In 2009 Martin BackPage and I, along with our co-founder, the mysterious James Porteous, were 10 years into careers as sports journalists in Scotland. I didn’t know Martin that well, but on a train ride back to Glasgow from a Chris Hoy media event in Manchester, we got talking.
Martin had recently had a book published. It had sold well, earned him a few clams and allowed him to visit Japan on a promotional tour, where he was interviewed by Japanese Playboy. It sounded like a big win in more ways than one, but Martin told me he had felt isolated during the process of writing and promoting his story, which was a biography of the brilliant Japanese footballer Shunsuke Nakamura. There had been no editorial guidance during his research or writing processes, no great assistance in getting the story out there. Martin had felt like he was on his own.
At the same time, I had found a literary agent for a few ideas of my own for sports books, all of which were awesome. However, no publisher took any of them up, leaving me with two opposing hypotheses: that my ideas were, in fact, not as awesome as I had believed them to be when writing my 10,000-word proposal for each one; or that sports publishing was broken, if it even existed at all.
On that train, somewhere between Manchester and Glasgow, I said what we really should do is start up our own sports publishing company. I say a lot of stupid stuff, but Martin did not know this at the time. Okay, he said. Let’s do it. And that is how this whole thing got started.
Martin roped in the mysterious James Porteous, who could design and typeset books as well as contribute another expert editorial eye. The two of them also found our first author, and his story.
‘In Search of Alan Gilzean’ was part football biography, part detective story, beautifully written by James Morgan, who completed our gang of four for that first venture, barging its way from sports journalism into publishing with surprisingly little resistance. The book was nominated in the Football Book of the Year category at the 2011 Sports Book of the Year Awards. We all went to London with our wives and girlfriends and we had expensive cocktails.
We were all of us still working for newspapers, writing about football, and so we were, in 2010, all the way smitten with Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona. This, we decided, was a story that BackPage could tell. After reading a brilliant piece he wrote on Xavi, we enlisted Graham Hunter to write our second title, Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.
We put all of the chips we had won with our first book on this next project. We shot a bunch of promo films in Barcelona, and gave big chunks of content away to international media just before publication. The bet paid off big.
As Graham wrote the story, the team leveled-up still further with a legendary win in the 2011 Champions League final that became the flag-in-the-ground opening for the book. Soon after publication, publishers from across Europe and Asia called, asking to speak to our rights executive. I was now a rights executive.
After that, we were pretty much done with the newspaper business. The mysterious James Porteous took a job offer from Hong Kong, and Martin and I took BackPage full-time.
Over the next three years, our adventures in publishing included the commissioning of a series of 10,000-word e-book short stories:
A book about the incredible Football Manager computer game, and its cult:
The second book by Graham Hunter, detailing the three consecutive tournament wins of the Spain national team, viewed from our author’s insider vantage point:
And one incredible year when we published the English language editions of Andrea Pirlo’s scintillating autobiography, and Pep Confidential, a book that has spider-webbed its way through elite football in the UK and beyond:
During that run, Martin and I were listening to podcasts. We’d swap notes on Serial, This American Life, Start-Up, but most of all long-form interview shows like Nerdist, WTF, Desert Island Discs and Here’s The Thing. Where, we asked ourselves, was the football equivalent of this kind of podcast?
Working with Graham Hunter on two books had shown us that he had a gold-plated contact book and was a world-class interviewer. Once we had explained to him what a podcast was, he once again agreed to be our guinea pig. One iTunes-topping interview with Gary Neville later, we knew we were onto something.
Season one of The Big Interview with Graham Hunter was funded by a KickStarter campaign. As we prepare for season two, we’ve got a great sponsor on board and have moved the podcast to Acast, alongside some of those great shows that inspired our idea in the first place.
As a result of the show’s success, it feels like we’ve moved from being a publishing company to a production one – more accurately, we’re now better prepared to tell our stories in whatever way they need to be told.
BackPage is podcasts – and we’re looking forward to adding more shows in the future – and it’s still books, too, but we’ve learned not to be limited like that. Wherever it takes us, we tell sport stories.
Neil BackPage, 2016.