The story of the blues: how a football calamity spawned an underground bestseller

Case study by Tim Dawson

Three weeks after it was published, Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s ‘Downfall’ was the eighth best selling general paperback in the UK, according to The Sunday Times.  Tracking the financial crisis and subsequent insolvency of Glasgow Rangers FC, the book has nearly sold 9,700 copies, to date and less than two months after first publication, the book is into its third reprint.

These sales,  and hits on Mac Giolla Bhain’s website – the monthly tally of which has frequently exceeded half a million – have been achieved without a single review in the Scottish press and with some book shops declining to stock the book.  Indeed, hostility to Mac Giolla Bhain and others associated with the book has included multiple threats of violence.

Mac Giolla Bhain’s interest in Rangers came about accidentally.  Although brought up in Glasgow, he relocated to Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland, fifteen years ago.  Since then has worked as a staff journalist for Sinn Féin’s newspaper, An Phoblacht and has written freelance for publications in Britain and Ireland on social and political issues.  In 2008 he wrote about some Rangers’ fans singing racist songs.  That story sparked diplomatic contact between Scotland and Ireland, and Mac Giolla Bhain’s interest in the Ibrox club grew.

“Journalism abhors a vacuum”, he says.  “The mainstream, serious media in Scotland was simply not touching stories about Rangers, so although I had no real journalistic interest in football and had never written about sport, I was drawn in”.  Writing on his own website, from January 2009 he started tracking the financial turmoil that was to engulf the club.  As the story grew, Mac Giolla Bhain managed to steal a march on the newspapers – at times by several months.   Hits to his website peaked at over 650,000 a month, and he attracted more than 17,000 followers on Twitter.

He did not have the beat entirely to himself.  Rangers Tax Case Blog took a slightly different slant on the story – the quality of which was recognized with an Orwell Prize.  It is Mac Giolla Bhain, however, who has a bestseller in the bookshops.

“I never really had a plan and I never set out to make money.  It simply seemed like an important story that was not being reported because of Rangers cultural power in Scotland”, he says.  He did place Google ads on his site, but says that revenue  from those has not even covered a third of his mobile phone bill.

In June, Mac Giolla Bhain was contacted by publishers Frontline Noir with a view to him writing for them on another topic.  Declining the offer, he mentioned his work on Rangers and almost immediately agreed terms.  Nine frantic weeks later, the book appeared.  It gained some publicity when the Scottish Sun first announced in a double-page splash that it would serialise the book and then a day later decided against the idea. The Sun said that as a result of having read a post on Mac Giolla Bhain’s site, the paper felt that it no longer wished to publish his work.  Alex Thomson, the Channel 4 journalist who wrote the introduction to Downfall, believes that the true reason was a fire-storm of complaints and threats from Rangers fans.

Despite the lack of publicity, the book is believed to be the biggest seller in Scotland since its publication.  But although pleased with the impact that his book has had, however, Mac Giolla Bhain says that his project is a long way short of paying for itself.

Publisher Bob Smith, says that the book has sold nearly double what he expected, and anticipates that it might yet shift 15,000 copies.  “When I initially looked at Phil’s Twitter following – all of whom were interested in one issue – I estimated that we might sell 7,000 copies.  We have printed 10,500 copies so far, though, and are close to ordering another print run”.

Not all are persuaded by Mac Giolla Bhain’s account of the Scottish media’s track record.  “Many Scots sports journalists are not afraid to critically analyse both the game and individual clubs, including Rangers”, says one former Scottish football writer of many years experience.  “They have done it for years and will continue to do so.”  Explaining the book’s success, he said:  “There will be at least three likely audiences for the book: Rangers fans with a genuine interest in their club, Rangers fans with a genuine interest in their club but suspecting the motives behind this book and Celtic fans.”

Whatever you attribute the level of sales, and website hits, however, there is no denying that this represents the kind of hit for which many publishers would kill.  And surely the most obvious lessons from Mac Giolla Bhain’s success is that there is a market for detailed reporting, where readers really care about a subject, and getting to the book stands while an issue is still hot is vital if you want to reach the widest audience.