2022 marks the 34th year of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, ‘the world’s longest established and most valuable literary sports-writing prize’. However in its thirty-four-year history, the award has only ever gone to two female winners: Laura Hillenbrand in 2001 for Seabiscuit:The True Story of Three Men and a Racehorse and Anna Krien in 2014 for Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport (about Australian Rules Football). Plus Sally Jenkins co-wrote Lance Armstrong’s autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike, which won in 2000, but that may no longer be something to shout about.
In 2021 there were three women on the fifteen-title longlist: Elise Downing for the excellent, relatable and funny Coasting, Sue Anstiss for Game On (about the currently very topical rise of women’s sport) and Claire Smith for Becoming Brutal (an account of her journey into endurance sport). None of them made the shortlist.
In 2020 there were also three women on the (also fifteen-title) longlist: Emily Chappell for what I consider one of the best books ever written about endurance sport, Where There’s a Will, Catherine Spencer for Mud, Maul and Mascara and Ruqsana Begu for Born Fighter. Ruqsana Begu did make the shortlist but didn’t win.
So why aren’t there more books by women on the longlist, shortlist or indeed winning the award? Is there a lack of female authors writing books about sport? That’s certainly not our current experience at Vertebrate. Of the twenty-one titles we will publish in 2022, eight of them have a female author and one has a non-binary author. This is pretty typical for us and it’s representative of the number of proposals we receive now, but it hasn’t always been the case. The publication of Waymaking in 2018 was a pivotal moment. Prior to that, typically 95% of all mountaineering books published were written by or about men. Mountaineering adventure books was a genre almost exclusively written by and read by men. Since the publication of Waymaking, we have seen a veritable explosion in female-led adventure books and even publishers.
So while the world of adventure literature is starting to become a more even playing field, maybe the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award will also catch up and acknowledge this. What can we do to help it along? Most obviously publishers can nominate female authors who write excellent books about sport. This year we’ll be nominating Jo Moseley for her Stand-Up Paddleboarding in Great Britain book. This book exudes passion and enthusiasm about the sport and the community, and sums up everything that is wonderful about being out on the water in these incredible places. We will also be nominating Rachel Ann Cullen for Running for Our Lives, a powerful book about how running has helped people to deal with the challenges they’ve faced in their lives. But above all, it’s about hope, resilience and community. We feel that both of these authors deserve a shot at the prize.
As the organisers of the award say, ‘every horse just might be a Derby winner, according to its owner, trainer and jockey, but as each one appears on a racecourse, it has to be judged against the other contenders and either eliminated from, or promoted up, the list of potential champions’. Which I think means you’ve got to be in it to win it. Publishers need to get behind their horses. Good luck Jo and Rachel!
We’re also nominating Matt Whyman for his searingly honest book about his journey into the world of ultrarunning, Failure is an Option.