You may have noticed you've been hearing a lot from us recently ...

December 01, 2022 4 min read

grit blocs dave parry

A rambling blog about the pressures publishers are facing; what we at Vertebrate have had to do; why we’ve been pushing sales more than usual; and a warning to the publishing industry about embracing micro-payments from short-run printing.

Once upon a time … I was heading off to do a big climb. My friend and suffering specialist Andy Kirkpatrick gave me some advice. It went like this;

Sandy Allan calls it the ‘get-the-stove-out-and-have-a-brew moment’. If you’re on a mountain and a storm is racing in, the chance is that whatever you do in the next ten minutes could make a massive difference to the outcome. Ten minutes, putting the kettle on, thinking about the options, planning, sorting kit and preparing, is a lot better use of your time than racing up or down in a panic.

You’ll have noticed a lot of newsletters flying out from Vertebrate recently bestowing the various merits of one activity over another; one book for this, another book for that, books to make you run further, books to make you climb safer, books to get you cold and wet, books to prop up a wobbly table. There have been tweets at all hours of the day, authors popping up all over the place, even books in bookshops. It almost looks like we are panicking.

So, this is why we’re are sending out a lot of tweets … Paper costs have been going up, by a lot. Book printing has gone over a tipping point and it is increasingly apparent that we simply couldn’t afford to send any more books to print. Black and white that statement ...

One solution was to make like the music industry – embrace digital and their micro-revenues. Traditional publishing models were dead, audio streaming, print-on-demand and all-you-can-read subscription services were the future. The storm was coming and we needed to get digital and get digital quickly. Faced with these unsurmountable costs, amid a cost-of-living crisis, I stopped and had a brew ... Actually, it was a bloody long run around the Dark Peak’s Outer Edges but you understand the need to keep the opening analogy alive.

This is what I concluded. If you stop and think, publishing isn’t the music industry. Artists generally get paid well for live appearances, whether it’s a wedding band or The Wedding Present, performers get paid to perform. Authors in the main don’t get paid to do events. Also, micro-payments are all well and good if you are Taylor Swift and your three-minute pop song gets streamed hundreds of times (not all me) by each listener. Books are very rarely read twice. Publishing is facing issues of rising costs and affordability, not piracy. Then there is the great myth about the solution to rising printing costs – why pay £10,000 to get 3,000 books printed when you can pay just £7 to get one book digitally printed?

The cost-of-living crisis and inflation, specific to our print and production costs, is the storm that is engulfing publishing – but short run printing and digital micro-payments aren’t right for publishing, making books cheaper isn’t the solution.

Reading a book requires some time investment; a publisher has a duty to make that book good. Generally speaking, a publisher nets 30% of the cover price of a book, up to 70% goes to the distributer and retailer in terms of their discount. From that 30%, the book needs to be printed (say 10% of the cover price), then the balance is split between the author and publisher. The author writes it and the publisher produces and markets it for their respective splits. Problem is, if the printing costs double then it starts getting really cosy for the author and the publisher. 

Publishers like us will need to do something to survive, simply printing books like before is not an option and accepting micro-payments for digital printing is not sustainable. Publishers will need to get better at forecasting sales effectively – nothing is worse for profit than the unsold book. We will need to produce and print as economically as possible, lower-grade papers, fewer pages, less stuff on the cover.

At Vertebrate we will do fewer books next year – and regrettably with fewer people – we will also focus a lot more on selling what we already have in the warehouse. Some books will inevitably disappear, others will be delayed between print runs. We will of course embrace digital where it complements the print edition but not where it cannibalises sales.

But the most important thing for us to remember is why we are doing what we do – there will always be risk and reward if you pursue your passions. Yes, our books will need to work hard in the future – they will need to be entertaining, they will need to guide the reader to new adventures and we need to enjoy producing them.

So, happy Christmas! We have a warehouse full of titles to inspire your future adventures, and with each one sold we will invest in next year’s books. They will hopefully be good; they will inevitably be a little more expensive. There will be fewer books next year than this – but that isn’t a bad thing.

Andy and I often laugh about the advice he gave me and how, when the storm clouds swept in, I panicked like he knew I would.


*He didn’t actually say that, his very words were: ‘Jon, someone like you could very easily poo their pants.’