Championing low volume, high quality MTB print, James McKnight’s Misspent Summers is fighting the throwaway nature of a lot of modern media.
Many of us will find ourselves mindlessly scrolling through social media with little thought to what we’re liking, and it takes something special to stop and think about our connection with a photo or video these days.
Pete had a chat with James McKnight to chat turning high quality print back from the brink in the form of Hurly Burly and The World Stage annuals with his partner in crime, Ben Winder.
How did Misspent Summers come about?
I used to work for Dirt Magazine. When the magazine went down, I stayed on and ran the website for eight-ish months with Mike Rose and Steve Jones. I literally worked myself into the ground and woke up in an Andorran hospital with a vow to start my own company. In my mind, it needed to be a print company or at least have print at its core.
Print was a medium that was all-too-easily forgotten when chasing numbers in the high speed world of online media but the one that, in my opinion, best presented quality photography and writing. I went about getting things rolling and a handful of years later here we are.
What made you want to concentrate on low volume, high quality print?
High quality print seemed the best fit for a new company. That perhaps sounds counterintuitive in the internet age, but there were plenty of very decent mountain bike websites like Wideopenmag already that it wouldn’t have been worth trying to compete in a world of bike reviews, news and clickbait (vomit), plus the fact that monthly mountain bike magazines were on the wane in their current guise, so that wouldn’t have worked either. Chunky books that people buy occasionally and cherish forever sounded like a much better bet.
Once you had made that decision, what happens next?
In 2016 I was recovering from said meltdown, keeping a low profile and saving as much as possible from freelance writing and editing work. I made a decision to go for it with a 2016 downhill World Cup book with the help of friends Chris Jones (the designer), Ben Winder (now my business partner), Mike Rose (longterm Dirt editor) and Sven Martin, Sebastian Schieck and Duncan Philpott (the three photographers). I cobbled together as much money as possible and borrowed a bit from my girlfriend Morgane (Charre, EWS superstar) and eventually, at the very last second, had enough to print the first copies of Hurly Burly.
Who is involved in that process and what do they do?
As well as the core team mentioned above, there were literally dozens of other people involved in the first book and even more people who make the company work now, all of whom I owe a huge amount. When you flick through a magazine and wonder why there are so many names and job titles in the credits, it’s hard to fathom what goes into making a print publication.
It’s as soon as you start making one that you realise all those people do important jobs… Writers, editors, photographers, proofreaders, print liaison, accounts, funding/advertising, distribution, customer support, sales platforms, etc. Thank you everyone who helps on every book we make. Now, Winder and I work on the company day-to-day with the help of regular contributors and freelancers and the support of some awesome customers and brands.
How long did you spend sampling different types of paper?
Hmm. Good question. For Hurly Burly, we got a few sample books in the dimensions and various paper types we thought might work and then compared the way the books opened while considering how the paper would hold ink, how the finish would affect readability and viewing experience, etc. It’s more or less the same process for any book. There is a lot to think about and every little detail matters when you are going for the best possible product.
What did you know you did and didn’t want to do your print yearbooks?
They had to be affordable enough that lots of people could buy them. I didn’t want them to be inaccessible to anyone. But at the same time the cover price needed to be high enough to ensure this would be a sustainable project that could pay every contributor a fair amount. The print quality had to be the best on the market to ensure pin-sharp images. And the company printing and constructing the books had to meet a minimum environmental standard (we use Cambrian Printers in Wales).
How did you narrow down the options for making a new publication?
I’d have loved to have just restarted Dirt Magazine Mk2, but that was totally unrealistic. Apart from the fact the Dirt website still existed, it also seemed like a futile project going down those lines. Regular mags needed a break and to rest up for a while (I think a new mag along Dirt lines could survive now, people’s brains need a break from Instragroan).
It really had to be focused on World Cup downhill as that’s the side of the sport I grew up with and knew most about, plus it had the biggest appeal to fans. A yearbook for the sport seemed realistic and something I was super excited to put together.
What are the challenges of producing in print?
Money. Having enough of it. It’s never easy to scrape together the funds to go to print, even with support from some fantastic brands (thank you) and the purchases from awesome readers (thank you even more). We want to pay decent rates to the people who work for us, otherwise we don’t really see it as a viable business. That means making enough money to cover print, storage, contributions, websites, etc. There are huge costs involved in print. But that makes it all the more satisfying.
How did you go about getting contributors on board?
For the first book, I frantically got in touch with all the journalists, team members, riders and other observers I thought would produce the most interesting features. I think everyone was keen to be involved, so that was cool. At that point it was nothing more than an idea, so people might easily have had better things to be doing with their time, but they were all motivated.
At what point did The World Stage come into the picture?
The idea was always to build on the yearbook theme. Annual publications that record the history of the sport, standout projects (such as Deathgrip Book), or timeless one-offs. It was a no-brainer to cover the Enduro World Series in the same fashion as we had done for the downhill World Cups. A year after starting Hurly Burly, we got started with The World Stage EWS yearbook. And what a pleasure. Enduro races go to incredible destinations with amazing terrain and courses that are photogenic. We love going through Sven, Seb and Boris’s image catalogues from those events.
Did that present any unique challenges?
The World Stage book had to be unique and represent the different scene that is Enduro World Series racing. The travel, range of terrain, varying conditions throughout each event and so on. Also, putting these publications together is a lot of work for a small team so fitting another one into our schedule was incredibly taxing at first. Now we are able to dedicate a lot more time to the company so it’s a little easier.
Our first book was pretty much Chris Jones and me locked in an office for several weeks with a mountain of coffee and a stupid number of hours worked. We were there from early to middle-of-the-night every day until finally we reached the deadline and everything came together just in the nick of time. Sounds horrible, and we were pretty broken by the end of it, but when the first sale came in (Rémi Thirion, who ordered the book minutes after it went on sale, which was awesome), we knew it was all worth it.
Since then we’ve been joined by many friends and colleagues in the office and production weeks are always the most fun: people coming in and out, cakes and coffees, lots of chatting, time well wasted and deadlines sprung on us from nowhere. It’s a great laugh, just like working at the Dirt office used to be (funnily enough, when we are working together we are in an office a few metres from the old Dirt office). Working with Winder is always good fun too — he’s the mellowest person with highest standards and the perfect business partner.
Daily. But that’s part of running any business, isn’t it?
Where next for Misspent Summers?
Winder and I have been working flat out all year on a few things. We just launched the Print Shop and are about to relaunch Eskapee. We have a 2020 book project on the go. Plus new clothing lines, some video projects and plenty more. We’re building.
Anyone to thank?
Morgane, my family and friends, all our contributors and freelancers, and every person who enjoys our stuff, follows our progress and loves to ride bikes.
You can check out all the Misspent Summers yearbooks, zines, clothing, Midweek MTB Geek quizzes and everything else over on their website here.