What a box of mountaineering books tells me about our post-coronavirus future

You can sit down and die of hypothermia when a storm hits on the mountain or you can get on with it.
Jon Barton, Vertebrate Publishing

A couple of weeks ago, I read a blog post by a company director that caused me to go to his company’s website and buy over £100 of their products. It must have been one heck of an inspiring post then?

Well, it was effective, certainly, but inspiring? The story is a little more complicated and it’s one that I also have an interest in.

But first, here are the products in question:

A box of mountaineering books from Vertebrate Publishing
A box of mountaineering books from Vertebrate Publishing

That’s right, 11 books about mountaineering and the outdoors. I know what you’re thinking. No surprise there. If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you will know that I have a thing about mountaineering books, as do many of you. I don’t need much of an excuse to splash out on these.

The thing is, exciting as the books are, I don’t know when I’m going to read them all. I already have a reading list of over 100 books on my shelves and Kindle. It’s going to be years before I get round to reading all of these. So why did I decide to buy even more books at this precise moment in time?

The blog post in question, by Jon Barton of Vertebrate Publishing, was a disarmingly frank and heartfelt summary of how coronavirus lockdown is affecting his business and the publishing industry in general. For an indie author like me who is positioned in a slightly different place – far less profitable but far more free of risk – it was a bit of an eye opener.

But before I’m an author, I’m also a reader, and it’s in this capacity that I first reacted to the post. Vertebrate are a small independent publisher based in Sheffield, Britain’s unofficial outdoor capital, located a short cycle ride from the climbing and hiking centre of the Peak District.

Over the last 15 years Vertebrate have established themselves as Britain’s no.1 publisher of outdoor and mountaineering books. In doing so they’ve raised the profile and improved the variety and availability of outdoor books. They discover new authors, encourage outdoor figures who are not necessarily writers to record their memoirs, promote their work and get them into bookshops. Their books are regularly shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize.

They have become so well-connected in the industry, that it sometimes feels like people promote them from beyond the grave:

But joking aside, it’s not just about the new. Vertebrate have also become really good at seeking out old, forgotten classics and re-popularising them. I find myself buying a lot of second-hands books from Amazon or AbeBooks because the books are no longer in print. Vertebrate have been proactively buying up the rights to a lot of old classics and re-releasing them as cheap digital versions.

But lockdown has not made things easy for Vertebrate. In his blog post Jon described how 80% of their income disappeared overnight. Their staff could no longer come to work, travel restrictions meant that they couldn’t rely on printed books being delivered, an author based in Europe had her tour to Korea cancelled, hundreds more events closer to home were cancelled one by one, bookshops shut, wholesalers shut, and then their distributor cancelled operations without warning. Tens of thousands of books were returned and they had nowhere to store them.

So Vertebrate furloughed their staff, stored the books in their office, took orders over their website and sent them out by hand, but things were tough. The books were heavily discounted with free delivery. When I read the blog post I knew that it would be really sad if they went out of business, but I also knew that I could do something enjoyable to help. I’d done something similar a couple of weeks earlier for a pair of Kenton Cool’s books. This time I was getting an even bigger library of new books, some of them even better than Kenton’s. It was a no-brainer.

I've not read any of these books yet, and there are even more on my Kindle waiting to be read
I’ve not read any of these books yet, and there are even more on my Kindle waiting to be read

The story doesn’t end there though, and now we get to the interesting bit. Of course, my £100 contribution isn’t going to keep Vertebrate afloat. They have lots of enthusiastic customers like me, but online sales of printed books won’t be enough on their own.

The good news for Vertebrate is that publishing is one of the industries that could potentially adapt to a new world that might emerge in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Supposing brick-and-mortar bookshops have to remain closed for the foreseeable future; suppose that many never reopen. Supposing that we live in a world where it’s frowned upon for people to fly all the way to South Korea to promote their books; that book fairs, talks and mountain festivals become a thing of the past, or more low key because people have to keep sitting 2m apart.

Many jobs and businesses have had no difficulty adapting to lockdown because the infrastructure for mass homeworking has been available for years, it’s just that some companies have been slow to adapt to it. Take away the transport and the offices and it turns out that many of us can carry out our jobs just as efficiently.

In my last contract I talked to people throughout Europe every day and I can’t remember a single meeting where every attendee was in the same room; there was always someone dialling in. In fact, meetings were more of a problem for those in our open-plan offices, who couldn’t always find a quiet space.

In a similar way, the infrastructure for remote book distribution has existed for many years, it’s just that the traditional publishing industry has been slow to adapt to it. I’m talking, of course, about e-books. While the music industry is racing towards a future that is entirely digital (how many of us still buy CDs?) printed books have been obstinately hanging in there and refusing to go away.

The reasons for this are many, but there is a strong belief among indie authors like myself that one of the reasons is because traditional publishers have been keeping the print market alive artificially by inflating the prices of e-books. Often a paperback is cheaper than its e-book equivalent, and there is no justifiable reason for this. Once an e-book has been produced it costs nothing to create additional copies and very little to distribute them. By contrast, print books have to be printed on paper and ink, then shipped by delivery van, or sometimes even aircraft.

This may be good for publishers and distributors; it’s not so good for indies like me (nor is it the best thing for the environment). Indies can’t compete with traditional publishers on print sales because we don’t have the distribution channels, the marketing or promotional contacts, or the relationships with bookstores to a level that makes it worthwhile. You can order my paperbacks online or from any bookstore, but you’re never going to wander into a store and see them sitting on the shelves. The overwhelming majority of indie sales have always been digital.

So does this mean the post-coronavirus future, where selling physical books becomes more difficult, is going to benefit indie authors like me? Probably not. The publishing companies that survive will be the ones more willing to adapt to digital, and those who do survive will be just as good at promoting their products. There will be more digital sales, but also more competition.

For me personally, it’s somewhat academic. A recent article in The Bookseller highlighted the fact that very few writers are fully professional; nearly all of us need an additional income to support our writing.  There is a small group of successful authorpreneurs who have managed to make a career of it by cleverly selling publishers the rights to their books in different formats, territories and languages, a method championed by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

I’m unlikely to go down that route though. Mountain writing simply isn’t that popular, unless you’re Jon Krakauer or Joe Simpson and you’ve written one of the two books about mountaineering that are read widely by people who aren’t interested in mountaineering. Besides, I carry out my writing between contracts and I’ve not yet had any difficulty finding new contracts. My work is well paid, and I’m much better at it than I am at promoting and marketing myself.

So I’m not competing with traditional publishers. On the contrary, we share a mutual threat, one that coronavirus has suddenly made bigger: Amazon. In his blog post, Jon mentioned that before coronavirus, 30% of Vertebrate’s sales came through Amazon. Then Amazon suddenly changed their algorithm to favour e-books.

My sales are also at the mercy of Amazon’s algorithm. In the early 2010s, when Amazon launched the Kindle and enabled self-publishing on an industrial scale, they were seen as the indie authors’ friend. There was a time when they offered a promised land. In the heady days of 2012, after I published the first edition of my book The Chomolungma Diaries, my sales were going through the roof and it seemed that a future as a full-time writer was around the corner.

Sales held steady for a couple of years after I published Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest. But for the last two years, my income from book sales has been on a downward slide despite having more books for sale of a higher quality. Perhaps I just need to write another book about Everest, but the feeling is that I’m not alone; it’s a trend that seems to be affecting most indie authors.

There are several reasons. In the old days, Amazon wasn’t just a bookstore but a marketing platform. Readers would find our books because Amazon recommended them to readers who had bought similar books. This benefited both us and Amazon.

But now, we are encouraged to pay for advertising on the platform. Instead of an algorithm that recommends similar books, we have one that gives a much greater prominence to sponsored links. Indie authors talk about the Amazon cliff, a moment when Amazon stops recommending their book to its customers and sales take a nose dive. Some books remain above this cliff for longer than others, but nearly all books fall off it eventually.

Something strange has also happened to the review system. Quite rightly, Amazon has been taking more aggressive steps to combat fake reviews, but it’s not always clear what constitutes a legitimate review. Some authors sail close to the wind and find their reviews in danger, something I talked about in a previous post. Authors have reported reviews disappearing and readers have reported reviews not appearing at all. What is certain is that the reviews that used to be our lifeblood have been drying up. I used to get several a week per book; now some books go months without a single review.

Authors are also encouraged to sell their books exclusively on Amazon. By removing them from other platforms and entering them on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited programme, our books become eligible for special promotions and appear to receive an algorithm boost. This is, of course, a trap. It’s never wise to put all your eggs in one basket. It might offer more income in the short term, but if Amazon becomes a monopoly, we will be at their mercy. They currently pay us a 70% royalty for every e-book, but what’s to stop them cutting that to 50, even 30%?

Amazon is one of the few companies that has profited hugely from the coronavirus lockdown. The Guardian reported that customers are spending $11,000 a second on Amazon. The fortune of CEO Jeff Bezos has swollen by $6.4 billion (yes, billion, not million) since the outbreak. If publishers, bookstores and other e-publishing platforms close then Amazon will hoover up even more business.

So there’s the post-coronavirus future for readers, writers and publishers: more e-books and more Amazon.

But it’s not all bad news. Thanks to their loyal readers, Vertebrate have been able to un-furlough more staff members since Jon wrote that blog post, and his most recent post is much more upbeat. If you want to support good outdoor writing, then please head over to their site and buy more books. They are still offering a 25% discount.

As for me, I’m one of the lucky ones who is able to get through lockdown without too many discomforts. Contracts may be harder to come by in the future, but I’m optimistic that something will come along. There is no danger of me giving up writing, however much I earn from it. I enjoy it; it’s satisfying and I’m proud of the books I’ve published.

The main thing I’m short of is time. If you enjoy my writing, please consider buying more of my books too and posting reviews. This allows me to take more time off from my day job and write more books. I’ve been keeping myself busy during lockdown. I’ve recently published a new edition of The Baruntse Adventure, and if you’re a fan of audio, then the audiobook version of Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest is coming soon.

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Note: I get a very small referral fee if you buy a book after clicking on an Amazon link.

4 thoughts on “What a box of mountaineering books tells me about our post-coronavirus future

  • May 14, 2020 at 10:17 am

    I don’t know why, but I don’t like Amazon. I suppose it boils down to one fact: I hate bullies.
    Enjoyable reading, like always. And a treasure of new English expressions! (new for me, I mean…)

  • May 14, 2020 at 10:48 am

    Haha, yes, you’re right. Now I see that there are a few strange idioms in this post. Thank you for pointing this out. And there I am, always claiming that I try to write in plain English!

  • May 14, 2020 at 1:02 pm

    Bravo, some great books on their list. Love what VP do. Prefer your version to my recent tweet: “My Amazon orders come with a dose of self loathing. These people pay taxes & publish magnificent books, now 30% off” 🙂

  • June 4, 2020 at 1:26 pm

    I don’t like to buy books from Amazon, but find myself buying used books from non-profits.

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