Why most books about Everest are irrelevant (but not all of them)

If you type the word Everest into the books category on Amazon.com, here’s what you get:

  • 4 teen novels about a group of backstabbing teenagers competing to become the youngest person to climb Everest
  • 1 worst-case scenario teen adventure book
  • 1 map
  • 4 mountaineering disaster books (two about the 1996 season and two about the 2006 season)
  • 1 original expedition account of a first ascent
  • 1 history of Everest
The books which triggered the avalanche. They're not bad, but really, haven't we heard enough about the sodding 1996 Everest disaster?
The books which triggered the avalanche. They’re not bad, but really, haven’t we heard enough about the sodding 1996 Everest disaster?

Of these, the first six won’t tell you anything at all about what it’s like to climb Everest, and four of the rest provide a very biased picture. If anything the results at Amazon.co.uk are even worse:

  • 7 mountaineering disaster books (a scarcely credible six about the boring old 1996 season and one about the 2006 season)
  • 1 trekking guide
  • 1 original expedition account of an ordinary commercial ascent
  • 2 histories of Everest
  • 1 light-hearted travel book

You may be thinking these results tell us something about the tastes of the great reading public (that Brits like reading about disasters, while Americans like teen adventure and a little bit of disaster), but do they? The “Books” category, after all, mainly contains print books, most of which have had to pass through the gatekeepers at giant publishing companies. Now that e-readers, print-to-order, and in particular the Amazon Kindle Store, has opened up the world of publishing to new authors, we’re getting a much better idea of what readers really want to buy.

Two weeks ago the British climber and writer Andy Kirkpatrick announced very publicly on his blog that he was giving up writing and looking for a proper job because there isn’t enough money in climbing literature to make a career out of it. This was in spite of his first book Psychovertical winning the Boardman Tasker Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in mountaineering literature, in 2008. The following day his second book, Cold Wars, won the Boardman Tasker Prize again.

For an avid reader of mountaineering literature I’ve actually read very few books which have won the Boardman Tasker Prize, and it’s something I’ve been meaning to correct for a while now, but a few days ago another blogger wrote a post which shed some light on why I haven’t, by pointing out that nearly all Boardman Tasker winners fall into one of two categories:

  • Ripping yarns (ie. hardcore climbers doing extreme stuff which sometimes goes wrong)
  • Worthy if slightly turgid biographies

The implication of the post, though it’s not explicitly stated, is that the Boardman Tasker Prize is largely irrelevant to many readers of mountain literature, which might explain why Andy Kirkpatrick isn’t raking it in, despite winning twice.

Evidence that Amazon UK readers quite like light-hearted travel books
Evidence that Amazon UK readers quite like light-hearted travel books

In fact, I have some rather surprising evidence from Amazon UK which suggests what readers really like are not ripping yarns, but light-hearted travel books, as evidenced by the prominent screenshot on the left (you can click on it to see it full size), showing the best-selling Kindle downloads for the Mountaineering category on Amazon.co.uk. As you can see it seems to be dominated by titles from some obscure mountaineering blogger who’s about as likely to win an award as Reinhold Messner is to advertise Poisk oxygen cylinders, who can’t climb to save his life but has good fun trying (sadly, however, he’s still not selling enough to knock bloody Jon Krakauer off the No.1 spot!).

All of which rather long-winded introduction brings me on to the whole point of this post: to announce that the self-same obscure mountaineering blogger has just made his Everest travel diaries, the imaginatively titled, The Chomolungma Diaries, available on Kindle.

But before you stop reading and pull up Facebook or go back to working on that boring document your boss wants you to do for him, here are some reasons why you might want to fork out the princely sum of $0.99 for it (yes, I know, I tricked you into reading this far – sorry! – but you’re nearly there now, so you may as well read the rest of it).

  • It’s not a ripping yarn, a turgid history book, a teen adventure novel or a mountaineering disaster book;
  • It’s a light-hearted travel book you can read in a single sitting and end the day with a smile on your face;
  • It does actually address a niche in the market, by presenting an honest account of what it’s like to join a commercial expedition to climb Everest, without focusing on death and disaster;
  • It’s not full of macho posturing about how dangerous Everest is, like the only other original account of a commercial expedition in the Amazon top ten (I’ve not actually read Bear Grylls’s book, but I bet it’s just like that!);
  • Whenever possible I’ve tried to highlight all the hard work our amazing Sherpa team put in to help us to achieve our dream (while making it perfectly clear they didn’t “drag” us up the mountain, as many of the journalists who write mountaineering disaster books would like you to believe. I’ve only once seen somebody getting short-roped up a mountain, and it looked pretty exhausting – I’d rather go at my own pace, thank you);
  • While comparing my climbing skills to Andy Kirkpatrick would be like comparing my footballing skills (and dashing good looks) to David Beckham, I do have one thing in common with him (two things actually, we’re both from Hull as well). Neither of us make a living out of our books. I’m sure I make a good deal less than he does, but luckily I have the career of a roaming digi comms professional to fall back on. Those 99 cents do provide a modest supplement to my travel piggy bank, though, which ultimately means interesting material for this blog;
  • If you get a few of your friends to buy it too, then I’ll definitely buy you a drink if we ever bump into each other;
  • Seriously, if you enjoy reading this blog then it’s 99 cents well spent!

And it’s not just available on Kindle. You can download it from Smashwords for a number of other e-reading devices; just click on this link to choose your online bookstore. There’s even a web version you can read for free.

Anyway that’s enough hard sales, next week I’ll be back with a proper blog post, I promise.

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6 thoughts on “Why most books about Everest are irrelevant (but not all of them)

  • November 28, 2012 at 10:40 pm
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    I have found some of the best mountaineering literature written by semi professional mountaineers.They are guys who have trained and saved hard to equip themselves to have a go at one of the big ones. They tell it as it is and often wear their heart on their sleeve.You have to drop lucky each year to find them and last year I was fortunate enough to find two. There isn’t enough money in it to make it a career so we all miss out.Hence it is the disater books that coin in the money as they appeal to the less ardent would be mountaineer.Unlike yourself the would be mountaineer has neither the time nor the chance somehow to have the opportunity to fund the big expedition but when they do often their blogs can be great.No mountaineer wishes to read the disaster books as they have hears it all befor, nor do they wish to read the musings of the clients dragged up the “hill”by their skilled professionals and their wonderful Sherpa shadows who quietly do most of the work I guess there is room for all the literature after all how many folk know about the 1996 disaster and what really happened. I think it will be fewer than you think. Cheers Kate

  • November 28, 2012 at 11:07 pm
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    Thanks, Kate. Yes, you’re right, there’s room for all of this. I guess my argument is that too much of the rubbish stuff draws attention away from many of the amazing things people have done on Everest. Yes, it might be the boring old 1996 disaster for me, but many people don’t know about it, and for them it’s interesting to read about. Into Thin Air is actually a very good book, as long as you understand that it only provides one perspective. Do we really need 7 accounts though, when Tom Hornbein’s account of the West Ridge traverse, one of Everest’s most amazing expeditions, doesn’t even figure in the top ten on amazon.co.uk? (I might resent the Americans buying so many teen adventure stories, but at least they got that one right 😉 )

  • December 6, 2012 at 7:35 pm
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    I think there is a place for both disaster stories and light-hearted travel tales, and I enjoy both. It must be said, however that mountaineering as a sport naturally lends itself to the former more than the latter due to both the risks, and peoples’ imagination of the risks. It’s also a fact that, simply put most great stories involve compelling conflict, and again mountaineering makes a perfect centerpiece for all kinds of drama. People live vicariously through survival tales, especially in an age where more people die in hospitals than by accidents or trauma. It must also be said said, great writing is great writing. I read Krakauer first and foremost because he is a top-notch journalist and writer, not because I’m transfixed by the Everest disaster, and as proof of this I offer the fact that I love all of his disaster books equally. As a counterpoint, I will say that disaster memoir authors have it pretty easy. These are stories that practically tell themselves. I reserve my highest laurels for writers who dare to write about old subjects in innovative ways–especially with a good dose of self-deprecating humor. Speaking on behalf of all Americans, I wish to state that no one here reads those teen mountaineering books, by the way. I checked with my countrymen and they stated unequivocally that these books are not and never will be read.

    On a different note: Mr. Horrell, why do not not publish your books as paperbacks in addition to kindle versions? I would be happy for fork over a few extra bucks for them if they were available.

  • December 6, 2012 at 9:22 pm
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    A very good point Justin. You’re quite right that mountaineering disasters make a good story, and you’re also right that Jon Krakauer writes a superior brand of it (I can see that I’ve upset people by my constant whingeing about Into Thin Air).

    Of course, great writers don’t need thrilling plots to write great stories, and I think you touched on this. I remember my A Level English teacher once described the plot of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” as a bunch of people talking about whether to go to a lighthouse and eventually deciding to go. (Virginia Woolf’s father, incidentally, was the great 19th century mountaineer Leslie Stephen).

    But moving on from great writers to shit ones, I’m sorry to say I don’t currently have any plans to release the Footsteps in the Mountain travel diaries as paperbacks, but I will be releasing them in other digital formats very soon, and you can read all of them online at http://www.markhorrell.com/diaries/.

    Thanks for your interest, and I’m delighted to hear you don’t read any of those teen adventure stories – I guess they’re being bought as firewood then. 😉

  • Pingback: Don’t be fooled by disaster porn – Footsteps on the Mountain

  • February 18, 2015 at 8:53 pm
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    The thing with Amazon is this: they don’t do anything by accident. Their search tool is programmed to give you the results that are most likely to PRODUCE A SALE. In other words, if a person searches using the key word “Everest”, the results generated are those that have generated the most sales.

    The search bar also gives you the volume of searches for a specific key word. In Amazon.co.uk if you plug in the word “Everest”, it tells you that 20,708 people searched for that key word. In the US this number drops to 14,644. The top book results you get are those that have generated the most sales. Amazon’s primary interest is getting you to spend money…but you knew that already, right?

    Amazon also gives you the Buyer Key Words, which are the words that customers use when searching for a book and then spend money on it. For instance, if you type in the word “Everest”, other terms pop up like: Everest DVD, Everest shoulder rest, Everest base camp, Everest beyond the limit, Everest books, etc. These are the items customers are most likely to buy.

    Check out this video to see how it works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Do5IGzhIvdM

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