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Inspiring stories: The rise and rise of Pocket Mountains

Written by Fiona

February 08 2022

I interviewed the couple behind Scottish publishing success story, Robbie Porteous and April Simmons, for The Scots Magazine. If you enjoyed reading this article, why not buy another Scots Magazine, or a subscription?

Lockdown boost for Pocket Mountains

A couple who publish a library of pocket-sized outdoors guides saw sales rocket during lockdown. Robbie Porteous and April Simmons, the owners of Pocket Mountains, also report they had the busiest three months of two decades in the summer of 2020.

The purchasing surge was for books of local walks across the UK.  In Scotland, the most popular guides were for The Pentland Hills, the Scottish Borders and West Lothian.

Robbie says: “After a couple of very quiet months at the start of the first UK lockdown in March 2020, we were suddenly extremely busy.

“I don’t think it was a surprise that people were looking for guides to local walks because everyone was keen to explore their own areas – and the weather was good.

“But it was the scale of sales that was incredible. We had the best three months’ sales of our entire 20 years of publishing.”

The Pocket Mountains family.

Pocket Mountains: In the beginning

The success story of the niche and award-winning Scottish publishing company began in the early 2000s. A pub conversation with a climber friend Nick Williams, saw Robbie concluding that while there were plenty of walking books in Scotland, especially covering the Munros, there was a gap for “more accessible” guides.

Robbie says: “I thought there might be a market for books that were cheaper, more fun, with shorter text and with lots of interesting information. I also liked the idea of something smaller, pocket-sized, and I had long admired books published in the A6 size.

“In addition, I wanted the books to be published in the same small format every time. I knew that it was a cheaper and easier process to publish books it they were a consistent size and look.”

In the first instance, Robbie suggested that Nick head off to walk in the Scottish Highlands for a couple of years.

“We agreed he would be paid to spend time walking and then writing about his routes,” says Robbie. “And that is how the first six Pocket Mountains books came about.”

This Highlands and Islands series, published in 2003, included titles such as West Highlands, Northern Highlands and The Cairngorms and each featured 40 circular walks. 

However, while the collection has now sold in excess of 150,000 copies, they were initially slow to attract the public’s attention.

Robbie says: “To be honest, I imagined Nick and I would do the series of six and that would be that. It was just an idea between friends.

“Nick was bored of working in IT and I wanted a publishing project. Then, when they were published, it was quite a struggle to sell them.”

A surprise turn

What happened next took them by surprise. Robbie says: “We had been attending outdoors shows around the UK as well as Highland Games in Scotland, setting up stalls and trying to sell the books to trade and the public. But for some reason sales were slow.

“Then we attended a Christmas Show at Ingliston in Edinburgh. The customers were predominantly female.

“Suddenly, the books were flying. It was the women that were buying them, mostly as gifts for their partners or relatives. We realised we had been trying to sell to the wrong half of the population.”

The Scottish outdoors retail chain Graham Tiso Ltd also spotted the sales boom at the show and decided to promote the books in their stores.

Robbie says: “The manager of Edinburgh’s Rose Street Tiso store happened to be at the Ingliston event and he saw an opportunity. He suggested the Pocket Mountains books should be moved from their lower shelves to top shelves. 

“This was definitely a key to the widening sales of the books in the earlier days. We also had another marketing breakthrough when Waterstones book stores agreed to stock the six books. I think we knew we had cracked it then.”

Pocket Mountains: Success story

The number of Pocket Mountains books published now totals more than 80. While most focus on walking, there are titles that offer route guidance for cycling, as well as guides to local gems and landmarks, such as “Nothing to See Here” and “Way Out West”.

One of the biggest sellers is a pocket-sized guide to The Munros, written by Paul and Helen Webster, who are the founders of leading walks website WalkHighlands. An Isle of Skye walks book has also proved extremely popular.

And while the first guidebooks were exclusively focused on Scotland, in more recent years there has been a growing collection of walking books for England and Wales.

Design talent and background story

Since the early days, the books have also featured a distinctive illustrated front cover rather than a photograph. It was chance meeting at a degree show at Edinburgh College of Art that saw illustrator Vicki Gausden come to work with Pocket Mountains.

After the first books, April, who is in charge of editing, joined Robbie as co-owner of Pocket Mountains. The couple, who live in Moffat, Dumfries & Galloway, with their three sons have been together for 25 years.

They met in Hong Kong while both working in the financial publishing field. April, originally from Cornwall, formerly worked as a fashion journalist.

The couple also spent some time travelling together in Asia, collaborating on travel articles for magazines. Robbie took photographs, while April wrote the features. 

In the late 1990s, they came to live in Scotland after April had enrolled on a creative writing course at the University of St Andrews. Robbie, who grew up on a farm near Carluke, South Lanarkshire, worked in Edinburgh for a financial publisher.

Exploring Scotland together, Robbie started to view Scotland in a new way. They enjoyed walking, kayaking and other adventures in the Highlands and on the west coast islands,

He says: “I’d always known Scotland because I grew up here. But because April was new to Scotland, she saw it with fresh eyes. 

“It enabled me to see my own country through a traveller’s eyes and the first threads of an idea, that Scotland was not yet being promoted as a tourism destination despite having all the many diverse qualities, attractions and landscapes of other more popular countries, took root.

“It is different today because Scotland is firmly on the worldwide tourism map.  However, without April, I don’t believe I would have had the initial thought to start publishing guidebooks more than 20 years ago.”

Today, Robbie describes his part in Pocket Mountains as “semi-retired”, although there are more than a dozen new titles in the process of being published. Many are due to requests and demand from people living in local areas across the UK.

He says: “Both April and I still run the business together and we also look after the children together, too. Neither of us work full-time now though. 

“I could never have imagined the successful publishing company we have and I really just thought at the start I wanted to publish better guide books for the Scottish Highlands.

“Now we have so many books and they are still true to my original concept being the same size and format and making Scotland interesting and accessible to more people.

“I still have some exciting ideas and I am always open to listening to the ideas of potential authors. There is a lot we can still write about because there is so much to see in the UK.”

See Pocket Mountains.

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