How I’ve navigated through 2020 as a professional outdoor writer, editor and photographer.
About five minutes ago, it seems, I published my overview of 2019. Last year was my most successful to date in what still feels like a relatively new career, and I had high hopes for 2020. To some extent those hopes have been realised. In other respects it has been a poor year that I’m glad to see the back of.
It feels weird (and not entirely fair) to mention ways in which things have gone well when others have experienced setback after setback. There’s a sense of guilt there, and when I’ve experienced success there has always been a tendency to qualify it somehow: ‘Oh, I just got lucky’, or ‘That deal was done months ago’. I’ve never been that good at owning my successes at the best of times. Being honest with myself, though, it has been another good year despite the plague and its associated ills. I have benefited from good timing, from seeds planted months before germinating at the right time, from opportunities that other people have passed my way. I’ve been lucky and I’ve had a safety net too (savings, a wife with a business and career of her own, no immediately pressing concerns about housing, and family support if needed).
Yes, I’ve also worked hard, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the extent to which a degree of privilege has helped me. I don’t consider myself particularly privileged — I’ve started from the bottom, and financially I am far from secure — but, like almost everyone, I have a certain level of privilege. This year it has helped me to keep afloat.
Professionally, the key lesson of 2020 has been this: the main reason that my business is surviving right now is that I have multiple projects on the go in a variety of very different fields. This makes my overall business more resistant to shocks.
It hasn’t all been good news. COVID-19 may not have had a crippling effect on my work, but it has had an effect, and (as I’ll explain shortly) its full impact won’t be felt until well into 2021. In late 2021 I might be writing a considerably more sombre yearly appraisal.
This year my annual review will include outdoors, photography, and work. I have decided not to include a personal category as it has included multiple family deaths, including from COVID-19, and I’d rather focus on more positive things here.
For obvious reasons, this has been a quiet year for mountain adventures. In fact, it’s been my quietest since 2004, and the difference compared to last year — in which I spent 67 nights under canvas and hiked both the Cape Wrath Trail and Haute Route Pyrenees — could hardly be more stark. That said, I did manage to climb two new (to me) Munros: Beinn Mheadhoin and Schiehallion.
This has been the first time in my life when I have regretted the fact that I don’t drive. Having to rely on public transport most of the time has felt like a real handicap.
One benefit of being unable to get to the hills is that I have spent a lot more time exploring my local area. My wife and I got into the habit of taking weekend lockdown walks further afield in the Lincolnshire Wolds than my solo wanderings usually take me, and it’s been great to visit areas further north in the county. In addition to walking sections of the Viking Way, we’ve also visited a number of Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust nature reserves.
As far as solo walking goes, I’ve kept up my daily early morning walks. During the first national lockdown, when time outside was restricted to one hour, I followed a circuit along quiet lanes through an area I came to know as Warblerland. In late summer I resumed my usual route through the Gunby parkland.
March: Cairngorms crossing
My one and only solo mountain trip this year took place just before the first national lockdown, and it was one of my best short trips in years: a winter high-level circuit of several Munros in the Cairngorms. I met up with Chris Townsend for a wild camp in Strath Nethy before heading over Bynack More and around Loch A’an, then camping near the summit of Beinn Mheadhoin (a truly excellent high winter camp) and walking out over Ben Macdui. I’ve already published one feature about the photographic side to this trip in On Landscape, and a couple more features are due to be published in the coming months.
September: Perthshire with Hannah
In September, Hannah and I went on holiday to Blair Atholl — a much-appreciated break for the two of us. We spent most of our time on low and mid-level walks in the Blair Atholl and Pitlochry area, exploring the woods and chatting up the red squirrels, although we also managed a decent hill day as well: Schiehallion. This was Hannah’s first Munro, and a good choice. Despite the uninspiring weather I found myself incredibly thankful for the experience. As we headed down from the summit I knew that it could be months before I climbed another Munro.
As I’ve previously mentioned, despite my lack of travel this year I feel that 2020 has been a strong year for Alex the photographer. I’ve had many images published, not just in magazines but in books too (in Wanderlust Europe, Big Trails: Great Britain & Ireland and Big Trails: Heart of Europe).
As far as personal work goes, I’ve started to feel like a ‘proper’ landscape photographer — something I touch upon in ‘A Cairngorms Learning Curve’, one of my features this year for On Landscape — and I have begun to develop my skills as a wildlife photographer.
I’ll be publishing a summary of my favourite images from the year on my blog later this week.
Despite everything, Pinnacle Editorial has had a decent year.
This year I have written extensively for TGO magazine as usual, and I’ve also had features published in Sidetracked, UKHillwalking.com, On Landscape, and elsewhere. Here are a few feature highlights from my year (not an exhaustive list):
- Jan 2020: ‘The Meaning of Adventure’, Sidetracked magazine (Haute Route Pyrenees)
- Mar 2020: ‘Scotland’s Wrath’, TGO magazine (Cape Wrath Trail gear report)
- Mar 2020: Wild Walk: Top Withens, TGO magazine (mapped walk)
- Apr 2020: Wild Walk: Mamores, TGO magazine (mapped walk)
- May 2020: ‘Wild Nights’, TGO magazine (contributor to multi-author piece on wild camping)
- May 2020: ‘The Value of Things: A Path to Self-Expression’, On Landscape magazine (finding my own style in landscape photography)
- May 2020: ‘Back to Basics’, TGO magazine (ditching the GPS and navigating with traditional methods on two hill days in Torridon)
- May 2020: ‘How to get the most out of digital navigation’, TGO magazine (skills feature; what it says on the tin!)
- May 2020: Wild Walk: Loughrigg Fell, TGO magazine (mapped walk)
- Jul 2020: ‘The Light Within’, TGO magazine (beyond ultralight to a more sensible middle ground on the Haute Route Pyrenees)
- Jul 2020: ‘How to Hike the Haute Route Pyrenees’, UKHillwalking.com (skills guide to hiking the HRP)
- Aug 2020: ‘A Cairngorms Leaning Curve’, On Landscape magazine (intentional landscape photography in a winter backpacking scenario)
- Sep 2020: ‘Shared Silence’, TGO magazine (solitude and community on the Mercantour Traverse)
I have written two books: Wanderlust Europe (gestalten, published September 2020) and The Farthest Shore (Vertebrate Publishing, publication date 2021 tbc). Read more about the writing process for those two books in this blog post, including a bit about the unique challenges of forcing myself to be creative during apocalyptic times. Ultimately, 2020 has been about the unglamorous process of applying rear end to chair and forcing out the words no matter whether or not I feel inspired. There’s nothing like a deadline to banish writer’s block.
Late in the year, Vertebrate Publishing commissioned me to write a third book, also outdoor non-fiction (I haven’t really started this one yet).
Most of these jobs were commissioned well in advance and based on trips conducted in 2019 or even before, so COVID had a limited impact on these specific projects. However, outdoor publishing has faced unprecedented pressures this year. The drop in magazine sales at the newsstand has been catastrophic. Book publishers have had to deal with enormous logistical challenges. One immediate impact on me was that several publications cut the fees that they offered contributors, and/or asked for more work in exchange for the same fee. Some publications returned fees back up to their pre-COVID level more quickly than others. One publisher, which I won’t name and shame here but which is notorious for late payment of invoices on a consistent basis, took months longer than other outlets to raise fees back up to their previous level (and only then because I specifically asked for it).
Let’s not forget that outdoor writing for magazines is already poorly paid in relation to the amount of work, expertise and passion that goes into it. Even before COVID, fees had been largely static for years across the industry. Unless paid for by a brand or tourist board, or unless you’re a staff writer on a full-time salary, nobody is getting travel, petrol or gear expenses — it all has to come out of a relatively small fee (which is one reason why most of the more successful outdoor writers live close to the mountains). Even before COVID, the economics were already razor thin.
For me, based down here in Lincolnshire, I’ve only been able to keep doing this because I have lots of different fingers in different pies, and they all complement each other. If I were a full-time outdoor writer for magazines and guidebooks I would be in serious trouble by this point (it would be impossible from Lincolnshire without private transport anyway, but you know what I mean). I have very little material held back for next year, and the future of taking twelve-hour train journeys up to Scotland for features is looking seriously doubtful. At this point it’s looking unlikely that I’ll be publishing much in outdoor magazines in 2021. That is going to have a severe knock-on effect for my business as a whole.
Doom and gloom aside, I believe passionately in outdoor magazines and I love doing this work. It matters, too — ideas of real importance originate within their pages, or break free from social media’s oceanic churn and find their way into calmer offline discourse. None of this will change. Writing for TGO, Sidetracked and all the others remains an immense privilege that I do not take for granted.
The good news is that the best outdoor magazines are doing ok despite everything. TGO has suffered from lack of newsstand sales, but I’ve been told that subscriptions are looking very healthy indeed, and the magazine is attracting new audiences. Sidetracked (which I’ll come to in a bit) is also doing well. This year we’ve seen the communities who love these publications rally round in their defence. Sniff all you like at passion, but ultimately it is what pays the bills and puts bread on the table.
I’ve edited fewer books than usual this year, but it has still been a good year for the editorial side of my business. Again, I am thankful for the diversified nature of my work. I think that if I specialised in editing books then I would have struggled; many of my fellow editors who work exclusively with self-published authors have reported a significant drop in incoming queries.
The first book I edited this year was the excellent Wild Winter by John D. Burns. I performed the structural edit before handing it to the good folk at Vertebrate Publishing. This manuscript was challenging, because John did not have the winter he had planned last season, and so the resulting book was not how he originally imagined it either. However, we got there in the end, and in some respects it’s even better than his original vision. Jon Barton at Vertebrate told me that he was delighted with the result. I certainly think that it represents a maturing of John’s writing and a more serious take on his beloved mountains — but still with a few laughs. If you’re familiar with John’s books (and you should be!) then you’ll find Wild Winter a little different, but in a good way.
Early in the year I continued to work on Graeme Harvey’s excellent European walking, running and cycling travelogues: Adventures on ‘The Way’ and Another Way. These books spirited me away to sunnier climes in the French, Spanish and Portuguese countryside.
Over the summer I was contacted by well-known outdoor writer and long-distance walker Andrew Terrill, who had recently completed two manuscripts on a huge walk through Europe in the late 1990s and was looking for editorial assistance. The project excited me right from the start. Just the thought of the route, from the southern tip of Calabria in Italy to the northernmost cape of Norway, was enough to get my juices flowing, and when I read Andrew’s thorough outline and first chapter I was hooked. I’m currently about a third of the way through the edit on the first manuscript and it’s turning out to be one of the best outdoor non-fiction books I’ve ever worked on.
I have sub-edited volumes 17, 18 and 19, in addition to plenty of web stories. In October, Andrew Mazibrada, the magazine’s former editor, mentioned to me that he wanted to step down to focus on his academic career, and asked me if I wanted to take over. Of course, I said yes right away. I took over as editor of Sidetracked in November, and I am currently working on issue 20 along with the rest of the editorial team (John Summerton and Jenny Tough).
As a contributing editor, I’ve done a little freelance work for TGO this year — mostly sub-editing the odd feature to take a little pressure away from Carey Davies when he needs to focus on other priorities. I also helped to launch, manage, and publish the annual Reader Awards.
The year’s big gear review project was once again The Great Outdoors Gear Awards, run by TGO magazine each year. As a judge, my role was to test a number of products (fortunately all items I could test here in the flatlands) and then discuss with the other judges which should be given awards.
Areas for change in 2021
It’s hard to see far into the future these days, so I can’t be too specific or optimistic with my goals for next year.
I’m already pretty much resigned to the prospect that I won’t be able to get to the Scottish Highlands this winter season. Later in 2021, I’d like to do another long-distance walk in Scotland, plus — hopefully — several shorter backpacking trips. I don’t have any specific plans in place yet. If circumstances allow then I may try to get to the Pyrenees in late summer, but at this point this is feeling like a long shot.
Much will depend on what (if any) travel I manage to achieve. Otherwise no surprises here: I’d like to continue improving my skills as a landscape and wildlife photographer, honing my personal style and looking for more commercial opportunities.
Much of my work for the first half of 2021 is already in place. I have a book to write, another big project with gestalten to work on (copy-editing this time instead of writing), several issues of Sidetracked to commission and edit, Andrew Terrill’s project to finish, and a couple of other book manuscripts with other clients pencilled in. I hope to be able to write more features for TGO and elsewhere, but that will depend entirely on whether I actually manage to get to the hills. I fear that 2021 will be a lean year for my outdoor writing.
If you’ve read to the end of this essay then I congratulate you! Happy Christmas to all my friends, family, readers and clients, and let’s hope that 2021 brings better things for us all.
If you’d like to support my writing and photography, you can buy me a coffee. Thank you!
All images © Alex Roddie. All Rights Reserved. Please don’t reproduce these images without permission.