Sheffield book publisher thrives on life of adventure in the Outdoor City

Follow your passion, young people are often urged - before real life intervenes.

By David Walsh
Monday, 11 February, 2019, 11:09

Jon Barton is one of the few to manage it, combining a love of outdoor sports and books to create Sheffield-based Vertebrate Publishing.

The seven-strong company, which has just moved to offices on Cemetery Road, has produced 300 books since 2004 and is a key part of the ‘Outdoor City’ - a place that not only attracts enthusiasts but has jobs for them too.

Jon Barton, publisher, Lorna Hargreaves, head of marketing, Sarah Gunton, digital assets editor and Jane Beagley, head of design. Picture: Marie Caley.

Its roster of groundbreaking guides, accounts of epic ascents and coffee table heavyweights chart the boom in adventure sports, of which Sheffield claims to be the capital.

But it was never just about the money for Jon, who led the separation of VP from a sister web design company.

He wanted to focus on books, even though he was warned it could be ‘suicide’ because the web business accounted for 70 per cent of profits.

He said: “A friend said ‘you could argue you are the best climbing book publisher in the world, whereas you’ll always be the third best web designer on Psalter Lane’.”

Jon Barton, publisher, at Veretebrate.

It worked out, after the de-merger VP doubled turnover in its first year.

Jon studied in Manchester and has climbed all over the world but it was inevitable he would end up in Sheffield, arriving in 1991.

“I rang people at 8am to go climbing and they weren’t awake. They didn’t move until 11am because they could be at the crag in half an hour, not leave until 7pm and still be in the pub for 7.30.”

Another ‘only in Sheffield' moment came a few years later when he broke his leg falling off Stanage Edge. Staff at the Hallamshire were more interested in the name of the route than his trendy-at-the-time pink ballet tights, having already seen a string of similarly-clad unfortunates.

Vetebrate Publishing has produced 300 books.

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Off the crag he was gripped by books about derring do in the mountains. It all came together with a guidebook he authored called Dark Peak Mountain Biking.

It is still in the top 20 cycling books in this country, he says.

“You could say we haven’t done a better book! But I think a lot of successful businesses do this, they produce what they would want themselves. I don’t do books I wouldn’t want to write or use. If an author is motivated by money, the guide is usually awful.”

It was this instinct that saw him ignore advice to only produce 2,000 copies of the biography of Sheffield climbing legend Jerry Moffatt. Today it is the firm’s highest grossing book, having shifted 14,000.

Jane Beagley, head of design.

Meanwhile ‘Waymarking,’ an anthology of adventure writing by 58 women, was the best seller last autumn. Its success reflects just how the sport has changed.

Jon said: “When I started there were three women climbers. Go to the climbing walls today and there’s a generation of kids really enjoying it, who know their history and respect it and the environment and are just very diverse.”

Vertebrate recently advertised for an editor, attracting more than 30 “very good” CVs - and one call from a London-based recruiter who said they’d never attract anyone from the capital. They received five CVs from London and three from Oxford proving Sheffield’s pull on enthusiasts is as strong as ever. The Outdoor City brand was launched by Sheffield City Council in 2016 to promote its proximity to the Peak District.The sector boasts events including the Festival of the Outdoors throughout March.

OUTDOOR FANS ARE STILL IN LOVE WITH A GOOD BOOK

The internet has failed to deter fans of a good book but Google and Brexit are challenges.

Vertebrate Publishing had to close online video rental arm Steep Edge because films were being uploaded to Google-owned Youtube, where they could be watched free. Having them taken down was “almost impossible,” says boss Jon Barton. And when they were, they’d be back up in 48 hours.   “Google probably owes us thousands,” he added. Meanwhile, export is 10 per cent of business. The EU is very good at protecting copyright, says Jon, pointing out no-one knows what it will be like when we leave.