Friday, October 25, 2013

The X-Factorisation of climbing guidebook production

You can tell when someone has little musical interest or imagination by looking through their CD collection. Invariably it will consist of a couple of dozen ‘Best of’ or ‘Greatest Hits’ compilations and that’s it. It’s as if the act of actually buying and listening to an artists’ entire work or even just one of their albums is too big an ask. Far easier to just buy a Greatest Hits album based on one song they liked on Radio 1.

Perhaps it’s a generational thing. More people these days it seems would rather watch a 30 second video of a skateboarding duck on You-Tube than sit through a three hour classic movie. In a way, this cultural shift towards instant gratification and sound bites is even being reflected in the field of climbing guidebook demand. Time was when the climbing areas of England and Wales were overwhelmingly covered by two august clubs; The Fell & Rock Club which essentially covered the Lake District and The Climbers Club which covered Wales and The West. Since the first guidebook was published in 1910, these clubs have offered through the voluntary services of members, comprehensive guidebooks to traditional climbing areas. Within each area, the coverage spans the polished popular crags to remote, far flung outcrops with just two or three climbs on them. As a rule of thumb, guidebooks to the more popular areas will be updated every ten years or so although the less popular areas will often go twenty years before an updated guidebook comes out. 

Given that most guidebooks are authored by highly motivated climbers who see it as a labour of love, not a commercial undertaking, the latest guides will include new climbs and recently developed crags as well as ‘lost’ climbs and crags which the diligent guidebook authors will have discovered. Routes and crags which for whatever reason, have never appeared in a guidebook before.
This comprehensive approach is totally exclusive to the traditional publishers of climbing area guidebooks. However, the growth of the ‘greatest Hits’ compendiums increasingly threatens these traditional guides.Only offering a selection of climbs within a wide area, these commercial guidebooks will often only offer three or four routes on a crag which might contain four dozen or more. The authors will have selected routes which are deemed ‘the best of’ but this approach guarantees that within an area like Snowdonia, hundreds of quality climbs will be off radar to the average climber.

The producers of commercial guides will argue that they are only servicing a demand for their product- the producers of the X Factor and I’m a Celebrity can offer the same argument of course!  In a way these Greatest Hits compendiums are aimed at the ‘skateboarding duck’ audience; a younger market who increasingly have no interest in exploring far flung crags but instead want a three star road side fix. You won’t find many remote crags in the commercial guides. They are essentially over-loaded with the honeypot crags and 2/3 star climbs.

Of course all this wouldn’t matter but for the fact that the commercial guides are seriously impacting on the traditional area guides. Sales are diminishing at a fast rate and already the clubs are putting guidebooks on hold as they take stock of the fast changing publishing landscape. One area where the commercial publishers steal a march on the clubs is in how quickly they can produce their product. Without suggesting  downright plagiarism, it certainly could be said that creative re-jigging of existing guidebook descriptions are often in evidence within commercial guides. Throw in a hundred or more nice glossy topos and action shots and that’s twenty five quid to you Guv!

My own view is that the traditional area guidebook will disappear eventually and become an online archive. Although these archives will be downloadable and available as print-outs, I can’t see that many climbers trawling through an area like Mid Wales and selecting a remote crag. I foresee hundreds if not thousands of climbs and dozens of less popular crags returning to nature. Perhaps not a bad thing from an ecological perspective, but from a climbing perspective, it will be a damn shame to see many great climbs disappear as the market becomes more Cheryl Cole than Hot Rats!


1 comment:

  1. Nothing new whatsoever in this article that hasn't been published a hundred times or more though in this case there is an added patronising emphasis on the young as if they once more are to blame for all of societies ills.
    Though the obvious opportunity is missed. If what you say materialises, and crags regress to their former states, they will be ripe for the true adventure of discovery by those not obsessed and limited with any guidebooks at all.
    Next time you go to a crag, leave your books where they belong, and show younger people, by example, the true spirit of climbing.