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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Harry Potter and the bible of cricket

The publishers who made a fortune from JK Rowling have decided to invest some of their money in 'Wisden'

Wisden, the unofficial almanac that every cricket buff has to have, is under new management. The eponymous firm that publishes it, John Wisden, has been bought by Bloomsbury, the London imprint best known for the Harry Potter novels.

Having made a fortune out of JK Rowling, Bloomsbury is keen to expand its list of serious reference books. Its decision to buy Wisden for an undisclosed sum means that four of the nation's favourite sources of instant information – Wisden, Who's Who, Whitaker's Almanac, and Schott's Original Miscellany – are now together at one publishing house.

Wisden and Whitaker's have been linked in the past. Between 1938 and 1943 Wisden was published by Whitaker and Sons and a member of the Whitaker family was its chairman. Its history goes back to the Victorian obsession with cricket when a fast bowler named John Wisden, whose delivery was so lethal that in one match he clean-bowled all the opposing team except the eleventh man, went into business selling cricket gear.

He branched into publishing in 1864, and Wisden's Cricketers Almanack has appeared every year since. Not even a direct hit by the Luftwaffe on the print works in Mortlake, which destroyed all the company's financial records, was allowed to interrupt publication.

The trademark yellow cover was introduced in 1938, along with the woodcut of two gentlemen playing cricket in top hats. It graced the cover for 65 years. Since 2003, the cover has featured a player. This year it was the England captain, Kevin Pietersen.

The almanac enjoyed its best sales in 2006, when more than 50,000 copies were bought. The 2008 edition runs to 1,680 pages of close print. Next year's edition is due out in April.

The Wisden imprint has belonged to the Getty family since the oil billionaire Sir Paul Getty bought it in 1993 and took over chairmanship of the company. Since his death in 2000, it has been owned by his son, Mark. Bloomsbury has been associated with the business since it became Wisden's sales partner four years ago.

Another former owner is the crooked publishing tycoon, Robert Maxwell, whose empire took over Wisden in the 1970s.

Maxwell shocked guests at the annual launch by saying the almanac's pages were too small and would have to change. They didn't, although a special large-format edition was published for the first time in 2006.

Nigel Newton, the chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, described the purchase as a "landmark event" in the company's history.

"Acquiring Wisden is an important step in our strategy to increase our presence in reference and sports publishing," he said. "It's an honour to be the new custodians of such an institution. We look forward to working with the current staff to make the 2009 Wisden a success."

Collectors have spent thousands of pounds on rare back-numbers of Wisden. One full set fetched £140,000, and a library in Philadelphia bought an 1875 edition for £25,000. An 1875 Wisden is particularly valuable because a fire in the Mortlake factory destroyed most of that year's print run.

The single most famous copy of the almanac, however, is the one that the cricket writer E W Swanton bought in 1939 and had with him when he was taken prisoner by the Japanese.

There was such a demand for it from other prisoners of war that it had to be treated like a library book and loaned out for no more than 12 hours at a time. The guards stamped it "not subversive". It became so heavily thumbed that two prisoners used rice as a form of glue to keep it together. Swanton died, aged 92, in 2000. The book is in the museum at Lord's.

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