Outdoor Publishing with Jon Barton

Emily Woodhouse Adventure Careers, Guests and Interviews

This week, I catch up with Jon Barton at Vertebrate Publishing. He talks about his story – from being a broke climber fed up of eating porridge to a respected publisher of outdoor books.

Then Jon transitions towards advice for people wanting to become authors. The second section gives great insight into the publishing world, particularly about getting your book published with Vertebrate.

What do you do?

Every Monday morning I become the managing director of Vertebrate Publishing. We are a team of seven editors, designers, marketers and administrators with the sole aim of inspiring folk to go and have adventures in the great outdoors. We do this by producing books – guides and literature – mainly covering climbing, mountaineering, off-road running, cycling, walking and mountain biking. We also produce some beautiful nature, landscape and photography books. Come Friday, I pick a book off our shelves and become a consumer of inspiration: I go out and play in the great outdoors.

The bit that earns me money is selling the books. But the bit that gets me out of bed in the morning is producing books that are the kind of books I’d want to read or use myself. I’m enormously proud of our diverse titles like Waymaking, an anthology of writing and art by women; The Bond, winner of the Boardman Tasker award for mountain literature, and my own Peak District Trail Running.

The Story Behind Vertebrate Publishing

I started climbing – as an extension of a general love of the outdoors – when I was about fifteen. From then I pretty much climbed everyday until maybe I was thirty, when I realised: I had no job – not even a CV. The house I shared with a bunch of other unemployed climbers and a few mice was needing some renovation work (understatement), and I was perhaps getting a bit bored of porridge.

I really didn’t want to do ‘money jobs’ that climbers like myself were suited for – cleaning windows, building climbing walls – but I did really enjoy writing and reading. So I embarked on a rather short career as a photojournalist, which led me to get involved in working with climbing magazines, and famously a fanzine called The Thing.

This gradually morphed into a small graphic design start-up with a couple of friends. It slowly morphed into a proper team of graphic designers, and then into a team of book producers – it actually happened quite organically as we were all like minded. Vertebrate Graphics become Vertebrate Publishing, and just like that we were a book publisher.

Advice for Mixing Adventure and Career

There are two things that make me happy. One is getting these unique, pioneering and inspiring stories down on paper, where they would perhaps otherwise have been lost but are now documented beautifully (for example Jerry Moffatt and the whole eighties climbing movement in Revelations by Jerry Moffatt, or Voytek Kurtyka’s ascent of the Shining Wall on Gasherbrum in Bernadette McDonald’s Art of Freedom). But perhaps even better than this is being able to pick up one of our guidebooks and head out into the hills and discover something new – a new climb, a new bit of trail, or simply a stand of trees that I haven’t seen before.

Enjoying what you do and being passionate about what you do is a lot better than being good at what you do. I’ve got where I am today by working with talented and inspiring people, either authors, editors, or the team at Vertebrate Publishing. I’m not a massive fan of individual self-styled ‘adventurers’ sucking up the oxygen while building social media followings and doing motivational talks based on some mountain they have or haven’t climbed.

I think an individual should have a rewarding and healthy outdoor obsession – and use what they see and learn to build a rewarding and healthy career. I guess what I am saying is: can you contribute or add to the outdoor experience and make that work and pay the bills? It’s better to go for a hike and design a jacket that works work effectively, than to go for a hike and spend the rest of the week telling cyberspace what a great hiker you are.

The other thing is – and I say this to all our authors – that if you are a full-time author, i.e. writing is your only source of income, then you need to think about a forty-hour week, don’t just think, ‘I’ll write one book and hope to make a living out of that’.

Of course, you have to be very careful of the money trap. When I was living in that mouse-infested house, I travelled the world on a budget of zero. Now I have a decent income and a garage full of the latest gear and equipment… and barely have time to go for a run.

Getting Your Book Published

Top 3 Instant Turn-offs When Reading a Pitch?

The best pitches are those where we can get a sense of how good the writing is, how good the story is, marketing potential and a lot of information about the author all on a couple of sides of A4. The worst are a series of unsorted emails with random, unfinished chapters attached… Or when we read a whole manuscript and feed back that it seems unfinished to be told that this is because it is an unfinished draft.

Authors need to send their very best work. Reviewers will often only read the first chapter of a book, as will commissioning editors – as will many readers, even. If that first chapter is weak then the book will fail. The first fifteen minutes of a Bond movie aren’t all about James’s early childhood growing up in a city and being rubbish at adventure, are they? Unfortunately half the climbing books we receive are just that.

How long is the publishing process?

We work on an 18 to 36 month cycle. If we see a submission we like, then maybe up to 3 years later it will appear on a bookshelf. In between times lots of editing, marketing and production tasks get completed. We usually like the book to be finished about 6 months before publication to allow for printing and pre-publication publicity. That said, we can turn around a book in 3 months. The Ogre by Doug Scott was just such a book; it landed on my desk in September and was in the shops in November.

Do Authors need “gravitas” to succeed?

The success of a book is a combination of lots of things – and a good publisher brings these all together. Certainly a big part of this is the role of the author and their marketability: how big is their social media reach? Who do they know? Can they do events? That kind of thing. A busy author is often the best way for a book to be successful.

Authors need to be prepared to work hard for the good of their book if they want to see sales. Of course some authors do well from the royalties of a single book, but an author really needs to look at their first book as just that: a first book. They need to write regularly and be prepared to do a lot more around the book for it to work.

How is Vertebrate different from traditional publishers?

At Vertebrate we like to think we are a bit different. We have a responsibility to promote our beautiful great outdoors, but at the same time not to exploit it. I like to think our books are inspiring, great reads, but that they also put a value on the landscape we are writing about.

Why we do books is far more important to me than how many we do.

This is why:

When I started my business career, selling graphic design, I was always keen to take on advice. And I guess the wisest advice for any business is to make money, have fun and don’t forget to make money. The problem with graphic design is that you make a lot of your money by marking up the services you buy in. So the more branded plastic pens a client wants, the more leaflets, the more stationery – then the more money one makes.

I like making money, but I was never comfortable in selling people stuff they didn’t really need, in quantities they couldn’t meaningfully use. The fun bit seemed to be gone. And if I’m honest the making money bit wasn’t that great. As a bit of a distraction, we published a book: Peak District Mountain Biking. Why? Not to make money, but just to have fun.

More books followed and less and less graphic design. Jerry Moffatt Revelations, because that story was rapidly being forgotten, Ron Fawcett Rock Athlete, because one doesn’t simply pass up the opportunity to work with Ed Douglas and a legend like Ron, The Everest Files trilogy, because young people need inspiring too.

We had one of those commercial books pitched to us the other day, a kind of ‘top ten of the Peak District’ book, the sort of thing that briefly makes the front window of bookshops in the area, selling well to the tourists. We declined the pitch, and the author’s frustrated closing remarks indicated that we were being foolish because “it would sell loads better than that hares book you did”. We published Brown Hares of the Derbyshire Dales for several reasons, none that you could fit into a spreadsheet.

I didn’t bother to explain that I often run along the meadows of Sheffield’s green belt, and I see hares in the early morning. I climb on the high gritstone edges in the early spring, fascinated by the white mountain hares. I love spending time with the author of Brown Hares as she leads me through her local woodland patch, pointing out more wildlife than I can possibly take in.

One can make money by knuckling down and selling some more plastic pens to people desperate to have their name on other people’s desks, who are in turn printing pens to get their name on other people’s desks.

But if we can also make money by publishing the sort of book I want to read and use myself, then I guess we will stick with the climbing, running, walking, biking and nature books. Otherwise, we’ll never truly know a good book from a branded-up plastic pen.