Chicago Publisher of Sports Books Notches Victories with Unusual Speed
By David A. F. Sweet
Many consider book publishing to be a slow, somnolent industry. A writer may work for years on a book (Robert Caro has spent a decade to craft his final volume about the life of Lyndon Johnson), and then editors are drawn in to cut and reshape it, paper stock is loaded on the presses to print it, trucks are filled to deliver the finished tome to warehouses and – finally – readers buy it.
Triumph Books in Chicago often takes a different approach. When a team captures a championship or an athlete dies suddenly – two events as diametrically opposed as possible in terms of a fan’s emotional response – speed is crucial.
When the Atlanta Braves won the World Series on a Tuesday night in October, the next morning Triumph – coordinating with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — sent the final batch of necessary materials to the printer for a commemorative book. Six days later, Against All Odds: The Atlanta Braves’ Improbable Journey to the 2021 World Series hit bookshelves in Atlanta.
In the interim, Triumph discovered a problem, but it was a good one: the publisher had severely underestimated demand for the 128-page paperback.
“After we sent the book to the printers, we heard that orders were jamming up our website – thousands in the first 24 hours,” said Triumph Books Publisher Noah Amstadter. “By Friday, we were talking about a second printing because we didn’t have enough books.”
Surprisingly, the demand shattered Triumph’s previous record for sales of a championship book: that of the 2016 Chicago Cubs, who had gone 108 years between World Series’ titles.
Founded in 1989 by Mitch Rogatz – the son of former WBBM-TV sportscaster Bruce Roberts – Triumph first focused on reference books. Publishing the NCAA media guide to sell to fans rather than to just give to journalists launched the company into sports, where it is a leading book publisher today.
Though it prints autobiographies of sports stars and specializes in themes — such as its If These Walls Could Talk series about teams — the big sellers are the quick turnarounds. Triumph entered the business in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt: Remembering the Intimidator appeared on bookshelves less than two weeks later, and soon it became the No. 1 bestseller on The New York Times’ non-fiction list, selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
Nearly 20 years later, another sports death rattled the world: Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. About 10 days later, Kobe Forever — a project in concert with the Los Angeles Daily News — appeared in stores.
Though it sells many books with national appeal, Triumph has plenty of offerings for the passionate Chicago sports fan. From autobiographies of Billy Williams and Bobby Hull, to a look back at the ’85 Bears and a cookbook created by Frank Thomas, Triumph strives to be the preeminent publisher of its hometown athletes.
“When you get to work with these stars – some who may be your childhood heroes – it’s all the sweeter for us,” said Bill Ames, director of author engagement.
An aberration in the modern world of publishing, Triumph’s sales are dominated by the printed book, with e-books but a blip on the sales screen. Why?
“That goes to the sports fan who wants to put memorabilia on their shelves,” Ames said. (One exception: When Terry Boers of WSCR radio conducted a book signing for The Score of a Lifetime: 25 Years Talking Chicago Sports, a fan who had bought the Triumph e-book asked Boers to sign his iPad.)
Recently, supply-chain issues have rattled Triumph. The only reason the Braves’ book worked is because the company ordered the paper at the beginning of the year; other books published in the fall are being shipped at least a month late.
“We couldn’t do the Kobe book today without delaying another project,”
Despite the supply-chain setback, the independent publisher (Triumph was owned by Random House for a handful of years before the original publisher Rogatz bought it back) chugs along with standbys such as 100 Things, which names items all fans should know about their favorite teams, along with books explaining a sport to a fan through the eyes of a scout, manager or other expert. As well, Triumph has expanded its offerings in the past few years by striking deals to publish Sports Illustrated trade books and The Year’s Best Sports Writing collection.
What will be new in 2022? On The Clock will examine teams, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Detroit Red Wings, who have thrived through the college draft. The Franchise will pair strong writers with renowned teams to deeply examine what makes each franchise unique (the first two books will focus on the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox).
And believe it or not, the team that loses the 2022 World Series may be the subject of a Triumph book. It’s happened before, when the Kansas City Royals lost in seven games to the San Francisco Giants in 2014.
“The filled their stadium for a rally after they lost,” Amstadter recalled. “That was an obvious opportunity for us.”
The Sporting Life columnist David A. F. Sweet is the author of Three Seconds in Munich about evil, corruption and heartbreak at the 1972 Olympics and Lamar Hunt, a biography of the sports entrepreneur which was published by Triumph in 2010. He can be reached at email@example.com.