The Challenges Of Small Press Publishing With Jon Barton

What are the most important aspects of becoming a successful publisher? Jon Barton talks about his lessons learned and how to avoid the pitfalls.

In the intro, Amazon AWS Bedrock for generative AI; Impromptu: Amplifying our Humanity Through AI by Reid Hoffman and co-written with GPT4; reflections on the fantastic 20BooksSpain Seville conference; Ideas and execution by Hugh Howey; The Creator Economy course; AI Cover Design for Authors;

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Jon Barton is the founder and managing director of the award-winning independent publisher Vertebrate Publishing, as well as the author of several bestselling mountain biking guides.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below. 

Show Notes

  • Challenges in publishing other people’s works
  • The ecosystem of Vertebrate Publishing
  • Pivoting business models
  • Sticking to a niche and why it works
  • Tips for pitching to a publisher
  • RRP royalty rate vs. net royalty rate
  • Understanding contracts and seeking outside advice

You can find Jon and Vertebrate Publishing at

Transcript of Interview with Jon Barton

Joanna: Jon Barton is the founder and managing director of the award-winning independent publisher Vertebrate Publishing, as well as the author of several bestselling mountain biking guides. So welcome to the show, Jon.

Jon: Hi, Jo. How goes it?

Joanna: Good. I’m excited to talk to you today.

First up, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and publishing.

Jon: Well, the one thing that’s worth knowing about me is I’ve never had a CV and never been to a job interview, I’m older than I sound as well. I discovered rock climbing when I was probably 13 or 14, and that’s pretty much all I did until I was about 30.

In fact, when I met my wife and I was about 31, 32, and she just presumed I’d been working for a decade and had savings and houses and all the rest of it, like normal people had. Then she discovered later on in life that a hadn’t, I’d just been going around the world climbing.

So I was very much addicted to climbing. I was a professional climber, but that probably suggests I made money out of it, which I didn’t. And then I used to do a few odd jobs, sort of construction type jobs, and we used to clean windows of skyscrapers and jobs like that before it became sort of more professional to earn money. And I used to find that fairly soul-destroying. 

I think it was on some US trips, where people were very interested in the sort of cultural history of British climbing. And people were asking us about Lady Diana, and the Queen and all sorts of weird stuff in some of the climbing areas we were. But they were very interested in these sort of almost legendary stories of British climbers.

I sort of inadvertently became the British correspondent in some American climbing publications, and just sending over news items. I realized I quite liked writing, and I quite liked recording things and documenting things in a roundabout way

Then the other thing that happened is —

I was doing a lot of mountain biking in the UK Peak District where I live, and the guidebooks that were available didn’t reflect the kind of people you see out on the trails.

So the guidebooks would be, you know, the traditional routes, it would be some pictures of men in out-of-date gear. And what I was seeing was young people, women out there cycling, latest gear, latest bikes, going into some fairly—I mean the Peak District is not remote—but some fairly challenging terrain and pushing themselves. So I decided to write a guidebook to what I saw, and it sold really well. And that’s where the publishing business came from

We have now 300-400 titles.

And ironically, our Peak District Mountain Biking Guide, which was published 18 years ago, is still one of our bestselling books. I don’t know how much. So yeah, that’s really it. So it came from my climbing roots. 

The other thing I used to do when I sort of hit my 30s and realized I needed to make money, I worked in a graphic design business, which is what this business eventually became. We used to make all of our money out of selling more stuff to people. So we design them a logo, but then we’d sell them stationery, and we’d sell them branded T-shirts and plastic pens, endless plastic pens with logos on. 

I was always a bit uncomfortable with this idea that I was just putting more stuff in the world. And the more stuff I can persuade somebody to have, the more money we would make. I didn’t really like it, it didn’t sit very comfortably.

When we published books, I felt I was adding something to the world that people were getting something from and would keep and treasure. Maybe not treasure all of our books, but I found it a much more wholesome thing. That’s where it all started from.

Joanna: That’s lovely. Obviously, book lovers are listening as well. So fascinating, you said at the beginning that you never had a job interview, and you’re basically an independent-minded chap, and a lot of independent people listening as well. So I really love that you’ve come into it this way.

But it’s a really big difference to go from writing and publishing your own book to publishing other people.

How did you transition into deciding to publish other people? What have been some of those challenges?

Jon: Well, so we did—I did my first book. I always use the word “we” because I can’t spell or I can’t do layout or anything. So I’ve always been very good at working with people who are brighter and cleverer than me that can do stuff, which I think is one key thing.

So the success of the first Mountain Biking was great. And then I had somebody I knew who did a lot of mountain biking down south of England, so I said, “Well, this is the template, this is the format we’ve done. Can you do it for the south of England?” So they did do that.

We learned—this might sound daft—we learned that people in the north of England aren’t interested in buying a guidebook to the south of England. Who knew?!

So all of a sudden we can had to get wise in how we were going to sell books that weren’t on our backyard.

We had to learn marketing and distribution and sales.

Then sort of going back to this idea, this American idea, that a lot of stories do get lost. Particularly niche sports, I’m from a rock climbing mountaineering background, and some of the stories to us seemed quite normal, you know, 10 people living in a room because we didn’t earn any money and we just needed to climb, and living out of dumpsters when food gets thrown away at the end of the day in a supermarket, you can go and retrieve it. 

I think on one trip to Australia, I lived for 800 pounds for six months. I’ve told my wife when we go away for the weekend, and we spend 800 pounds just on the hotel bills for the weekend, I remind her we could have gone to Australia for six months.

Joanna: You were in your 20s. It was a different time!

Jon: I was younger, and I could live on out-of-date pasta for days.

So we discovered that these stories, I mean, the one about the dumpsters is possibly not very interesting, but the stories would get lost. And so I tracked down the people that had made these stories, have lived these lives, and persuaded them to write books.

So we produced mountaineering books, climbing books, and running books, just by documenting these stories. And you then start attracting submissions, and one thing and another.

We made huge, huge numbers of mistakes because I found it very hard to say ‘no.’

And some things I would find interesting, might not necessarily be interesting to the wider public.

Joanna: Well, let’s get further into that then because obviously my listeners, we are mainly authors, but many of us are also publishers. So I publish my own books, obviously people listening might publish their own books.

Some people are starting micro publishers, almost like yourself. Maybe a decade or two ago, someone will say, oh, can I publish this book or somebody has died and left their copyright to someone. So what’s emerging in the independent author community is a whole load of micro presses, like there were in the beginning. I guess that’s how publishing was until all the big conglomerates.

So you mentioned there, mistakes. One of them you said was trying to sell stuff for the north of England to the south and vice versa. So geographically specific books, I guess. 

What were some of the other mistakes or lessons learned?

Jon: I think the stepping out of our niche. Just because we can produce the best climbing book or the best cycling book that the world has ever seen, it really doesn’t mean we can produce a good children’s book or a good fiction book.

Whenever we stray out of our niche, we have a failure.

And I think failure is the wrong word in publishing, I think in traditional publishing, a better way of saying it is you just printed too many. But certainly, when we step out of our niche, that can be a failure.

We will have a loyal readership and a loyal base, like many independent authors will have, and we put a lot of time and effort into managing that and growing that and looking after that.

But I think expecting them and wanting them to buy books that aren’t the sort of thing we publish is not a good tactic. And the other thing we learned is that people like local guidebooks, they don’t like national guidebooks. That’s, again, the bigger publishers can be better at that. But the main thing was operating in our niche.

Joanna: I think that’s a really good tip, and it’s much easier to grow your brand when you’re known for a certain thing.

You also said there, printing too many copies is a mistake. So I wondered, because again, most of us use print-on-demand, very few independent authors will be doing print runs. I mean, even for a Kickstarter, you print them after you’ve got the number of books you need to do. So how does your model work in terms of are you doing mainly that sort of print runs? Or do you also use print on demand?

How does your publishing ecosystem work?

Jon: So we have a commissioning editor and the brightest people in the business, or the three people with the loudest voices, four people with the loudest voices, form a commissioning team, and we will review submissions and review this publishing strategy. So in theory, it starts with very robust commissioning.

And for a book to get through the commissioning process is quite a lot of work. Included in that is forecasting. 

We use a lot of information to produce the forecast. A lot of historical data, we benchmark against other books, we look at the market, we look at the author profile, we look at their social media profile, we look at their track record.

So saying that they’re willing to do lots of marketing is often very different to doing lots of marketing.

Then we will produce the book, and we will typically with our books, we will go to a good size print run on the first printing. It used to be 5000 copies, it was just always 5000 copies. We haven’t had many books where we haven’t either made a good dent into that or gone to a reprint, but now it’s much less.

It’s very rare for us to print 5000 upfront because we can be holding stocks for five or six years, in some instances, with that amount of print. Sometimes we’ll print 3000 or 4000, and we’ve had occasions where they’ve sold out before publication date, which is good, but embarrassing. So it just tends to be that model.

Because we’ve always done that, and a lot of our books aren’t suitable for print on demand because one thing we’ve been very bad at is format control. So at one point, every book coming out had a different format, and many of them just weren’t suitable for print-on-demand.

We don’t do a lot of mono books. So we don’t do a lot of 200 page, black and white reading books, narratives.

Our books will be different sizes, highly illustrated, flaps on the cover, all those sort of things.

So we’ve just done some short run printing to fill a stock hole, and we’re pretty much making ten pounds or losing ten pounds every time we sell a copy of the 200 we had to print quickly. Just because the economies don’t work for us on short run and print on demand.

I think now the technology is really changing. The printing processes have really come on. We’re having to look at our format so we can be much more—I won’t say digitally led or digital first— but we need to be digitally available.

Joanna: It’s interesting. So I did go on your website, and I noticed I could buy a paperback from your website, but I primarily read ebooks. I do buy some lovely hardbacks, and obviously you have beautiful print books as well. 

What about digital? What about ebooks and audiobooks?

Jon: Yes, so our bestselling books—so if we take something like Swimming Wild in the Lake District, or The Climbing Bible, which is a sort of a climbing training book, we won’t sell very many digital copies. Certainly a book about wild swimming, it’s a large format, it’s got lots of big photos in, it doesn’t sell at all well as a digital book.

And of course, the audio will just be somebody splashing around. (That’s a joke in case everybody missed it!)

So they just don’t lend themselves. So we will do an eBook version, and we’ll do an audiobook version, if appropriate, but they just don’t lend themselves to digital sales.

Some of the books with more global appeal, so the climbing training books we sell a lot globally. And because the only way we can ship them is from a US warehouse and a UK warehouse, we will sell a lot digitally globally of those books. So some of them work on Kindle, but mostly it’s the physical books. Around about 10-15% of our revenue is digital.

Joanna: And when you say digital, you mean ebook or audiobook, rather than books bought online. Because this is the thing now, people say, “oh, digital,” but of course someone who buys a print book from you on your website, is that a digital sale or no?

Jon: No, that’s a physical book. So when we talk about digital, we’re literally talking about ebook or audiobook. And then I probably can’t be clear on print on demand whether it is, and then print on demand then merges with sort of micro print runs. So it depends on the book, but probably 15% of our revenue is eBook and audio.

Joanna: It’s interesting because I have for the first time just done a hardback with color photos for Pilgrimage. And I’ve used here in the UK, and I’ve done that with Kickstarter.

So it was kind of a small print run, and then I sort of sent them all out. But it’s the first time I have done this, and it makes me think that doing more of these beautiful books is a good thing in a world where, for example, there’s a lot of digital creation where it’s hard to stand out.

Do you think on balance that your business model will get better? Or are you thinking of changing what you do? For example, you could do some more narrative stories or narrative versions that are just plain text for digital sales in order to expand.

Are you thinking of pivoting your business model at all?

Jon: Very much so. I think one of the problems we generated for ourselves is some of our narrative titles were very heavily illustrated. They had all the bells and whistles on the printing, and they were very labor intensive, lots of editing. Somebody had written a foreword, somebody wrote a postscript to the book, or even the preface, there would be photos everywhere. There’d be fancy endpapers and oil blotting on all the rest of it. 

It was okay while we were fairly new and people were hoovering up our stuff. Once margins got a bit tighter, and once the printing really started going up, we were sort of stuck with that.

People expected 24, 36 pages of color plates in the book. It did make for some quite expensive books.

What we’re looking at now, which is, when I when I listened to—I must make a criticism about your podcasts, they’re not quite long enough, because I listen to them when I go running, and I tend to run for about an hour and a half. I literally had to stop—get this—I had to stop in the rain two nights ago to change podcasts.

Joanna: Oh, I apologize. But thanks for listening!

Jon: Yeah., but if you could just do a special long-distance runner podcast every now and again, just put that in. Or if I was a bit more tech-savvy, one could follow straight after the other.

Joanna: Or you could change it to the slower speed. You can speed podcasts up, you can also slow them down.

Jon: But then that would be the tempo for my running. I’d just get really unfit. I’d be waiting for the next word. We’ve almost forgotten the question, haven’t we?

Joanna: We’re talking about pivoting business models.

Jon: So what we do need to do is we need to get a workflow in place for narratives. We get a lot of submissions, a lot of good books, and we had sort of found ourselves in this situation where we’re producing these very lavish books.

But in the autumn, when printing basically doubled in price, and we’re all panicking about the cost of living crisis, we actually put a few books out with the minimum basic work. We found the sales weren’t really affected.

People wanted a good story, they didn’t particularly need 24 pages of the author showing them how great it looks. They can get that off their Instagram feed.

So yeah, we are actively now looking to put a lot of our narratives out in B-format paperback, we can launch digitally. we can do things like instock protection with Amazon.

So while we’ll have a print run, we’ll also have a POD edition there available. And certainly with some of our American publishing, rather than shipping pallets of books to America, we’re just setting them up as PODs.

Joanna: And printing them there just makes sense, doesn’t it?

The other thing I was going to ask is about Kickstarter, because there’s a small press I follow, Microcosm Press. I don’t know if you know them.

Jon: Yeah.

Joanna: They do a fantastic job of Kickstarters for all their books. That’s how they do every single book. It’s what seems to be is they do a Kickstarter, and then you can buy it from their store. And I think you did it for Waymaking, that was one of yours.

Jon: We’ve done three or four Kickstarters over the years.

Waymaking was the Kickstarter that was most successful.

I mean, the obvious downfalls for us with Kickstarter is it’s a lot of intense marketing, because you’ve just got that opportunity, haven’t you.

And that marketing doesn’t go anywhere because you’re putting all that into a Kickstarter campaign. Meanwhile, you have gotten the names and the addresses and one thing and another, and it just sort of sits on a Kickstarter platform.

So we’ve just done a caving book, it’s very easy to find all the caver in the world. They all drink in the same bar. So Kickstarter, I think it’s very good to sort of, I mean, I’m not a Kickstarter expert, but it’s very good to reach new audiences and market and do new things.

But I think with us, strictly hill walking, we’re mountain running, we’re climbing, mountaineering, wild swimming, we can find those people quite effectively.

Joanna: Even, I guess, old school media, just that there are magazines and things that you can advertise in and Facebook groups and all that kind of thing.

Jon: Exactly. And there’ll always be the world’s best climber. And you can always—well, you can’t always persuade them—but you can often persuade those sorts of people to promote your book.

I found Kickstarter for Waymaking was very good because we were, with the Waymaking book, we were publishing all these mountaineering narratives. And we have some Australian climbers and US climbers and European climbers and lots of British climbers, and we do a preorder offer that people come to the website and order the book. I started doing some analysis on the names that were ordering it.

Now at Christmas, there was a gender split fairly 50-50. Lots of women, lots of men. If it wasn’t Christmas, it was all men. I think one preorder, 98% of the orders were male names. And I think we deduced that at Christmas, wives, girlfriends, mothers were buying books for their boyfriends, sons, husbands. And during the rest of the year, it was just men buying books for themselves. I think we came to the conclusion that the adventure narrative market was pretty much male dominated. And this was when we did Waymaking, which was probably six or seven years ago.

The mountaineering bestseller list on Amazon would usually be 98 out of 100 books would be written by men.

The two that weren’t, one would be written by Bernadette McDonald, and that would be a biography of a man. And one would be Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, which is a great book, it always sits there.

So we did Waymaking because it was an anthology of new writing, poetry, and art by women about adventure.

And really, the idea was to sort of bring some women to the fore, hopefully, I don’t sound patronizing, and just give them the confidence—

Joanna: And the platform. Well, I bought it. I bought that book. I mean, I would comment, and I’m not saying this is about you, but the adventure niche in general, it’s a lot of sort of blokes with beards on the front of books. In terms of branding, it’s not so accessible.

It is interesting, now, to me, the travel niche is different to the adventure niche. So I think you’re more broadly travel. Although it’s funny, isn’t it, because like mountain biking, you could say is kind of adventurous. Or is it hobbies? Does it go in hobbies?

Jon: I mean, in all honesty, while we have some books we would call travel, we are strictly adventure, sports, outdoor pursuits.

And the reason we went to Kickstarter with the Waymaking is because we had to go and find some women. Not in a creepy way.

Joanna: No, no, not at all — and the book is wonderful. So I’ll have a link to it in the notes. I think it’s interesting, like you said—

It comes back to niche, and you stepped out of your niche for that book.

But it did really well. I think it got a lot of press as well, didn’t it?

Jon: Yes. The aim of that book—and I know we’re talking about Kickstarter—the aim of that book, and it would have failed had the women in it and other women, not started publishing in the adventure pursuits market, and they have. A couple of the women have actually started their own micro-publishing businesses up from their work on that book.

Either last year, well, certainly last year, I can’t quite remember the year before, we published more books by women than we did by men. And in this year coming. We’ve got more books coming out by women than men. I think for us and the niche, I won’t say it was all Waymaking that did it, but it definitely achieved what we wanted to achieve. 

It goes back to what I was saying about my first book. When we were going out, when I was climbing when I was younger, you know, women were climbing, men were climbing, but women weren’t writing the books. With mountain biking, there’d be plenty of women mountain biking, but you wouldn’t see any guide books written by a woman.

One of the first rules we had in the publishing business is we wouldn’t publish a book, a guidebook, without a photo of a woman in it because it just wouldn’t represent what was happening out there. We’ve gone as far as saying now that we have to make sure we have diversity in our publishing with our authors.

Joanna: I think that’s great. And again, it’s about seeing somebody like you doing something out there. So I applaud your diversity push there.

Let’s just come back to the idea of authors who might want to pitch publishers. So maybe there are some people listening and they’re like, oh, I would really like to pitch you, or pitch another publisher or an agent. And you mentioned earlier, you said that you look at an author’s profile and an author’s marketing and their track record.

What are your tips for authors who want to pitch an idea, whether that’s to you or someone else?

Jon: So I think the crucial thing is you have to look at the output of that publisher you’re pitching to. So really, I mean, we don’t publish poetry, we don’t publish narrative, we don’t publish children’s books anymore. So there’s literally no point sending us crime fiction or really fiction at all.

We only publish in the sports that we publish in. So we’re not interested in skateboarding or surfing or anything like that, or sailing books. So do your research. Don’t just send stuff in.

I think I think getting to know the publisher is useful, if you’ve got the time. I mean, certainly following them on social media is just crucial, unless you don’t use social media, which is fine. Going to some of their events, reading their best sellers is all good.

This might sound stupid, the phone will often go, people will start pitching the book down the phone, which is not ideal, but I understand it’s fair enough. And I will often say, “Well, we like books like Waymaking, and this is what we did with Waymaking.”

And we will often get that book criticized. “Oh yeah, my books really good. I didn’t like Waymaking because the stories were too short or I hadn’t heard of the authors or it was all women.” Literally those sorts of things have been said to me. “But my book is better.”

That’s just like, oh, well, thanks very much. “Stick a copy in the post, we don’t return manuscripts,” is usually the answer that you get. So it’s respecting what the publisher has published.

Realistically, we want an engaging story, we want a relatable story, we want something that’s in our strategy. But it does often come down to the marketing plan.

As self-published authors will know, there’s nobody better to sell a book than the author. Even if you’re working with Penguin Random House, you will always be able to sell more books, more of your own books, than any other process, realistically.

The author profile is key for us. We have to be commercial. So it’s what the author brings to the table from a marketing point of view is crucial.

Joanna: So if someone wants to send a pitch email, it should be the first paragraph about the book and the second paragraph about the author, platform, and marketing ideas.

Jon: Well, we just have submission guidelines. So we need to know about them, we need to know what their competitive titles are, in their opinion, we need to know their marketing reach, some samples of the work, have they written before, all those sorts of things. So we have quite detailed submission guidelines.

Joanna: And a big tip is to follow those. I mean, it’s so funny, I’ve obviously been to these events where they tell you stuff and everyone says, no, follow the guidelines. And I imagine a lot of people don’t follow the guidelines.

Jon: Yeah, yeah. I mean, only about one in 10 of our submissions follow the guidelines.

The other thing to appreciate is, we’re not a bad company, we’ve got quite a slick operation. In terms of new authors for Vertebrate, we’re taking on very few a year. It’s less than 10 brand new authors a year, probably less than five brand new authors.

Joanna: So as in you’re commissioning books from people who’ve already written books, like on rock climbing or mountain biking?

Jon: Yeah, well, we have books we want, so we will often go out and find that author. In terms of interesting submissions that come into the in tray that we end up subsequently publishing, it is actually very few.

It’s very difficult to get into, even us, and I’d say we’re quite open and receptive. It’s very difficult for us to publish something that’s just landed in the submissions tray. 

Equally, we will look at submissions, and we will feedback where we can. If it’s something we’re interested in, it might go right through to the commissioning meeting.

So we produce what we call a book investment proposal, and that can iron out a lot of stuff. And we will give feedback even if we refuse the book, I have seen quite a lot of books we have refused subsequently published, whether they’ve taken our advice or not, but they have actually gone on to get a publishing deal which is always great to see. Especially if they send me a copy, that’s always nice if I had given them feedback.

Joanna: And I think one of the questions, I mean a lot of indie authors listening is, are publishers interested if an author who has published themselves and now are interested in a deal? Let’s assume this is a new book. So if I came to you and said, “I’ve got this new book, and I’ve got 30-plus titles, and here’s my sales history.” 

Are you as a publisher interested in independent authors?

Jon: Yes, very much. I mean, one of our bestselling books was actually published independently. He published two books independently. One’s called Bothy Tales, one’s called The Last Hill Walker. Really nice guy. And he’d got so far with what he could do, and he wanted time to write more books. We republished them under our imprint, and have subsequently done two new books with him.

So the book was established, so his royalty rate is actually 50%, so it’s a stonking good royalty rate. So it works for everybody. And we’ve been able to take what he did, which was a lot of digital sales, and have the confidence and the cash flow to print good numbers and have them distributed globally as well.

So yeah, so we’ll work on merit, and if an indie author is successful, then it makes forecasting so much easier because they’re bringing real sales data to the commissioning meeting.

Joanna: It’s good to hear because I mean, I remember coming to the FutureBook / The Booksellers Conference here in the UK back in 2012, and I was really treated like an outcast and indie authors were not welcome about a decade ago. It feels like things have changed. And with a business mindset—

Certainly, a lot of indie authors have a business mindset. That’s what you have as a publisher, right?

Jon: Yeah, I mean, one of my things, it’s not massively commercial, but I tend to just want to work with people I like and like working with. What their track record is, and their material, I think indie authors are good because you know, straight away, you know what they’re like to work with. If they’ve managed to get books out before, they are an achiever.

I mean, writing a book, as you know, is a lot of work and you’re putting yourself out there. You’re really putting your head above the parapet and asking people to like what you do. That can be quite a challenge.

And if you’re working with a first time author, we’ve had some horrendous problems with getting them to let go of the manuscript. It might be because they are climbers and they don’t like letting go. That’s a rubbish joke, you should edit it out.

Joanna: No, that’s a good joke. I like it!

I did want to come back, because we’re almost out of time. I want to ask you, originally, you emailed me and said you wanted to address my ‘publisher bashing.’

I’d love to know what you particularly disagree with, or whether it’s just the type of publisher? Because all publishers are not the same, right? Like all authors are not the same.

Are there any myths or issues you want to correct around publishers?

Jon: I think this always comes back to haunt me. I was on Alastair Humphrey’s podcast, and he dug out something I said about ‘pseudo-adventurers trying to write stories about something that anybody could have done.’ So he also called me out.

I mean, we hear quite a lot. I mean, we’re nice people, and we work hard, and we put our authors first, and all the rest of it. And you do hear that phrase, “Oh, I got ripped off by my publisher,” or, “My publisher didn’t listen,” or my publisher this, my publisher that.

At the end of the day, they’re just human beings. If you’ve got a deal with Penguin Random House, you’re actually working, but you might be working with some really nice editors and marketing people and book designers.

And so I think when I hear that, that sort of, “the publisher did this,” I think it’s not necessarily fair on the industry of publishing. We are commercial organizations, obviously. But the best favor a publisher can always do for its author is to be solvent, and that requires making money.

What a lot of authors don’t do is scrutinize the contract and really understand what they’re signing.

Just knowing the difference between a net royalty rate and an RRP royalty rate is huge. I think authors have to just sit down with that contract and understand every line in it, as boring as that might sound, before they sign it.

And have some real-world examples, you know, what does 10% mean?

What does actually that mean? How much money will I get per book sold? How many books are you expecting to sell? How much marketing support will I get? Will I get paid expenses if I get asked to go to a festival?

I think all that should be asked. You didn’t sign your house mortgage without understanding what your repayments were and how long those repayments had to be done? Well, maybe some people do, but I think that can often lead to conflict down the line when you realize that your royalty check is only 18 pounds.

Joanna: I’m so glad you said that because that is a lot of it. I mean, I talk a lot about this and try and educate people around contracts. I have absolutely no problem with people signing with traditional publishers, and have done myself for foreign rights and things like that. Exactly as you say, you have to understand what you’re signing.

I guess one of my issues is often the clauses that are in the standard contracts. You know, and publishers, to be fair, they’re going to offer the best deals for themselves and it’s up to the author and/or the agent to negotiate it.

But it’s the taking all rights for the life of copyright, all formats, that kind of thing. An author shouldn’t sign that, and yet, it seems like some of the big companies, they want everything and otherwise there’s no choice.

Just coming back on what you said—

What is net versus RRP royalty rate?

Because I know people listening are like, what is that? What should I do? So can you just explain that just so people know.

Jon: So if the published price of the book is 20 pounds and you’re being offered a 10% royalty, that’s not two pounds, that will typically not be two pounds. So an RRP, so that’s the recommended retail price in the UK or the sales price or whatever. So if you’re being offered a royalty on the RRP then the percentage will be two pounds, if it’s 10%.

Joanna: Well, that’s never done.

Jon: Well, you say it’s never done, but lots of authors think that is exactly what they’re signing. So that must be clear. And certainly with agented books, we find that with agent books, they always try and get an RRP royalty, which is fine. We had a small children’s imprint, and many of those books were RRP.

So then the net rate is, so if it’s 10%, it’s 10% of what we receive when we sell a copy. And that can be very, very murky.

So if we sell a book on Amazon, Amazon will give us 40% of the retail price. So if it’s 10 pounds, we’ll get four pounds, and we’ll give the author whatever the rate is, 10% or 20% of that, depends on the book.

In John Burns’ case, with his The Last Hill Walker, it’s 50% of that. So that’s four pounds. But we don’t get four pounds because for that Amazon sale, we have a distribution charge, which is another 10%. And we might have a repping charge, which might be another 5%. And we might have some delivery costs.

There can be all sorts of costs that you could potentially lump in, and you might end up receiving 50 pounds for the books, and then you might end up paying the author 10% on 50 pounds, which is not very much.

I don’t think many publishers do that. We certainly wouldn’t. But I think this is why some real world examples are required. And obviously the net rate is very good if you’re selling direct.

So if you sell a book at full price, then the net rate is obviously higher. So also understanding what the split of sales is for a publisher. So 30% of our books are sold via Amazon, which is the highest discount we give. Obviously, we give Amazon the highest discount, why wouldn’t we? So that’s what the net rate means.

I’ve looked at plenty of contracts for people I know who’ve been offered contracts with big publishers and they’ve asked me to look at them. And the other one to look out for is special sales. So you can often have a lower net rate for special sales. I think it’s very important to understand what the publisher means by special sales.

Joanna: Because it could mean anything.

Jon: Yeah, you know, so for special sales, you will get a net rate of 5%, and it’s just buried there in the contract. And then all of a sudden, you might find that 90% of your books are special.

Joanna: And to me, this is interesting. And people listening, this is publishing, this really is. I mean, the writing for us, for you and me as well, I mean—

The writing of the book is completely separate, really, to the business side.

And I’m an artist, and I’m a businesswoman. And those are two sides of the coin.

In the same way, you are still an author, but you’re a businessman being separate to the, “oh, I love this book” type of thing. You can absolutely love a book. but the business is very specific. You have to be interested in both of these things, I think, to be successful. You can’t just be interested in the art.

Jon: No, you can’t. And I will often say to people at the start of their book project, just so I can manage their expectations and make sure they’re happy at the end of it is, “What are you trying to achieve from the book?”

And invariably, the answer is something like, ‘I just want to get my story out, I want to inspire other people, I want to put something down on paper for my children or whatever.’

When the book is published, I’m sorry to say, you know what the phone calls are about.

Joanna: Yeah. Where’s my million pounds?

Jon: Yeah, the phone calls are all about sales. Now fortunately, I understand that. So I think it’s important at the very start to understand what that sales and renumeration is.

You know, a lot of our authors will only write one book. They’ve done something amazing, and they want to tell the story, and they have a day job. And if they make money out of the book, great. If they don’t make money out of the book, it’s not the end of the world. Understanding what that return is, is important.

We welcome, and I often advise, particularly if we get into a tricky situation on negotiation, I’ll often advise the author to go and speak to—in the UK, it’s a Society of Authors, and apologies, I don’t know if they’re global, but there will be representative bodies all around the world—go and speak to the Society of Authors.

We find they’re very helpful, they will come down on us as a publisher very hard, but then they’re actually very reasonable. And when you actually get to the point where you’re signing, you very much get a better contract and a better understanding out of it. So seek advice.

If you’ve not signed a publishing contract, you shouldn’t sign it blindly. You should get advice.

Joanna: And if you’re doing it through an agent, then you still need to understand all the clauses. I think the other thing people don’t necessarily understand is that relationships change.

You might change agents, the publisher might change, publishing houses get bought, they get sold, things change. You know, you and I are not going to live forever. So there’s lots of things to think about because of course, copyright goes on after your death.

Jon: Yeah, I mean, particularly in the genre I publish in, I’m sending lots of royalty checks to estates.

Joanna: Oh, God, climbing is a nightmare — [joking around] Oh, happy times, Jon!

Where can people find you and Vertebrate online?

Jon: So our website is, all one word, and there’s contact details on there. If anybody’s got follow up questions, I’ll happily try and answer them. And Vertebrate Publishing, we’re all over social media Twitter, the Vertebrate Publishing Instagram, is a bit more professional.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Jon. That was great.

Jon: Yeah, thanks for that, Jo. I enjoyed it.

The post The Challenges Of Small Press Publishing With Jon Barton first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • April 19, 2023