1 What is your job title and company? And roughly how many people work for your company?
I am the publisher of the company I founded, Rucksack Readers
. I’m its only employee: anything that I don’t do myself is outsourced.
2 What are your qualifications and working background, and when and how did you take on your current job?
After careers in academia, then freelancing in education, mostly on IT-based projects, I became a late-onset walker and set up Rucksack Readers in 2000 out of sheer frustration with the inadequacies of traditional guidebooks when used outdoors in real weather, including rain and wind.
3 What does your average working day entail?
There are two distinct kinds: out and about, or back in the office. The first is the more diverse: I may be out on a route, text-checking, taking photographs to fill gaps or simply hiking it to get an authentic feel for its character. Time on the route is always spent alone, and it’s great thinking and planning time, too. At other times I might be at a book fair or a mountain film festival, or visiting a printer.
Work back in the office is more predictable: commissioning and communicating with authors, or dealing with web customers, mostly via email about their experience of the routes. All our orders are dispatched by our distributor BookSource these days, and we use printers in three countries, Poland, China and the UK, choosing whichever is most cost-efficient for the task in hand.
Editing manuscripts is something I always do personally, and it involves a lot of interaction with our designer because we obsess about copy-fitting and page-breaks. I also have a lot of dealings with cartographers over mapping, which is always optimised for the route and the book format, and I spend long hours selecting and sourcing images.
Typically we have a couple of new titles to work on each year, plus an increasing number of revised editions from our backlist of 35 titles: we are very committed to keeping our guidebooks updated.
4 What do you enjoy most about your job?
There’s a magical moment when our PDF of a book is advanced enough to reassure me that not only will the content fit the page limit but that it will look great and inspire people to walk the route. Each of our books is lavishly illustrated, with 70 to 120 photographs, plenty of mapping and diagrams wherever they help.
I also find it gratifying when an author whose manuscript has just been shortened by 10 or 15% recognises that nothing has been lost and that clarity and elegance have actually been improved. Less is more. Authors vary enormously in how they react to being edited, of course, and often my proposed edit isn’t the end of the story. However, once a problem passage has been identified, then between us we can always hammer out a much-improved wording.
All text is improvable by editing, including and especially my own! For all that we love to make great-looking books, we never forget that the primary function of a guidebook is to help people to avoid getting lost, even if the route isn’t waymarked or if waymarkers have gone missing.
5 What achievements are you most proud of?
This year our Trek to Everest won the guidebook category of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild’s Award for Excellence. The judges’ comments were very gratifying, including this recognition of conciseness: “packing as much information into its 80 pages as many books will bloat out over 200”. They were also generous about its photos, most of which were my own, so I’m hugely proud of that award.
6 What are your biggest challenges?
That’s easy: it’s balancing the priorities and pressures on my time. Working on the current new title is always the most attractive task, but I also have to make time to organise the marketing, plan the future, maintain our social media presence, deal with routine emails and complete the VAT return.
7 What have you experienced in your job and publishing that you didn’t expect?
I thought that making our books as useful and beautiful as possible would be the hard bit, but it turns out to be the easy part. Marketing and distribution have been unexpectedly challenging.
8 How do you switch off from your work?
If only! Even on holiday I am always on email—indeed this Q&A was completed at a waterhole in Namibia, between game viewings. But if you really love what you do, maybe switching off doesn’t matter so much.
9 What advice would you give anyone wanting to start or progress a career in publishing?
Professional publishing is not for the faint-hearted. You need to be tremendously certain that this is what you want to do, and to stay the course you need plenty of self-belief, drive and determination. And although there are good livings to be made if you find the right niche, if making money is your primary goal, choose a different profession. Too many people wanting to publish too many books is a recipe for fierce competition, with downward pressure on salaries and prices.