Small Independent Presses: Two Profiles
The Poetry Library defines small press publishers as those that publish pamphlets and small books of poetry, or fewer than six full-length books per year. Two new ones on the scene are my publisher, Pindrop Press, a boutique poetry press in Kent and Ward Wood Publishing who publish both poetry and fiction. Wanting to find out more about these presses I spoke with their editors, Jo Hemmant, of Pindrop Press and Adele Ward who runs Ward Wood Publishing in partnership with Mike Fortune-Wood.
AM: When did you set up your press and what led you to do so?
AW: Ward Wood Publishing was set up in summer 2010 and our first book was launched in September 2010. We produce at least a book a month, with an equal focus on poetry and fiction. The reason I wanted to set up a publishing company was that I saw publishers in difficulty, with some closing and some not taking on new authors. I felt it was essential to keep publishing outlets available for authors, and wanted to publish at least six poets per year as I believe in the importance of this form even though the books can only really break even at best. With any publisher a poet will find sales are typically less than 500 copies, and often only in the lower hundreds, and this is barely enough to cover the costs.
JH: I set the press up in 2010, launching my first book, Michelle McGrane’s A Suitable Girl, in January 2011. I had worked as a journalist and editor for many years before moving into more of a publishing role. When my youngest son started school full-time, I began to write poetry and it seemed obvious to combine my love for it with my experience in the publishing world. Also having young children, I wanted a job I could do from home. For now, it’s a boutique so I’m a one-woman-band, doing everything from design and layout to editing – though I do outsource some of the proofing. But these are all elements of jobs I’ve had in the past and I find it incredibly rewarding to be able to mix everything I’m interested in into a big pot and stir.
AM: Where in the marketplace do you see your press?
AD: We publish only the highest standard of writing and we match that by having high production quality. It’s impossible to have collections considered for the main awards and prizes, or accepted by bookshops, unless both the writing and the actual quality of the physical book are impressive. This means we’re seen as a literary publisher of poetry and fiction, but our authors are also very readable. A book of high literary standard can also be a page-turner. A poet usually needs to be able to engage with an audience as collections mainly sell at events, so I do like to stress that a literary publisher can also be popular. Just one other thing – I did suffer from stage fright myself for many years, and there are ways poets can overcome this and also other ways I can help them promote their work.
JH: As I said, Pindrop is very small. It has always been my plan to build it up slowly and surely – I’m lucky to break even on most titles, and cannot afford to be prolific at this stage so will only have published six titles in the first year; but I try to be meticulous when I work and feel that this is a manageable number for now. This means we’re on the margins in terms of number of titles, but certainly not where quality or talent are concerned. I have been really surprised and pleased by how willing established poets are to support a small press. But I am also keen to work with emerging writers who are at first collection stage as it is so hard to get published in the current market.
AM: What are the advantages of a small independent press for poets?
AW: I’m not sure that the advantages relate to being a small independent press rather than a larger publisher. I think poets need to look at what each publisher does for their authors, and talk to those authors about their experience. A poet can feel neglected by a small independent just as much as they can feel neglected by a larger publisher. On the other hand they may find an extremely supportive major publisher just as they can find a supportive independent. So do check their track record. Realistically a poet needs to submit to an independent press as this is where they are likely to be able to place their collection. Poets are likely to be disappointed by how hard it is to sell books and to set up events that attract audience, or to get their books into shops, and they do complain to me about publishers of all sizes when they submit to me. It’s important to have realistic expectations about what any publisher can achieve for a poet.
Independent presses vary in the amount of support they can give – and this is understandable as it’s a phenomenal effort to achieve break-even sales. There will be more contact with the editor and publisher than a major publisher would offer. It should be possible to be more involved in the editing of the book and perhaps even the cover design, but not with all publishers. The publisher should help arrange a launch. From this point onwards a poet needs to check with authors from each independent publisher to see how much more support is given.
Do the publishers actively help with more events, promotion for these events on the website, helping to raise awareness of the poet’s name in various ways including social networks and regular appearances by the publisher at literary festivals and other occasions? Do they get the books on to the Waterstones central system so that poets can approach their local branches, have a distributor such as Central Books so that booksellers can order easily, and do they actively rep the books to bookshops? Are the books registered with Nielsen so they appear automatically with all bookshops and online sellers, and do they have a proper spine so that bookshops can display them (they won’t stock them otherwise), and ISBN so bookshops can sell them? Do they send all collections six months in advance to the Poetry Book Society to be listed or maybe even selected? Do they submit to the main prizes? Small independent presses can offer advantages, but they can also let a poet down, particularly if they fail. It’s important to choose any publisher carefully. Ask the questions in this paragraph and if they hesitate they haven’t got previous experience in publishing and bookselling.
JH: I think that depends entirely on the press. I could answer what is the advantage of going with Pindrop! I work closely with my poets on their manuscripts, from making suggestions regarding the sequence of the collection, to a very thorough edit prior to production and then once the title is in production, I’ll put a lot of effort into designing the cover and proof every page with a magnifying glass! I enter eligible books into competitions, such as the Forward Prize, send out review copies, organise decent launches and, where I can, readings post-launch – so try to be as supportive and proactive as my shoe-string budget will allow.
What can readers expect from the books you publish?
AW: Readers can expect an incredibly high standard of writing in a beautifully produced book. Although the authors are selected from the many who submit based on this high standard, the books I chose are also the ones I couldn’t put down when I started reading them. So literary fiction and poetry can be gripping, and should be. Readers can also expect to find a regular set of events where they can meet me and the authors as we’re very actively out and about. We have an events page on our website where readers and writers can see where we’re appearing next. At the events I organise they can also bring writing to submit to our annual event anthology as we want to open the door to new writers in as many ways as possible. Our annual pamphlet competition judged by Carol Ann Duffy in aid of the homeless is also a way of discovering new poets and giving them that first step into being published.
JH: A great product: I don’t skimp on substance, design or quality, so I may not be in the same league as Faber and Faber or Salt but I hope that the books I put out have as much to offer between the covers!
AM: Thank you both. For further information on these presses visit their websites:
Pindrop Press: http://www.pindroppress.com/
Ward Wood Publishing: http://www.wardwoodpublishing.co.uk/
For a list of other small presses visit The Poetry Library online