Thursday, August 27, 2015

Book Review: AMC's Best Day Hikes in the Shenandoah Valley

Every once in a while I go onto Amazon and look at the new and upcoming books on hiking, looking in particular to see if there is a new Virginia trail guide on the horizon.  That is how I came to order AMC's Best Day Hikes in the Shenandoah Valley: Four-Season Guide to 50 of the Best Trails From Harpers Ferry to Jefferson National Forest.  

The book is published by the Appalachian Mountain Club, a part of its "Best Day Hikes" series that focus on different parts of the club's membership footprint.  The AMC is a large and venerable Boston-based nonprofit trail club that maintains a majority of the trails in New Hampshire's White Mountains and runs the fantastic Trail Huts up that way.  The AMC also has chapters in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington DC, which is, I suppose, how they came to be publishing a book on trails in Virginia.  Full disclosure: I am a member of the AMC.  But I am also a member of the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club, and having an AMC guide to Virginia trails is a bit like having a NBATC guide to trails in New Jersey - it just doesn't seem to fit.  

The authors are out of the DC area, however, and are the organizers of a Meetup Group called the DC Ultralight Backpacking Group.  Full disclosure: I have signed up to receive DCUL meeting notices, but have not attained "Member" status (I am only an "Applicant") because I haven't been able to get away on one of their trips and prove that I am in shape to keep up with their other members on one of their bigger trips. (I am, but I respect them for placing the hurdle in place for the protection of the folks conducting their hikes.) These authors get out a lot - I am guessing they don't have families - and strike me as pretty knowledgeable folks.  I'd love to hike with them sometime to pick their brains about equipment.

They have put together a very nice book of hikes of varied difficulty that run the gamut geographically from Maryland to Roanoke.  There are nice photos, simple maps, and icons telling the reader whether the hike is dog friendly, kid friendly, includes waterfalls, and costs to park.  I wouldn't say that it touches on much that is new or unique, but a book on "best" day hikes probably isn't going to introduce a brand new "best" hike not described somewhere else.

I have minor quibbles - they only list one map option to purchase for each hike when many hikes can be found on multiple maps, for example.  The hikes described aren't actually IN the Shenandoah Valley as stated in the title - they are more along the valley.  And there is one hike where they get the name of one of the major trails wrong consistently throughout the narrative, but not so wrong you would get lost.

And I would have added a few hikes.  Like Jump Rock in Goshen and Big House Mountain in Lexington.  Fuller's Rocks near Glasgow has one of the top A.T. views in the state.  And the most popular day hike for new hikers in Central Virginia is Humpback Rocks on the northern edge of the Blue Ridge Parkway. But it is clear from the driving directions that the intended audience shares the authors' Northern Virginia home addresses, as directions often start with "From I-66..."  The hikes I list would be among the furthest from I-66.

As I stated, these are quibbles.  Overall, this is a nice guide produced by a couple of authors who really know where to hike and are clearly on the trail a lot.  And the book itself is a nice size - I have never been a fan of the "pocket sized" trail guides and this one is standard trade paperback size.  I would strongly recommend this guide to anyone new to the area or just starting to hike as a hobby.  It would have been nice to have in 1992, instead of the combination of other books I accessed to help get to know the state's wealth of trails.  Heck, this one should have a checklist at the end of the book, like the AMC's "White Mountain Guide" contains a checklist of 4000 foot peaks in New Hampshire. That way, the purchaser could record the dates and number of hikes completed.

The biggest question for me in reviewing this book, however, isn't the quality of the hike descriptions.  The biggest question is can a book like this cover its production costs?  I used to have a career as a publisher of legal treatises - books for attorneys and judges on niche subjects of the law.  I wasn't the head of the company, but my title was literally, "Publisher."  I thought up ideas for books that might make money for my company, and acquired authors and prodded them to follow through with their commitments, then worked with the marketing department to promote the new title. Sometimes, a potential author came to me and tried to convince me that s/he was the best person to write about the subject. Being an author for my company provided a boost in that author's career, as others in the profession would see the author as an "expert" in that field.

I don't work for that company anymore, but I don't get a sense that anyone publishes many new legal treatises these days.  What killed the legal treatise acquisition biz was simple: The Internet.  Lawyers were no longer willing to spend money on treatise subscriptions when they could do the research themselves on the net.  The internet didn't totally kill off our sales, just enough to make it a lot bigger gamble to publish new titles because margins became much slimmer.  There are still some dinosaurs out there who will buy print, but their numbers are way down compared to back in 1999.

I assert that there are a lot of parallels in the trail book industry.  

An example is a book by Karin Wuertz-Schaefer called "Hiking Virginia's National Forests." This is a nice little book concentrating on trails in several areas in Virginia's two national forests. It was probably my first "favorite" hiking guide when I started hiking in Virginia back in 1992. The book was first published in 1977, and by 1989 it was in its 4th edition. The 5th edition was published in 1994. The 6th edition came out in 1998. The 7th edition sold starting in 2001. Every 3 or 4 years a new edition would pop out like clockwork. But there have been no revisions since 2001. I would think that a book that merited seven previous editions would not suddenly sell so poorly that they would drop the title. This book was making money for its publisher, but then it stopped being worth the effort.

I don't know the inside story - maybe the author simply decided to quit writing revisions, but this is not an isolated case. I could bore you with many other examples, but will give you just one more major example. Leonard Atkins' book, "50 Hikes in Northern Virginia," another staple in my library, was revised 6 years after its inception, then revised again 6 years after that.  Its Fourth Edition surprisingly came out this year, but the publisher waited 11 years since the previous revision. The latest edition has a radically different cover and a slightly altered title (though it still says "Fourth Edition"), and maybe this is to entice a purchaser who has bought a previous edition. I think these examples clearly show that it has become much harder in the past 15 years to make money publishing print trail guides (the exception is the series of books covering the Appalachian Trail, mile for mile, which continue to be revised as needed).

The AMC is a nonprofit, and that might make a difference in deciding whether to publish a new title, but my experience with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club is that a nonprofit does not want to publish titles that lose them money. Volunteers advocating for a new or revised title - books and maps - have to be able to justify the costs of printing.  I don't imagine AMC is any different.

The internet means that there are other ways to get this information.  The local website "Hiking Upward" is a great resource - you can search hikes by location and ability, read reviews from other hikers, and when you center on a hike, you can print out the description and a map of the area - all for free. Is there a sufficient market for an $18.95 retail book when there are great resources out there for free? (I bought it for $13.10 on Amazon, and it is now selling for $12.96 on the same website - less than the "member discount" offered to me as an AMC member to purchase this book.) I will buy the book to see what experiences these authors impart in the pages of the book and to see what they consider to be the "best day hikes." I am not sure that the casual hiker will do the same anymore.

Then again, I still subscribe to a print newspaper. Every morning. Maybe I am the dinosaur.

Note: I purchased this guide with my own funds. You should, too. Save the entire industry by continuing to purchase trail guides!

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