Jon's September Update

September 24, 2021 5 min read

Looking out from Wilderness Gully to Dove Stone Reservoir

Everyone is getting their happy on.

Finally, some good news.

The climate crisis deniers are delighted that some reckless self-entitled idiots have shut the M25, endangering everyone’s lives forever in the process. The British judiciary though has sprung into action and they’re all going to prison. I’m sure someone has pointed out that the M25 is at a standstill most days anyway, but that isn’t the point.

Brexit as well; finally, the remoaners are happy. Tangible evidence on their very Waitrose shelves that Brexit is a disaster – empty, starving shelves between the avocados and the Heston Blumminhell ready-meals – is sanctimonious smugness right there. Who’s not happy? I feel for the anti-vaxxers; so far there’s not been a huge death toll from 5G microwave shock … but give it time.

Independent bookshops are apparently having a great time of it, but – and here is the ‘but’ – for independent publishers this isn’t necessarily all good news. The larger publishers have great command and control of the distribution networks and have huge marketing power.

Richard Osman can tour the country in two weeks, calling into three or four shops a day. He can host booksellers at a posh dinner and his distributers can get boxes of stock into the right place at the right time. Smaller presses, well, we just can’t print that many copies and we have been finding it increasingly difficult getting our stock into the right place at the right time. 

While traditionally Amazon order books in plenty of time before a publication date and more or less keep the book in stock, we have been finding that they order huge amounts of stock. The Vanishing Ice, for example. They ordered all the remaining stock three weeks before publication; that stock then sat as far as we know on pallets somewhere and finally got booked in and was available for sale some three weeks after publication date.

This is not really anyone’s fault – maybe Brexit, as Amazon cannot get enough staff; maybe Covid as they cannot keep their staff healthy. But the result for a small Yorkshire publisher was that we had a big print bill, no books on sale and none to send out to your local bookshop. Yes, there are things we can do, like limit supply to Amazon, but that comes with all sorts of problems. And, if I’m honest, Amazon is very good and very bad for publishing in equal measure – sometimes overly good, sometimes a little bad. My point – if this is the situation in September, then November/December will be carnage!

Then there is paper, or rather there isn’t. We don’t do much to support the soon-to-be-jailed M25 heroes (there, I said it), but we do insist on our paper being Forest Stewardship Council licensed, and, where we can, ensure the paper element of the book is carbon neutral. But paper is running out everywhere, even our more expensive but ethically pure pages. Some printers literally have no paper now and no chance of resupply this side of Christmas.

Vertebrate as a company has always been quite supplier-local. Our European printers are the same ones we have been using since our first book, Peak District Mountain Biking, so they are really coming through for us, getting us whatever paper they can, getting it on to press as soon as they can and getting transport as best they can. Our UK printers, however, bought me cheesecake earlier this week while explaining delays.

What does it mean? Isn’t this what we label under ‘shit happens’? Well, some of you are getting books a week or two later, like Beastmaking, and our autumn schedule has all shifted back a couple of weeks. Not a big deal, but a book arriving late November rather than early November can be the difference between being in Waterstones at Christmas and not being in Waterstones. That’s the good news. The bad news is that some books we just cannot get paper for. We don’t and won’t compromise and print on ‘anything’, so those books won’t be out until the spring. 

Shipping is a huge headache as we cannot get transport out of the factories. Far East printing is now not an option for us and posting back to Europe has effectively tripled in price and we are thus losing money on every European sale. It’ll get better, but honestly, once the climate protesters are out of prison, can we throw some politicians in there too?

Events – turns out they were the life blood for a small publisher and new authors. It is very hard to shout above the noise; our traditional strong genre of mountaineering literature has been overrun with celebrity memoir and persistent twentieth century classics. Surely everyone has read Into Thin Air already?

Events always gave our authors an opportunity to connect with readers. We’ve seen some really poor sales this year from books that I consider as good as anything we have ever published, like Peaks and BanditsTo Live and Structured Chaos, because we simply haven’t been able to get out and shout about them, and, believe me, pay-per-click – whether it be on a consumer website or via social media – is a super quick way of burning through money.

Shops are always supportive of us, but many large publishers held their blockbusters back for a year. They are all coming out now and it’s difficult for smaller presses to find shelf space when you are up against multiple Jamie Olivers and Richard Osmans.

That is what is going on, and part of me quite likes the challenge. We’ve a great team here, commissioning great titles, producing them, and marketing them. I’m just left to deal with the stuff that gets in the way.

So, what can I say? It’s just this: please buy early and please buy from independent publishers and traders direct from their websites. We will always ensure whatever stock we have, whenever we have it, will be prioritised to our own website and we will do our best to get it out the day the order comes in. Please don’t leave it until December to do your Christmas shopping, as I fear a lot of our systems will be too stretched by then, and we could well be out of stock of a lot of books.

To the future … we did well through the lockdowns; we kept the team in place, we kept everyone busy, and we kept the books coming. We really do think that we have a role to play in society. We inspire with books like Big Trails, we share adventures with books like Broken and we enable journeys with books like Day Walks in Northumberland, and that is what we will carry on doing next year.

We have been working really hard to think about what stories you want us to share. The mountaineering narrative hasn’t really changed that much from the formula that Chris Bonington came up with in I Chose to Climb, so we are making a proper attempt to make our stories more relatable, with more of what we call a narrative arc – a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Books from Rachel Ann Cullen, Damian Hall, Lindsey Cole, and Susanne Masters will be leading us through this transformation.

If you’re one of those people that reads the last paragraph first, here it all is in far fewer words. Brexit and Covid have made life a challenge for us all; publishers have their own challenges within that, but our readers are our motivation and the reason we enjoy our work so much, especially if they buy early this autumn.