Where is Book Publishing Heading in 2021?

January 18, 2021 4 min read

Where is Book Publishing Heading in 2021? Jon Barton from Vertebrate Publishing takes a look.

You’ll need to go elsewhere to hear moaning about Brexit and Covid.

Our trade publication The Bookseller recently interviewed the great and good of publishing, from prominent authors, booksellers, publishers large and small and a few trade and committee people for good measure. The themes were thus.

  • What a resilient, creative and adaptable industry the book belongs to.
  • Lockdown awakened reading for pleasure for many people.
  • More people are now thinking about where they spend their money. Local, independent and niche selling products that are produced with a conscience have boomed somewhat.
  • And of course Amazon, everyone acknowledged where most people were actually shopping. No one actually knows what market share Amazon has but it isn’t 30% any more; we are coming to understand that for booksellers.

All the publishers also talked about supporting independent bookshops. They all talked about diversity, and a few of them even remembered to talk about sustainability. I suspect fewer of them will find the capacity in the coming months to do much about it though.

At Vertebrate we have always invested in digital publishing, ebooks were a relatively cost-effective way of keeping less than commercial titles in print, and we’ve always tried to add a few every year, most recently The Evidence of Things Not Seen as a print on demand title, and similarly the excellent North Wall, a rare and special piece of climbing fiction. Where has this got us? Interestingly digital, audio, ebook and print-on-demand titles were all forecast to do great things this year, however our sales remained pretty much what they have always been; about 10% of printed books. I can’t really draw much conclusion from that other than screen time has presumably shot up over the last year and perhaps the chance to sit out in the sunshine, reading a book made of paper, saving the glare allowance up for The Crown or Friends (again) has been how our readers have divided up their day. North Wall, IMHO is a superb read, but we’ve sold fewer than twenty copies in the last twelve months.

Without a doubt though, the marketplace has changed, and change went into fast forward last spring and it won’t stop until it is done. Ebooks may not have been stirred much but online shopping has exploded. Vertebrate saw a threefold increase in direct online sales on the previous year, which was double the year before that. In the short term this was just as well, as our main traditional outlets, shops and events were, as you recall, shut. In 2021, we will, despite what all those publishers and book experts say they plan to do, be buying most of our stuff online – books, gym equipment, trainers, wine, more wine. Our shopping, our entertainment, our work (except if you have a proper job, like a carpenter or a stone mason – that kind of job), our play will all be delivered online. Our recommendations will come from online; we will know the names of FedEx driver’s kids. Alexa will probably be one of the five people we invite to our wedding/funeral. As for Vertebrate, we will of course embrace the opportunities that offers, as one of those Antarctic men once said, ‘difficulties are just things to overcome after all’.

Vertebrate will try to support local and independent shops. We have taken on a publishing services team, specifically to go into shops and showcase our books once they can. We have also changed how we distribute books to allow us to not only work with Amazon but every wholesaler, shop and online outlet in a common and fair way. That means you can call in to the office and buy a book for the same price we sell one to Amazon.

Throughout 2020 we kept as much of our production capacity up and running as we could, and this continues into 2021. There a lot of books coming out, across all sorts of subjects; books to inspire, books to enable and books to share. We will publish Doug Scott’s last book, Kangchenjunga, and we will publish John Burn’s next book, Wild Winter. We will have a few traditional mountaineering narratives for you, because despite what some folks tell you, there is nothing wrong with finding a hard climb and having a go at it. They’ll be guides to Scotland, East Anglia and the Pennine Bridleway. Run, walk, climb, splash around in the water, we’ve plenty coming out.

Diversity and sustainability, we think about this a lot, and I do believe we have made good inroads by publishing more outdoorsy books by women than have been seen in the past. To Live from Élisabeth Revol, Winter 8000 from Bernadette McDonald, with several others in preparation.

What are we asking in return? Well, the usual, please keep telling us what you like, what you don’t like, if you got lost using one of our books or found yourself reading one of our books, let us know. Please pop into your local bookshop or Waterstones and order one of our books, or better still shop on our website. But most of all, get outside and do. We aim to inspire adventure, and I never get tired of seeing folk out there in the great outdoors mucking about.