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Rocky Mountain Books publisher Don Gorman on selling outdoor guides during a pandemic

Victoria’s Rocky Mountain Books relies on people heading into the great outdoors for its guidebook sales. But in the early days of COVID-19, it was unclear when or if recreational trails would open. But as restrictions in provincial parks began to lift, RMB launched its “Great Canadian Staycation” campaign, promoting safe distancing and outdoor recreation.

RMB publisher Don Gorman spoke to Q&Q about the guidebook business.

What proportion of your overall sales do guidebooks represent?
In some years, guidebooks can represent 50 to 60 per cent of our overall sales, while in others they generate half that. Weather, economics, ease of access, and many other factors have to all come together to make for a successful season.

Most guidebook sales are driven by a vibrant backlist. We try to update our guides as often as possible or as necessary, based on changes to the trails or access points. The travel and tourism industry (domestic and international) can be dramatically impacted by natural disasters, economic downturns, terrorist attacks, and now a global pandemic. Whenever something goes off the rails leading up to or during the spring and summer months, it creates a negative wave that we try to adapt to and plan for, but it’s pretty tough.

Where are you currently selling the most copies?
We are seeing a majority of our sales moving to online retailers, with Amazon being the largest international supplier. Big-box outdoor outfitters like MEC, Atmosphere, and Sport Chek, along with independent outdoor retailers like Valhalla Pure and Vertical Addiction, also make up a strong portion of sales.

Traditional bookstores are an important sales generator for local regional-interest titles. But it’s sometimes tough to get bookstores excited about a guidebook, which means that a retailer like Costco can then take a position on a title and sell it like crazy over the course of a spring or summer season.

How have you changed RMB’s marketing and distribution strategies to deal with COVID-19?
The pandemic has absolutely thrown us for a loop, as many of our six new guidebooks for spring 2020 were printed in the winter and in our warehouse ready to go by the end of February or early March. The direct result was that we had books with orders but nowhere to ship them. Or books had shipped just before the lockdown and were then sitting in back rooms waiting to be received, or in distribution centres with no retailer able to accept any shipments due to everything being closed.

Our marketing quickly transitioned to online and social media. I think we did an excellent job driving consumers to alternative sources for our guidebooks, with a large spike via Amazon. Though many parks and trails are still closed, the guidebooks are now selling very well, with two new ones on bestseller lists in B.C. (Family Walks and Hikes on Greater Vancouver’s North Shore) and Alberta (Family Walks and Hikes in the Canadian Rockies: Volume 2). People are looking to get outside!