James Corbett is a sports correspondent and award-winning author who writes about football for publications including The Blizzard, FourFourTwo, World Soccer and contributes to the BBC World Service’s World Football programme. He worked with Neville Southall and Howard Kendall on their autobiographies and his Everton Encyclopedia was published to acclaim in autumn 2012.
In 2009 James founded deCoubertin books, an independent publisher based in the heart of Liverpool with a focus on sport. Since then the company has gone from strength to strength, incorporating more titles than ever before and working with a host of varied and dedicated authors.
Here James discusses all things publishing with Rémi Carlu, founder of Heristage, a French website dedicated to the history of English football.
First of all, can you introduce yourself?
I am a journalist, author and Evertonian who fell into the publishing business nearly 8 years ago. I try and balance these four competing passions with my other duties in life, being a father, husband and failed athlete (rower, runner & footballer).
You’ve written several football books: can you talk a bit about the entire process of writing a book, from the actual decision of writing it to the publication?
In terms of writing it, there has to be a gap, a new angle to pursue, a need to commit a year (or sometimes significantly more) of your life to telling a story. I’ve written three of my own books and collaborated on five others. My own books were written in long hand and typed up. Although the process is arduous, I think that the physical connection between pen and paper adds to the process of writing and when you do sit down and type it up there is an additional level of self-editing.
The books that I’ve ghostwritten are interview-led and the creative process takes place on screen with the transcripts. There’s a lot of toing and froing, checking and rechecking facts and details. To that extent it is more like a piece of extended journalism.
Can you explain the genesis and the editorial policy of deCoubertin Books?
I had written and had published two books of my own, one with a major publisher and the other a large independent, and felt frustrated by the editorial process with both and for different reasons. I was consulted on the aesthetics of the books but not listened to. I.e. Macmillan specifically went against my advice in terms of putting Wayne Rooney on the cover of my Everton book (in an England shirt!). They thought he would sell copies. I knew he would be sold to Man Utd. The paperback was published the day that that transfer happened. Such an experience was indicative of the frustrations I experienced.
At the same time there were technological shifts that were placing the tools of manufacture into the hands of the creators. I didn’t want to be a self-published author, but to create a publishing company with rigorous processes that would serve me and like-minded friends and colleagues. I could never have imagined back then - 2009 - that deCoubertin would be where we are today.
The editorial policy was and is simple: to be fresh and original, listen to authors, and uphold high editorial and creative principles.
How would you describe the current relationship between literature and football in England?
It’s getting better. The life of deCoubertin has been in parallel with the ascent of magazines like The Blizzard, other independent publishers like Backpage and large companies putting resources into imprints like Wisden Sportswriting. There’s some good blogs and a rise in serious long form journalism.
How large is the actual and potential audience on historical football literature?
Significant enough to run a publishing company which focuses on it. Not significant enough to publish what would be considered a true bestseller, i.e. something that sells tens or hundreds of thousands.
What do you look for in a football book as a publisher when evaluating a submitted book?
Originality. Good writing. A willingness from the author to engage at every level of the publishing and sales and promotion process.
Can you talk a bit about the various events organised by deCoubertin Books?
I think it’s an important part of the publishing process for an author to meet their public. It also helps with sales, and without sales you don’t have a sustainable model.
Have you got any specific projects about to be developed?
We’ll be revealing our publishing programme for 2017 in the weeks ahead.
What do you look for in a football book as a reader? Personally, how do you like a football book to be in terms of organisation/illustration/page setting?
Originality and a good standard of writing. It helps when the book is designed to a high standard; I think a book should be a beautiful product, but that alone is not enough. The Cruyff autobiography looked great, but the contents were ugly.
We imagine you’re an inveterate reader: what is your favourite football book (all publishers included)? A book you wish you’d published as a publishing house? A book you wish you’d written as a writer?
My favourite football book is All Played Out by Pete Davies or The Football Man by Arthur Hopcraft. To have had the access either man enjoyed would be enviable. As a publishing house to have been able to have made a success of a book like Oliver Kay’s biography of Adrian Doherty would have been rewarding.
Why do you think it is important to recount and pass down the history of English football? Is it more important nowadays than 20 years ago?
Perhaps so because the oral traditions of some clubs are being lost as ordinary fans are priced out by corporates/ tourists. I look at my home city of Liverpool and see an entire generation unable to get access to Anfield and with it all the old match day routines. At some level books preserve these stories and legends for eternity.
To what extent does the current accumulation of money in football threaten the historical and cultural roots of football clubs?
It is a threat - as outlined with the Liverpool experience - but it is also an opportunity. You look at my club, Everton, and how they have used their wealth to engage with the local community by subsidising tickets for young people or through their brilliant community schemes. They are the People’s Club on Merseyside and will remain so because of their foresight. By contrast, within 10-20 years there will be entire Liverpool-supporting families with little or no direct match-going experience. Grandfathers, fathers, children. At this point, how do they differ from any other TV entertainment medium?
Is there a particular era that you’re particularly interested in and why?
Not especially, every decade has its own fascination.
From a historical perspective, would you agree that most of football legends somehow perpetuate paternalistic values? What role historical writers play therein?
I don’t think so, no. They perpetuate a form of nostalgia and identity with a real or imagined youth. Some writers may sentimentalise this or perpetuate myths or legends, but the majority of credible writers are honest in their assessment.
Pick one team in the history of English football that you particularly appreciate and explain why.
I think the great underdogs who arrive from nowhere are always compelling stories full of fascinating subplots and individual tales of triumph over adversity. Burnley 1960. Ipswich 1962. Derby in 1972. Everton 1985. Leicester 2016.
Pick one manager in the history of English football that you particularly appreciate and explain why.
I think because I’ve come into contact with directly or indirectly (via the players that came under their charge) with many of the great post-war managers some of the mystique has worn away. So I would go for Herbert Chapman, an original and groundbreaker in ever conceivable sense.
Pick one or several players in the history of English football that you particularly appreciate and explain why.
Neville Southall, who was my hero as a boy, my subject as a biographer and my friend as a man. A giant of a player and a selfless and great (though often misunderstood) person, without an ounce of ego, but who is always looking to make the world a better place.
In a nutshell:
Sir Tom Finney or Sir Stanley Matthews?
Herbert Chapman or Sir Matt Busby?
Brian Clough or Don Revie?
As an Everton fan, Harry Catterick or Howard Kendall?
Last but not least
Was football better before?
Not better or worse, but different. Every generation pines for some bygone era or other, but the past can’t always have been a better place.
Read more articles on the history of English football on Remi's website Heristage here.