Wisden: from being a collection of cricket records into being a record of cricket

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Richard Charkin shares how this 157-year-old book’s growth is spectacular & it continues to fascinate, amaze and grow. 

My adventure in cricket publishing
One of the less existential side-effects of the Covid 19 crisis is the disruption to sport and to the English cricket season in particular. I had tickets for the first test against the West Indies and was taking my sixteen-year-old eldest grandson to Lord’s for the first time. And that was cancelled along with so many other events, sporting, cultural, business, and social. But it prompted me to think a bit more about my adventure in cricket publishing.

Photograph of the 2014 Wisden dinner, courtesy Clare Skinner. The thoroughbred in the photo was named John Wisden but unfortunately failed to win a race.

The Cricketer’s Almanack…

Back in 1993 when I was CEO of the not-much-missed Reed International Books we were offered the opportunity to participate in an auction for a small sports publishing company, John Wisden & Co. Small but very old. The first edition of The Cricketer’s Almanack was published by John Wisden (a former professional cricketer) in 1864, the 28th year of the reign of Queen Victoria, 112 pages of miscellaneous and somewhat random facts and figures largely concerning cricket but also lists of British canal lengths, the battles of the Wars of the Roses, and the rules of quoiting. From 1864 to the present day it has been published annually (including wars and pandemics, probably the longest continuous book publication record in history) at the beginning of every English cricket season in April and is established as the most famous and revered sports book in the world.

I was keen to make that acquisition even if the price might be a little high, reflecting its prestige as much as its profitability. However, it came to my attention that the other potential bidder was John Paul Getty Jr and I decided that caution was the better part of valour when it came to bidding against a cricket-obsessed billionaire who had been introduced to the game by none other than Sir Mick Jagger. I withdrew our interest.

Sure enough Getty won the auction. A few weeks later I was approached by a bookselling friend (Richard Joseph then MD of Books Etc in London’s Charing Cross Road and elsewhere) asking whether I would like to meet Getty’s son, Mark, to discuss their ownership of Wisden. Having acquired it they realised they had become publishers and they wanted to appoint a publisher to its management committee. Would I be interested? You bet! No money but various treats – free copies of the book, annual launch party, get to meet interesting cricketing people, watch and play cricket at the Gettys’ beautiful private ground at Wormsley outside London.

The biggest treat of all was to appear in Wisden, one of the greatest cricketing honours even if it was on very dubious grounds and in very small type on the title verso page along with the rest of the management committee.

All this was in my mind because I had just retired from the Board of Wisden after 27 years and I thought the journey might be of some interest and perhaps of some limited educational value to a global publishing audience

The new beginning…

Whilst Paul Getty wanted Wisden for its editorial excellence and reflected glory, Mark Getty was (and is) a business person. He co-founded the hugely successful Getty Images and he could see opportunities to use Wisden’s reputation to build a bigger sports media business. We made a number of acquisitions and investments to sit alongside the Almanack and its cricket magazine subsidiary.

Eight years later, however, after failing to launch successfully our own website we acquired the business which Simon King and Badri Seshadri had launched. It was www.cricinfo.com  and, in stark contrast to our initial impressions, it had become the biggest cricket resource in the world with millions of users.  We relocated it to India and developed it rapidly as a business, with exponential traffic growth and substantial advertising revenues. In 2007 we sold it to Disney’s ESPN for £27m, more than 10 times what we had paid for it four years earlier. Its further development under the editorial leadership of Sambit Bal has been remarkable and sustained.

The next major acquisition was Hawk-eye, a technology for tracking the flight and direction of a cricket ball to aid umpiring decisions. It is by far the most used and trusted technology. The trick was going to be to adapt the technology for sports other than cricket. The first coup was earning the contract for the US tennis open in New York and it is now used in football and many other sports.

These new businesses (along, bizarrely, with The Oldie magazine) formed part of the Wisden Group and I remember a strategy day where we discussed the future of the group. It was clearly changing from being a traditional English print company focussing on cricket into an international, multi-sport technology business. Somehow or other it was agreed to break up the group and sell off the valuable parts leaving the original Wisden Almanack where it started, an annual book.

Wisden goes to Bloomsbury…

As the Getty family cashed out of the sports businesses they offered Wisden to Bloomsbury who were delighted to acquire and nurture it while I tried to ensure a reasonable level of profitability and a continuing relevance.

For instance, although Wisden is unutterably English I am very proud of the editions we launched in Australia and in India, edited by the hugely respected and energetic Suresh Menon.

And any number of marketing coups, perhaps the most visible was the Google Doodle celebrating the founder’s 187th birthday! I cannot remember how many tens of millions of views this attracted.

Creating history…

Hugely important editorial initiatives were undertaken. Moving the book from being a collection of cricket records into being a record of cricket. Whilst still holding the most accurate and comprehensive statistics, it is also repository of the very best sports writing covering not just the game but its relevance to politics, history, feminism, racism, mental health, environmental issues, economics.  As the legendary saxophonist and wit, Benny Green, said, Wisden is “a delightful social history of England. There is hardly an innovation offered by its editors, or a great event recorded by them… which cannot now be seen as the analogue of some movement on the larger national stage.”

During my involvement we had three different sales and distribution partners – Gollancz, Penguin, and now Bloomsbury. Five brilliant editors oversaw the 27 editions – Matthew Engel, Graeme Wright, Tim de Lisle, Scyld Berry, and now Lawrence Booth. We launched a larger type edition for the more optically challenged. And a beautiful leather-bound edition for well-heeled collectors. There have been innumerable corporate branded editions for the likes of Natwest bank and Channel 4 TV. There are e-books of all recent editions, several audiobook compilations, electronic games, and facsimile reprints of the older editions. There are well-supported auctions for rare editions, the record being held when Christie’s sold an 1869 edition for £42,500. Every avenue is pursued as it should be for every book. The main edition is now priced at £55 and still sells many thousands of copies each year.

We also caused a stir in 2003 when put an image on the jacket for the first time – shock, horror, book puts photo on front cover!!

In 2013 we launched The Nightwatchman, the Wisden quarterly magazine of cricket writing with that wonderful C.L.R James quote on the cover: ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’.

Most recently we have relaunched www.wisden.com in collaboration with experts in digital marketing and sales, Cricket Properties. The growth is spectacular and this 157-year-old book continues to engross, amaze and grow.

In any event, whilst this may not be the biggest publishing adventure I have been involved with it has been the most fun and I hope I shall still be invited to the annual dinner in the Long Room at Lord’s the home of cricket. The dinner might not match the Booker Prize nor a banquet at Buckingham Palace but it isn’t that far short for those who love the game and love the quirks of publishing.

Do take a look at the Almanack’s website, The Nightwatchman, and any number of books and articles about this publishing phenomenon which has survived so many challenges, has reflected so much change in society and in cricket, and has adapted to technology, changing ownership and even my twenty-seven year involvement.

(Richard Charkin is  a  non-executive director with Bonnier Books UK , having held a multitude of executive positions across the industry, including as the former chief executive of Reed International Books and Macmillan Publishers Limited.)

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