Pounds and Pence and Pages
My new book Unknown Pleasures comes out this week, published by multi-awarding winning Sheffield publisher Vertebrate. When this news appeared on UKC, I noticed this comment:
“AK is a great climbing writer, and I would like to read this. However, £24 for 256 pages is £1 for every 10/11 pages. Ouch.”
I’ve known Jon Barton at VP for a long time, first as a strong local climber, then as one of the owners of Vertebrate graphics, his fanzine ‘The Thing’ still a stand out of UK climbing, and then as a proper publisher as Vertebrate Publishing (VP). John managed my first foray into the world of print with my mini book Solid Air in 2001, going on later to publish Cold Wars in 2012. Since Cold Wars VG has grown, going from strength to strength, winning multiple awards around the world for its climbing books, both guides and climbing fiction and non-fiction.
One reason, VP’s titles have expanded so rapidly is that the big publishers, such as Random House and its imprints, have given up the game. Although they were behind some of the best in climbing writing, such as Game of Ghosts (always like this better than The Void), Learning to Breath, Feeding the Rat etc, they see no money in it anymore, focusing instead on boys own books about survival, ghostwritten celeb adventure holiday yarns, stuff that’s formulaic, can sell over Christmas then knocked down by 75% come easter (and clogs up the limited real-estate of bookshop outdoor title bookshelves).
Another factor in all this is that climbers, and people in general, don’t read as much as they once did, or if they did they do, they no longer want Bonatti’s Holding the Heights, but rather a book entitled ‘How to hold the heights’. My book 1001 Tips is a great example of this, a book that only took ten days to write, but which has already sold better than Cold Wars (which took four months), translated into French, Spanish and Italian.
Actual creative writing takes a lot of time and is also risky unless you just want to stick to the template of the hero’s journey. Cold Wars, for example, is structured in opposition to the template, which begins on the ground, then slowly rises to the summit at the end, instead of starting at the summit and working down to the ground (throughout it there is the notion that descent is the hardest part of a climb, and of life). Most people didn’t see it, and so many people didn’t find it as satisfying as Psychovertical, which conforms to the hero’s journey (although there are two journeys overset onto each other, one lasting thirty years, the other twelve days). Those who love Cold Wars love it, while those who wanted Psychovertical II are disappointed, but this is the challenge of trying to push the boundary of your own writing and in turn the genre itself.
With the big publishers pulling out VP stepped in, publishing many of the writers who would once have found a home there, such as Simon McCartney and Nick Bullock (Nick’s new book is also out soon). Being tiny also meant they could not afford to take many losses, and so they put far more care into the process, from editing, design and creating a business model that played a long game (like Ken Wilson once did), not the short game the big boys play. For example, they create books that are not printed on the cheapest paper, in a crappy Mills & Boon format, designed for supermarkets, or cheap to post from Amazon and priced at £8.99 (yet still profitable when reduced to £3.99), but bigger and better quality books, priced at £12.99, books designed for bookshops, The Bond being a perfect example (and one of the best climbing books ever published, both in terms of content and quality of design). VP, like Patagonia books, is not racing to the bottom.
This price difference of £4 might not seem like a lot, but most climbing books have very short runs, most at max being less than 4000, the first 1000 or so going out when the book is published, then the rest drip-fed for the next ten years.
When you see a book priced at £10 it’s worth knowing that half of that will go to the retailer and the distributor. Then there is the cost of printing and shipping the book, at least 10% of the price, then editing, proofreading, design, warehousing, paying for images etc. Oh, and then there are the authors cut, which is meant to be 10%, but which often comes out less (your agent takes 20% of that, tax another 20%). If you’re lucky you might make 50p a book, but often far less, meaning investing months or sometimes years of work into a book like Cold Wars or Psychovertical when all you’ll make is £4000 (spread over many years), is not a sound investment in time or effort (I always joke it would be better to get a job in Starbucks rather than write in Starbucks).
Many assume that because everyone has read a book, that the author is rich, but if you take Psychovertical as an example, even though it has sold tens of thousands of copies, can be read in German, Italian, Polish, Korean, and never falls far from the Amazon climbing top ten, I’ve still not even earnt enough to cover my advance from 2006! the prize money for the books you write greater than the royalties.
The same applies to VP, to put so much time and effort and investment into a long and risky game (investing £10,000 in books that sit in a warehouse), when they could just do mountain biking or running guides or ‘How too’ books, which outsell non-fiction by tens of thousands.
VP are savvy publishers, which any small business has to be if it’s to survive and thrive, and so they try and offset the costs of a book by producing both limited edition print runs as well as hardbacks. A hardback, being higher quality, collectable, and more expensive, means that they can get their initial investment pay off (a small publisher will probably only print about 1000 hardbacks). You can find signed hardback copies of Psychovertical for over £60 online, and limited edition prints of Unknown Pleasures, which sold out with a few days, (only 200 printed), will be worth five times that.
And yet in spite of the commercial stupidity of writing books or publishing them, authors still write non-fiction and VP still publish their work. To look at the value of what you do in pure finical terms is essential, as to ignore it could make you so poor you’d have to stop writing or make your business go bust, meaning it has to make enough money to make it viable, but in the long game, there are other factors at work. My business head knows that a book helps get people to come to my shows (like downloads make little money for a band, but get people to come to gigs that do), where I can also sell books (so I become a retailer, not just an author), as well as promote the books you self-publish (print on demand can give you profits as high as 70%), and create opportunities, like a 100,0000-word business card. VP play the same game, they know that an award-winning book, even one that only sells 2000 copies, increases the stock of their brand, makes other publishers, newspapers and magazines take them seriously, draws in talent and raises the bar (if you look at climbing magazines pre Alpinist and post alpinist you can see the effect bar-raising can have, plus it’s worth noting Alpinist was always losing money before it went bust, while lower quality magazines made a profit!).
And so to this price of £24 for 256 pages. First of all, there is something profoundly wrong with this statement, wrong but far from uncommon, the idea of the ‘rip-off’ most often used by people who lack any understanding of basic economics. To see a book as being exploitative or greedy for setting such a price, purely based on dividing sheets of paper by its unit price is dunderheaded. First, this book is not printed in Hong Kong or Turkey, but in Cornwall, and on high-quality eco-sourced paper, not some chemical-soaked pulpy junk. This means you’re not shipping a book halfway around the world, using the cheapest materials you can find, but using a local printer, supporting a vital UK business and its trade and skill (a Chinese bookbinder will work for a few dollars a day, while a Cornish one will not). If we were to get such a printer to print a hardback book of 256 blank sheets of paper rather than one full of words and pictures it would cost just the same, the cost of a book has little to do with its physical value (this is why a Kindle book costs the same as a print book). Unknown Pleasures is also not a book that’s just a cut and paste job, loads of old words just placed on the page and banged out for quick sales. Each story or essay has a hand-drawn image connected to it, each piece having notes on why it was written (like Drummond’s Dream of White Horses), a great deal of love and skill put into every page, from fonts and the use of white space and black, to order of the pieces, the idea to make an anthology of writing that redefines the climbing genre (just as Game’s Climbers Play and Mirror in the Cliffs did). The hours of work I put into this project, editing old words, writing new ones, drawing pictures, is not worth the time, working for a quarter of minimum wage, but it feels like it’s something necessary and something that you can be proud of doing.
And so when you see a book reduced by such a comment on UKC, a common statement, especially amongst climbers - who really should know better - you wonder for a moment what’s the point. You think about the hundreds of hours that go into it, the late nights and all days, the love, skill and dedication, by so many highly talented people (I’d not include myself in that list). You think about all that work that goes into making a book, something in this digital world that is crafted by hand, dense and physical and real, that might last a hundred years, and be passed on and read a thousand times before it turns to dust or gets buried deep in the landfill. Can you reduce such a thing to having no more value than a punnet of strawberries on a scale? Yes, it makes you despair a little, makes you question what is the point, that if people want to live in a Poundland world let them have it that way, to cut corners, do it on the cheap, bang it out and never care. But then, standing at the end of a gig, someone comes up, some old battered hardback with your name on it under their arm, for you to sign to them. And when you say “it’s worth more with just a signature”, and they tell you “this book changed my life, I’ll never sell it”, you know the real value of what we do cannot be divvied up in pounds and pence and pages.