New Zealand Mountain Bike Web

30 July 2010

The Art of Publishing

By Jonathan Kennett 2010 [This article was previously published in Spoke Magazine]

Boredom is a terrible thing. Terrible. Back in 1991 I washed up in Wellington, broke and jobless after a long cycling trip overseas. The dole queue seemed like my best  bet, so I signed up. But while walking home, day dreaming of all the riding I would do, I bumped into the manager of the Bivouac shop at the bottom of The Terrace and I  had a job on the spot.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like to work. But after months of selling packs and sleeping bags I was bored and dreaming of escape plans. Between serving customers and stocktaking I’d been sketching mountain bike maps on the back of till receipts. Would a guide book be a goer? My brother Paul and friend Patrick had similar dreams, so I clocked off and we hit the road in search of classic rides.

Back then most New Zealanders knew as much about mountain biking as we knew about writing books. Experience is the best teacher.

It sounds like a bad road movie: a bunch of twenty-somethings roaming the backblocks in a borrowed Holden looking for adventure. Except for sex, drugs and rock and roll, substitute smelly socks, mugs of milo, and sausage rolls.

Armed with a list of tracks Paul had garnered from Karapoti Classic riders, we free-camped and rode every day until we had sore legs, battered bikes and enough material for a book.

As newbies we were easily distracted. One day while paragliding Patrick ended up in A&E after bouncing off a cliff above Taylors Mistake. Another time we rode near Hanmer through thick snow. After a long slog we just made it back as night fell and our toes froze.

But we had strengths too. Patrick knew how to string a sentence together, and where those apostrophe's went. And Paul had edited a mountain bike zine and owned a computer capable of laying the book out. Don’t laugh – back then few people owned computers.

And we had luck on our side.

The time was right for a mountain bike guide book. Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides surprised our publisher by hitting the bestseller list for eight weeks. Two reprints followed in as many months. And then our publisher dropped it. In fact they dropped everything except government publications, and we ended up with the copyright. So in 1993 we decided to publish a second edition on our own. My brother Simon was back from racing overseas so he came on board. The Kennett Bros business was born.

The second edition was bigger, had more maps, and introducted an animated flick cartoon. Now there was a labour of love: Paul videoed a trials rider and printed every fourth frame, which was then traced by our sister, Penny, scanned and placed at the corner of every page. I added an evil rock creature, to explain why the rider crashed.

Great guidebooks need inspiring photos. Our styles range from Dave Mitchell’s epic  landscapes, Caleb Smith’s arty shots, to our quirky ideas-based photos. Getting slide film developed was an uncertain process, whereas with today's digital cameras we know if we’ve got a money shot before remounting our bikes.

People ask if we make money from our books. In short: not much.

Authors typically make ten percent of the cover price, with the rest going to the publisher, retailer and GST. After choosing to become publishers, we ended up with a bigger slice of the pie, but had to meet the costs of writing, illustrating, editing, printing, marketing and distributing our books. We lived frugally and worked in Lambton Quay's dingiest office. I might have done better flipping burgers, but the path l travelled was heaps more fun.

More recently we have upped our tempo. In the last 6 years we have published a cycling history each year. The first was Ride and the latest was Dreams and Demons, our only two histories that have broken even.

But as every artist knows, money isn't everything. Our readers appreciate a labour of love, and are generous with sharing trail tips, photos, cycling stories and offering enduring friendships.

We have rich lives. We love creating things. Publishing books is satisfying – to smell the ink and watch a year’s work roll off a printing press is mesmerising. Many readers are also track builders, and relish the feeling of stepping back and looking at a new stretch of freshly dug trail. It’s the same with writing. An hour ago this article was a blank screen. And like track building, it doesn’t suit everyone and is often damn hard work.

Hardest of all is accepting criticism. Taking constructive criticism is a major part of the publishing process. Some call it “killing your babies”. Your baby is that special sentence you created and swear is your best work. Invariably, editors hate it and convince you to give it the chop. Ouch. But then, if it was easy, I’d probably be bored out of my brains.