Vertebrate Publishing’s New Climb: Bringing Adventuring Women Into the Picture

In News by Porter Anderson

An independent publisher in the UK sees how sports are changing, and is taking steps to address the gender gap in outdoor adventure literature—with an anthology by and about women.

Image – iStockphoto: Remains

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘To Sell This Book Equally to Men and Women’
The UK’s Vertebrate Publishing is an independent house that focuses on mountain biking and climbing—sports found near its base in Sheffield. And its managing director, Jon Barton, can describe Vertebrate in a way that few publishers today might be able to match: the house has a strong, stable consumer base of male readers.

But given current events, Barton is heading down a new path in his trail-fans’ title list.

Waymaking, an anthology about women’s outdoor adventuring, is a new release set for October 4.

The book is edited by Claire Carter, Helen Mort, Heather Dawe, and Camilla Barnard, and it’s about “redressing the balance of gender in outdoor adventure literature” according to the company’s promotional material.

With writings from Katie Ives, Bernadette McDonald, Sarah Outen, Anna McNuff, filmmaker Jen Randall, and other accomplished women adventurers, the book is meant to jibe with “an era when wilderness conservation and gender equality are at the fore.”

In Publishing Perspectives’ exchange with Barton, our first question was whether the anthology, rather than being a one-time token event, marks a new direction he intends to pursue.

“A very big yes,” he says. “Mountaineering literature specifically, and adventure lit in general, is horribly underrepresented by women.”

“Some of this has to do with strong female role models arriving late in the day,” Barton says, “so their story—and stories they’re inspiring—are still evolving.

“And a lot of it has to do with publishing and market habits. Waymaking is a stepping stone along the way for us.”

Barton says that contextually, the company’s mindset has been ready for the introduction of more women’s work. “When we published our first book 14 years ago, a mountain biking guidebook, we set out to do a few things.

“We didn’t want to simply cash in on people wanting to go cycling, we wanted to produce a guidebook that represented the sort of riding that people wanted to do, and one of these things was to illustrate it with the sort of riders we were seeing out on the trails. And so we set ourselves a lot of rules, one of which was to never publish an illustrated guide without a picture of a woman in it.”

And as it’s turned out, Vertebrate has had work written and/or photographed by women. “We’ve gone on to extend this somewhat and now we have a good number of guides written and photographed by women. It’s nowhere near half, but, for example, of our 21 walking books, seven are authored by women.

“Publishers like Vertebrate have to be trusted,” he says, “to produce good books by women in our traditional play-space. And women, and men, have to go out and read these books.”

And Barton is careful to stress that the new anthology is a start, not a token effort. “In fact please send us your submissions,” he says.

‘Stop Talking About It and Start Broadcasting It’

As it happens, that stable consumer base will be part of the marketing challenge. Barton concedes that he has a reading community not accustomed to thinking of—or finding—women’s content. But the challenge intrigues him, he  says.

Jon Barton

“We have the data that women read equally male- and female-authored work, but men tend to mainly read male-authored work, so it’ll be interesting how it unfolds.

“Vertebrate is a trusted brand when it comes to great mountain books, but we do have a lot of work to do to let women—who maybe have no interest in climbing a mountain—know that reading about someone else climbing a mountain can be very engaging.

“It’s a bit like all the debate on watching female sport. Stop talking about it and start broadcasting it. Waymaking will be our first major piece of literature written by women, it will be the first female title that has been at the top of our autumn release list.”

To create this anthology, Barton ran a Kickstarter campaign—something Vertebrate hasn’t done before—not only for £12,234 in funds from 383 backers (US$15,835),  but also to build audience awareness.

What Barton says, “More than 90 percent of mountaineering books in Amazon’s top 100 are by and about men. More than 90 percent of our pre-order database—outside of the Christmas-present season—are men.”

He says he hopes to see that figure shift to 80 or even 70 percent.

“And our aim with the marketing will be to sell this book equally to men and women.”

Publishing Perspectives is interested in hearing about more instances in which women are publishing in traditionally male spaces—and vice-versa. Drop a line to if you know of such a case.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.