An autumn update

October 15, 2020 4 min read

Jon Barton - Vertebrate Publishing autumn updateHere we go again.

I read in The Guardian and across other media that many independent publishers were facing ruin and on the brink of collapse, so I thought I would try to say where we are six months into the pandemic and put those news articles in context.

If I’m honest when it struck I thought I was being a bit dramatic even thinking about having a panic. I thought the prospect of it actually affecting anything would be minimal, and that Vertebrate would be immune, would even thrive. I was right about a few things, I was wrong about quite a few more.

Firstly, it didn’t last ‘two weeks’. My place in the London Marathon was postponed to the autumn, which seemed ridiculous to me at the time, but now I’m thinking will it ever happen? On the Friday before lockdown, I thought 'this is nothing'. Then it all changed – by the Monday we effectively had no business and the police were manning a roadblock a mile from my house on the road out to the Peak District … WTF.

Two things, as we know, got us through: the understanding, support and flexibility of the team here, and the goodwill – huge, unending, unquestioning goodwill – of our customers, who rallied round and sought us out. Some of you sent us money, some ordered books from our backlist which I’ve not even read, some bought books for others or donated money for books that we could send to folk who couldn’t afford them; we got people writing in and phoning in checking we were okay; I even read poetry online and didn’t get more than the expected minimum of ridicule. I think I speak for a lot of independent businesses to say we will never forget that kindness, and reciprocate it wherever we can. Furthermore, that kindness has never stopped … this from just last week: ‘Hi Jon, as it’s National Bookshop Day, if you give away a children’s book bundle I’ll cover the cost :)’.

The last of us came back into the office a couple of weeks ago. It hadn’t been easy, with staff furloughed or working from home, and the uncertainty that brings, especially for some of the younger team members. We did have to cancel quite a few books and postpone others, and we weren’t always the quickest at paying printers and authors. But we did publish our main titles, again with some huge goodwill shown to us. I won’t name and embarrass people but there’s a couple of books for which the entirety of the print run is at the goodwill of the printer or author, with us promising to settle up next year. There’s many that are available now thanks to support from a few key partners (make sure you go to the Alpkit website please from time to time, or look at our Twitter feedand see who has been retweeting us).

So, books we have, because we know we wouldn’t survive if we didn’t have a good list of titles for the autumn. And we are proud of the list. Seven Climbs, To Live, The Climbing Bible and Winter 8000 are brilliant books. As for guidebooks, we are super happy with our two Big Trails titles – there’s really inspiring stuff in both of them. If I had to recommend just one book from this year it would be Big Trails Great Britain & Irelandahead of everything else we have published, if only because it’ll take you on a lifetime’s adventures. Other strong titles are Never Leave the Dog Behind from our superstar talent Helen Mort and a raft of guidebooks and guidemaps, including the ill-timed publication of The Beaches of Wales and Tour Du Mont Blanc guidemap. So, while I don’t disagree with the opening statement, we haven’t really got a good reason to give up now have we?

That was last week – this week it’s all gone wrong again, hasn’t it? I’m sympathetic with the shops and climbing walls; they don’t want to order in too much or indeed any stock as they really don’t know how long they will be open for. The events … well, they are just history. A school visit, a festival, a talk at the climbing club all followed by a book signing, which did account for maybe twenty-five per cent of our sales, all gone. So things will be tough again this autumn, especially if we resist the temptation and pressure to discount everything through a certain online retailer.

The team are all working from home again, with some phased office work. It makes us about forty per cent less efficient, but now without any government support to offset that. So while it will be a difficult autumn for everyone, I’m not going to moan about it because it’ll be doubly so for school teachers, the frontline NHS, students, young people at the starts of their careers.

There were times, especially at the start, where I thought we really had a role to play in fighting the virus: we could help keep people inspired by helping them plan adventures after it was over, we could help distract people from the stress and the strain of it all with escapism reading, we could get books cheaply into kids’ hands to give them a distraction from the Xbox, we could keep all the staff busy, we could usefully employ new authors who suddenly found themselves with time on their hands. That hasn’t changed, we just need to keep doing it. And keep doing it well.

So instead of reading that independent publishers will suffer I’m going to just get on with it. Will the majority of independent publishers survive? I think they have no excuse but to survive; it’ll be tough again, and we will have to work with our customers to make sure we don’t just tap into goodwill but supply what folk actually want to read.

Thanks again for all the support, and your lovely letters, emails and friendly knocks at the door from time to time. When we publish a book we are just thinking about you, and we thank you for thinking about us.