. In 2002 the release count climbed to 75 titles.

This made 2001/2002 the two most successful years in the companyís history, and led to their being named ìthe fastest-growing small publisher in Americaî by Publishers Weeklyís in March of 2001. Sports Publishingís 100% sales growth between 1999 and 2001 occurred in a span during which sales for the publishing industry as a whole actually fell by 6%. This year, SP again made the PW list (3/3/03 issue) by posting 2000-2002 sales growth of 187%, ranking them third behind ibooks and powerHouse Books, both NYC independents.

ìThe hallmark of this yearís small-publisher standouts was their ability to improve their productivity by developing programs that deliver consistent growth from a solid foundation,î said last yearís PW article. The success of Americaís Heroes was a leading example of this attribute, as it was integral in the company attracting the attention of many independent booksellers and other accounts who had not previously carried SP titles. Formerly known for publishing sports biographies, encyclopedias, and histories, the company now had the national profile it needed. Americaís Heroes ended up as Publishers Weeklyís 15th best-selling non-fiction book of 2001, and sales of other SP titles increased dramatically as well.

A 2002 title that also helped expand Sports Publishingís reach from their Midwest location to East Coast outlets was Patriots Day: The New England Patriots March to the Super Bowl Championship, a book published with the cooperation of the Boston Herald. Other factors included sales of new non-sports books such as Elvis: The King Remembered and the barely averted baseball strike -ñ the National Pastime and NASCAR (or should I say the TWO National Pastimes?) are SPís largest subject areas.

An important development in keeping SP growing and in the forefront is the publication of ìinstantî books, a concept especially appropriate in the world of sports, where ìtime is moneyî and fans want to immediately buy books featuring their favorite winning teams. Patriots Day was the first such experiment, allowing fans to buy a book about the new Super Bowl champions just one week after their victory.

Early in 2003, SP published books about college footballís three major bowl-game winners, including national champion Ohio State, and shattered company records for sales in the month of January. During that month, the books A Season to Remember: Ohio Stateís 2002 National Championship, Destinyís Dogs: Georgiaís Championship Season, and Trojans 2002: Return to Glory sold nearly 110,000 copies and generated well over $1 million in revenue for the company. A Season to Remember, compiled from stories and photos first found in The Columbus Dispatch, has sold through several printings and close to 80,000 total copies shipped -- a record for SPís ìinstantî books. The previous record was held by Patriots Day with 60,000 copies sold.

In February 2003, SP experienced continued success with ìinstantî publication of Super Bucs: Tampa Bayís Rise to Super Bowl Champions with The Orlando Sentinel and A Season of Excellence: The 2002 Oakland Raiders with The San Jose Mercury News. Other recent successful titles in the series include Terps: National Champions with The Baltimore Sun, Stanleyís Back: The Detroit Red Wings Recapture the Cup with The Detroit News, and Anaheim Angels: World Series Champions. As you can imagine, preparations are being made at the time of this writing for 2003 NCAA Champions: The March to the 2003 NCAA Tournament Championship, a chronicle of this yearís March Madness that will be published in conjunction with the winning teamís local newspaper. Always the innovator, Sports Publishing founder Peter Bannon recently began using another new, somewhat controversial publishing concept ñ the sponsored book. Aimed at allowing a narrow-interest book to make sense financially, Bannon now sells ads to underwrite the production of some large, yearbook-style volumes of sports info.

Like most good ideas, sponsorship in books was born out of necessity. SP had a book they were interested in publishing, but couldnít find a way to make it work financially. ìAround our conference table, we pulled together several people in the company and a few from the outside to brainstorm ideas for the project,î recalls Bannon. ìAfter almost giving up, one of our acquisition managers half jokingly suggested we get businesses to sponsor the book. ëEverything else in sports has sponsorshipí he said, and we had to agree with him. After considering the idea, we made the decision to try it.î

The first sponsored book was Illini Legends, Lists and Lore, and Bannon personally contacted local businesses and explained the concept. Within two months, he had sold $70,000 in sponsorships to companies such as an area newspaper and television station and the Indiana University Foundation. The Yankee Encyclopedia attracted sponsorships from American Airlines, Chase Manhattan, and the US Postal Service. Print runs for Illini and Yankee were 12,500 and 30,000 respectively.

ìThe reception has been great and to date we have had no complaints from customers, authors, or booksellers,î says Bannon. SP has tested the sponsorship concept in ten different markets and has averaged $40,000 in ad sales per book. He says they are very careful to make the ads tasteful and fitting with the subject, and titles are typically 300 to 500 pages long and have ten pages of sponsorship ads. Currently SP has worked with more than 100 companies, also including McDonalds, GMC, Ford, America Airlines, Meijer, Sears, Adidas, Mickey Mantleís, Chase Bank, Ameritech, JCPenney, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Montgomery Ward, AAA, Hewlett Packard, and Bell Atlantic.

Will this be a growing trend? Bannon believes so.

ìPublishing is a very tough business both from a profit standpoint and from cash flow. Since the sponsorships are paid up-front, and raise the average revenue per title, it solves both of these problems. Many books would not be able to be published without some type of additional revenue.î

Bannon is also doing some innovating at the other end of the sales cycle. In an effort to deal with another industry problem -ñ overstocked titles that result from unseen economic factors and inventory returns -ñ SP is offering books to civic groups for fund-raising. Volunteer fire departments, marching bands have begun selling SP titles like American Heroes and Elvis, with the notion that consumers might see more value in hardcover books than the usual high-priced candy bars and popcorn.

Also on the Sports Publishing agenda for continued improvement:

* Revenue Growth ñ Increase number of titles published and expand sales to general and specialty merchandisers. ìA lot of sports fans never go to Barnes & Noble,î says Bannon.

* Pursue Overseas Sales ñ Opportunities exist, especially in China and Japan, as professional sports become a more global phenomenon. Bannon has gathered a board of directors with international ties and experience.

* Enhance Corporate Profile ñ SPís innovative marketing is getting some high-profile attention from the likes of CNN, Fortune, and if things continue this way, Publishers Weekly at least once each MarchÖ

This April, as Major Leaguers play ball, SP will continue establishing a presence in the ìmajorsî of publishing. Watch for new baseball books, and you can bet there will be more new books for NASCAR fans. SP will keep doing what works -- but donít expect Bannon to stop innovating. SP will also continue venturing into new media, by including companion DVDs and audio CDs with some titles.

ìThe book industry has never been the most progressive industry, but the challenging economy will force publishers to try new area to raise revenue and profits. Over time the creative publishers will move into this area and others. The rest will go the way of the dinosaurs.î