Our MD Jon discusses some of the issues publishers are currently facing, how we’re trying to tackle them and what to expect from Vertebrate next year.
I read in the Guardian that publishers were going to put the cover prices of books up. For small presses without the buying power of big operators, the pressure to do this is very real now.
I guess a lot of things are going to go up. So I ask you one simple question: what do you want from us in 2023? We will try not to put prices up too much, but if we do, what do you want in return?
Covid was ultimately kind to publishing. People rediscovered reading, took up new hobbies, went to new places (Barnard Castle, etc.) and sought out small independent businesses. Then as furlough wound down and the economy bounced back, publishing continued to ride the wave. But problems started to come to light.
The first was freight prices. The price of container freights went up to levels that meant publishers like us could no longer afford to avail off Far Eastern prices. There was also huge uncertainty on lead times; what would arrive and when was no longer in our control.
Then came paper shortages. Pulp mills were either furloughed or producing boxes for Amazon, which meant we simply couldn’t get paper or had to buy it up-front with the obvious cash flow issue. Price increases then followed as a result of the shortage. In some cases, our printing-per-unit doubled, which resulted in an average of 40% increases on our frontlist books. Bear in mind this occurred before the global cost increase of things like fuel and food kicked in.
While we were planning on how to mitigate this, the cost-of-living crisis started biting, which affected everyone. It is totally understandable that, for many people, a new book might not be as important as putting the heating on.
Then the little things you don’t read about also started causing problems too. For example, on a postal strike day, our income (we’re a mail order company) is negligible. One or two strike days are fine, but nineteen planned strike days before Christmas could well be disastrous for some publishers. While Amazon were over-ordering and tying up vast amounts of stock, Waterstones effectively stopped ordering in June for six weeks and is currently only at about 75% of pre-June levels as they wrestle with a seemingly endless IT issue.
However sometimes you just have to accept that it will rain on the hill, and you will have forgotten your waterproofs, and that is just that. There is literally nothing I can do about paper costs. I can support postal workers while lobbying my local MP to facilitate government intervention to resolve the dispute, but I can’t tell people to buy a book if they are cutting costs. I can, however, explain why the paper in our most recent books is a bit thinner when compared to last year’s books. I can also tell people about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re trying (in our little hardly noticeable way) to have a positive impact on their lives. I like to think, especially in challenging times, that the book is always better than the film. The outside is always better than inside, so if we can help to inspire adventures, then that is a good thing.
Going forwards, we will operate as cost-effectively as we can. We have reduced costs here as best we can (it’s been difficult) and we’re being super lean with our printing. This means producing books with less ‘special treatments’ on the covers and, although we won’t compromise on FSC paper, we will be compromising on the grade of that paper. This means that some books will have to go out-of-print and some will be delayed while we combine production with other projects.
We will also look to promote books that save you money. How about a Big Trails book where you can wild camp your way through a week’s holiday? (There’s no cheaper dining than food you have to carry!). We get that adventure kit is expensive, but for many of our books, you can get away with pretty basic stuff and a bit of canny repairing along the way.
Our second aim for the next season is positive ageing. Gone is the idea of the armchair mountaineer. High adventure is great, but let’s have a bit more ‘low’ adventure. Let’s read about people like us, doing stuff that we have done, can do or bloody should be doing. Van life isn’t just for Instagram, it’s also for your gran. We might be late to this idea of positive ageing, but a lot more of us are getting older and are probably still quite keen to do stuff.
We’re also getting more passionate about access in our coming season of books. Yes, there were occasions during lockdown when the car parks were full of those non-fleece-wearing members of society, and on occasion we did get a little frustrated guiding people down from a misty Kinder plateau. But hey, some of them were having fun, which was nice to see.
As a result, you’ll notice that next year’s books will have just a little bit more of the kind of things everyone might like to do. We can’t promise to find a wheelchair route to the summit of Snowdon, but we can find some good places where a disabled person can experience something of the wilderness. As our good friend Paul Pritchard says: “disabled doesn’t mean unable”. Yes, we will still try to persuade you to reach the very limits of human endurance with a lot of our new stuff, but just not all of it. We definitely want to see more people going to more places next year.
If we can do those three things and not screw the planet up in doing it, then I think we will be able to ignore the recession.