It is not often you see an industry boss mixing it with the shop-floor staff on the About Us section of a company website, but Wild Things is not your typical publisher. Don’t worry. The picture of Daniel Start—who co-founded the Bath-based adventure travel independent six years ago with wife Tania Pascoe—has him running into the sea on a deserted, rocky beach but is discreet and tastefully done (it is taken from behind and from so far away that you wouldn’t immediately know he’s starkers). And as Wild Things has built up a reputation for its celebration of outdoor pursuits—such as the Wild Swimming series whose first few titles were written by Start—the image feels very much on brand.
Wild Things stepped it up a notch last year with Geoff Allan’s The Scottish Bothy Bible, its breakout smash. Helped by Allan’s title winning the Travel Media Award’s Guide Book of the Year prize, Wild Things’ sales surged 129% through Nielsen BookScan in 2017, recording its first £1m-plus year through the TCM and having by far the greatest percentage growth of the top 20 publishers in the sector.
Start and Pascoe began thinking about launching their company after Start wrote Wild Swimming for Punk Publishing in 2008. (The pair subsequently bought the rights back from Punk and published a new edition under the Wild Things banner).
Start says: "We decided from the beginning that our ethos would be that the underlining theme of every book is around activities which could be called simple
adventures—they’re accessible, affordable and you don’t necessarily need a whole lot of gear." The duo published their first titles in 2012, a period which was not the best for UK travel publishing. But Start says austerity-era Britain was, in retrospect, an excellent time to launch Wild Things, as travellers were looking more towards "staycations" and cheaper options that often come in the form of walking and/or camping holidays.
The Wild Swimming series dovetailed into the Wild Guides, which focus on outdoor pursuits in particular regions. There is also an activity and interest-based tranche, which includes Jen and Sim Benson’s Wild Running and Dave Hamilton’s Wild Ruins, a guide to Britain’s "forgotten castles, follies, relics and remains". Cycling has been a popular stream, particularly the Lost Lanes titles written by Jack Thurston, presenter of the Resonance FM programme/podcast "The Bike Show". Start says: "There is also a lifestyle angle to our list, which has worked for us. There is something increasingly appealing about going on outdoor trips that have a sort of freedom and adventure about them. This kind of travelling can be seen as an antidote to our urbanised and digitised lives."
There was a steep learning curve when Wild Things was formed, as Start freely admits he and Pascoe “didn’t really know anything” about the ins and outs of publishing and getting their titles onto retailers’ shelves. Hiring Compass as a sales rep was a definite help, Start says, but “it just takes time for a new imprint to catch on with buyers and shops”. Wild Things’ first real breakthrough was Start and Pascoe’s Wild Guide: Devon, Cornwall and South West, which was a hit through a number of West Country gift shops and local Waterstones outlets when it was first published in 2013. The gift market remains a strength: around 20% of Wild Things’ sales come “off-BookScan”, helped in that market by the attractive design and packaging of its titles.
They may not have known about publishing per se, but Start and Pascoe did know about running a business. Start says: “From day one, we’ve kept costs down and overheads low.” For example, the two are the publisher’s only employees, supported by “a small army of talented freelancers”.
They had to be more creative in acquiring content, open to receiving pitches from those who may be untested amateur writers and photographers but are passionate and knowledgeable about their respective patches. Start adds: “Our ethos is to try have almost a co-operative publishing model. No matter who we sign up, we can’t really afford huge advances. But we can offer profit-sharing and a royalty rate that’s second to none.”
Start says Wild Things will aim to expand its range but the content will always remain true to the founding principles. He adds: “We’re just looking for subjects that are localised, inspiring and that everyone in Britain would be able to get out and do. We’re pretty niche, but it’s a good niche to be in.”