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ESPN Wants To Hook With Books

Jeff Trachtenberg at the Wall Street Journal looks at the sports network ESPN’s newest venture: trying to get its target 18-34 male crowd to read books. Witness last week’s news about former basketball player John Amaechi‘s recent disclosure that he is gay, Trachtenberg writes. While it isn’t exactly a shocker that some pro athletes happen to be gay, the story quickly became national news. A big part of the reason is that Mr. Amaechi’s memoir “Man in the Middle,” published by ESPN Books, is now hitting the shelves. The imprint is small, but it is using its ties to the rest of ESPN to help build buzz around its titles.

So far, the company has a few good sellers but nothing in the blockbuster domain, though that may change – especially as the big chains recognize ESPN’s marketing potential. In each Borders superstore, for example, there are now two shelves labeled ESPN-Borders Bestsellers; a third is branded ESPN Instant Classics. “We are seeing significant sales increases where we have signage featuring ESPN personalities promoting specific titles,” says Christine Edwards, a Borders category manager. Barnes & Noble publishes two sports encyclopedias in conjunction with ESPN Books, one for football and one for baseball. “It’s worked for us because their brand is ubiquitous,” says Bruce Lubin, a Barnes & Noble vice president.

Rival publishers have noticed. “If they didn’t have the TV stuff and everything else, they’d be as hard-pressed as other publishers to make these books into major events,” says Rick Wolff, executive editor at Hachette Book Group. But having “everything else” does make it likely that a title will break big – perhaps William Nack‘s memoir RUFFIAN, a novella-length account of the racing writer’s relationship with the bad-luck filly who died in 1975 after racing head-to-head with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. A movie is forthcoming on the Disney Channel, later to be broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2. If that’s not synergy, what is?

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