As I drove through Kendal yesterday towards Murley Moss, there was no doubt that it was the mountain festival weekend. The uniform of festival attendees was evident walking down every street; shiny new duvet jackets, bobble hats, hipster beards, and footwear that had never seen a mountainside, or even a bridleway. I turned down the Oxenholme road, away from the town, and parked near the National Park buildings. Next to it stood the shiny new building of Cicerone Press, a far cry from their origins in Police Square in Milnthorpe. I didn’t know what to expect.
There’s a growing range of fringe events on the festival weekend, but separate from it, that a few enterprising local companies and organisations are offering. Generally these are free and open to all, and designed to educate people, or to offer a fascinating insight into the outdoor industry world. I was here for one such great initiative. Cicerone are world renowned for their range of walking guidebooks, and to celebrate their move to larger premises, they bravely decided to open their doors on festival weekend, to give people an insight into the publishing process, and what it takes to produce a guidebook.
I’d already decided to eschew the noise of the festival weekend. So many comments on social media had already made me shudder; “packed to the rafters”, “uber-sick”, “bass is turned up high”, “stoke is epic”, and most ominously “expect fun, debate, laughter, tears & more”. Really, what was ‘more’, and did I want it? The mind boggles, and my mildly misanthropic radar started to edge into the red. Each to their own. To make matters worse, it’s been great weather recently in the Lake District, and so it was going to take a good day to lure me inside. When I’d received my invite to the Cicerone open day, I vividly recalled the promise of free biscuits too, hence my attendance.
The first thing that greets you when you step into the Cicerone offices, are two huge bookshelves straight in front of you, absolutely stacked with glossy guidebooks. There are hundreds of titles. Many hundreds of titles. My eyes are well accustomed to scanning outdoor bookshop shelves, to spy the spines of the two guidebooks I’ve written for Cicerone, and it took me over a minute to locate them on these stacked shelves. It dawned on me on that first step into the office, just how big an operation Cicerone really is, and how insignificant my writing efforts really are. I’d been invited along to the event, as a local Cicerone author, to assist with open day visitors questions about writing outdoor guidebooks.
For those attending the open day, after being plied with team, coffee and biscuits, there was a presentation. Each of the Cicerone team spent a few minutes explaining their role, and how a guidebook is produced, from the initial proposal, through to commission, submission, production, and marketing. I thought that I’d happily zone out during these talks. Surely having written guidebooks for Cicerone, this would all be old hat to me. How wrong I was. A stream of people explained their jobs, and words and phrases I’d never heard of were casually mentioned, without any hint of arrogance. Who knew that a book is actually made into seemingly unintelligible XML computer code, and someone has to edit reams of that code manually? Surely it was just a case of reading through, editing, and pressing CTRL+P. Apparently there was far, far, far more to it.
The explanations were fascinating, simply and informatively shared, and there were some gems of insights into the various roles. As designer Lesley started explained the issues of selecting the right cover shot for a guidebook, I groaned internally. Surely she was going to use the battle to find the best image for my Lake District fell running book as the example. Phew, she didn’t. It wasn’t just me then. Hannah from marketing revealed herself as a reluctant unsigned standup comedian, while multi-tasking tweeting and talking, and explaining how multi-faceted marketing needs to be in the modern publishing world.
The flow of faces giving insights into the guidebook world was all the more fascinating for me. For the most part I hadn’t put a face to a name, whilst exchanging countless e-mails during my book productions, and so it was great to see them all. Everyone was lovely, massively talented, and passionate about the outdoors too. Of course they were. How could anyone work for a guidebook company who wasn’t? It was nice to hear the personal stories too; the dawn antics of Buoy 13 open water swimming club on lake Windermere, the first triathlon finish, getting cranky when on a sugar low. Oh that reminded me; time for more cake, biscuits and coffee.
There were several high profile and prolific Cicerone authors there for the day, and it was good to chat with them; Alex Kendall (Snowdonia Way), Jan & Dennis Kelsall (Howgills, Pembroke, Ribble Valley, Yorkshire Dales), and Viv Crow (Eden Valley, and Lake District). They were all an inspirational, humble, and great bunch of people. It was refreshing to chat and see we all have the same insecurities and bouts of OCD when writing. It’s not just me that thinks it’s a bad idea to say ‘turn right at the rusting metal bench’, as of course the rusted seat will have finally collapsed by the time your shiny new book hits the shelves.
That’s what made the day all the more fascinating, the attention to detail, and at every single step of the process. Writing a guidebook is really the easy bit. What I learnt yesterday was how small a cog an author really is, in the bigger process. We are nothing without the team that supports us, and the team at Cicerone is second to none. Their open day did far more than explain the publishing process. It was probably the best marketing a company could have done. They invited the public in, and left them educated and inspired, but more than that they revealed how much a relatively small company, filled with passionate and skilled outdoorsy people, can achieve. It was very personal, highly informative, and utterly humbling.
Perhaps that was the greatest achievement of the day. I didn’t need to go to the festival to see the household or global names such as Chris Bonnington, Leo Houlding, or Andy Kirkpatrick, to be inspired. When I looked around the room at the visitors during the talk, I noticed well worn Salomon trail running shoes, a sun bleached duvet jacket, and a waterproof jacket with seam seal repairs. By no means was this a scruffy bunch, but they were doers, not dreamers. I left happy that when my guidebooks were in their hands, they would be used outside, get grubby with mud, become wet in rainfall, and warped with frequent use. That’s what we all wrote them for, and it’s the biggest endorsement we can hope for, that they gain a hard earned place in your rucksack or running bag.
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