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Robin Houghton tells tales

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I recently caught up with Robin Houghton of Telltale Press and as I was curious about how it worked, I asked her if she’d mind being interviewed. Fortunately she said yes! So here are the questions I asked and her responses. Thanks Robin for spending time on this – really interesting. Robin blogs at poetgal.

Can you tell me a little bit about why you set up the press and chose the name you did?

At the start of 2014 I was desperate to get my first pamphlet out, the poems were hanging around my neck like a noose, stopping me from moving on, I felt creatively stifled – but short of winning a pamphlet competition it clearly wasn’t going to happen unless I was prepared to wait, and even then no guarantee. I realised there were hundreds of new-ish poets like myself, of a similar standard, who must also be frustrated. In fact, I’ve met quite a few poets who’ve become very bitter over the years because they feel their work has been overlooked, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. I could have just self-published, but that seemed like a bit of a dead end (what would I do after that?) – there’s also the thorny issue of whether ‘self publishing’ lacks credibility or editorial rigour. Plus, it’s not just producing the pamphlet you have to think about, it’s the long hard struggle of marketing and selling the damn thing.

A few months before, when I was on a residential course at Ty Newydd, it was a hot topic of discussion and Carol Ann Duffy encouraged us to get together as a collective to publish each other’s pamphlets. I did discuss the idea with a couple of the people on that course, but it was only when I talked it over with Peter Kenny, who I’d met at Brighton Stanza, that it all fell into place. He was really enthusiastic and between us we decided on a vision and constitution. The name was mine – I liked the multiple meanings of ‘telltale’ (including a nautical device for indicating wind direction). I thought originally it was going to be the name of a pamphlet, but it was much better suited as the name of the new press.

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How does the press work?

We are a collective. That means we share the responsibility for the success of the press and of our publications – new members pay to join (an amount which by the way is a lot less than the typical cost of an Arvon course), and the money goes towards print and design costs of their short pamphlet (we call them ‘calling cards’). We all play a part in arranging and hosting launches and readings, promoting each other and the press on the social web and whenever the opportunity arises. At the moment, Peter and I are steering it and we do most of the production tasks ourselves, but the aim is to delegate more of that to other members. We’re all learning from each other too – we have complementary skills, backgrounds, contacts and ideas, all of which are key – rather than buying them in, or one person getting paid (or trying to pay themselves) to do the publishing, we believe in bartering. We try to keep our readings free, and our aim is simply to cover our 3rd party costs (which so far we’ve managed to do). Members keep 50% of the pamphlets produced and they are free to either sell them at readings or give them away as they wish. The rest are sold or given away for PR purposes by Telltale and any money generated goes back into the press to assist with the cost of producing further pamphlets, or hiring reading venues or whatever. We now have four members and there’s a wonderful camaraderie and willingness to work for the press. It’s been a brilliant model so far and all of us have benefited from raised profiles and new opportunities.

I note Siegfried Baber has joined as a member. How do you select poets? Is it invitation or submission and what does being a member mean?

Yes, Siegfried’s pamphlet has just launched, at an event in his home town of Bath, but he has also read with us in Lewes and London. We’ve also got a fourth member – Sarah Barnsley – her pamphlet is due out in the summer/early autumn.
Membership is by invitation – we have one or two magazine editor and poetry lecturer friends who recommend people to us, also we keep an eye out ourselves and all members are welcome to recommend others who they think would be a good fit. You have to buy into the ethos – it’s quite different from many poet-publisher relationships. More is expected of the poet because they are buying into a share of the press, in effect. But they also get a huge amount in return. We believe in supporting each other’s professional and creative development. As regards editorial rigour/standards, we’re still very fussy, of course – we all want to be associated only with fine writing and writers. And we take advice from our Associate Editor, Catherine Smith. Siegfried has been widely published in magazines and is clearly a new young talent. Sarah’s pamphlet was runner-up in the Pighog competition last year and could easily have won it. That’s the rub – for every pamphlet competition there may only be one winner but a dozen or more that are equally as good, fresh and interesting. They’re the people we’re interested in. Catherine has been fantastically supportive and continues to guide us in that whole area. Peter and I have our tastes and preferences but we don’t call ourselves ‘editors’ as such.

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I love the cover designs, who does them?

Thank you! They’re by Hannah Clare, a young Brighton-based illustrator. Right from the start I really wanted only to use local artists where possible, and although the printers we use are not local they are a bona fide small firm based in the UK.

Can you briefly tell me about the skillshares and training you mention on your site?

That’s still a work in progress! There are many professional development topics we’d like to work up in the group, from social media best practice to how to source (or run) readings, tech skills like how to layout a pamphlet, or skills related to giving public readings, how to put proposals together or how to apply for funding. Some of these are skills we have in house that other members could benefit from, others we need to bring in outside trainers. These are all in the pipeline but not fleshed out yet (whoops, mixed metaphor!)

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Finally, how on earth do you have the time for all this – Telltale, poetgal, writing poetry, books on blogging, articles, and a daresay you do some kind of job to pull in the money?

Ooh, good question! I do seem to spend way too much time on the computer and there’s always the danger of Twitter & Facebook lurking. But everyone has to find a way to combat that. I guess the answer is the projects don’t all come at once. If there’s a book on the go or pressing client work then that definitely takes priority. Plus I’m quite disciplined – I like a ‘to do’ list and I don’t miss deadlines (sometimes I need to renegotiate them though!) But as regards Telltale, the beauty of it is that I’m not alone. It’s such a fun thing we’ve got going and the hard work pays off. If I’d have just self-published that pamphlet a year ago, I never would have had anything like the benefits I’m enjoying now. It’s actually surprised me how much satisfaction I get from helping to publish others – what started out as a vehicle for my own interests has morphed into something bigger. I may never be more than moderately successful as a poet myself, but I can project my ambitions onto others and it’s strangely exciting!

robinnew-smRobin Houghton is a social media communications consultant, trainer and writer based in Lewes. Her poetry has appeared in a range of magazines and her pamphlet The Great Vowel Shift was published in 2014. She won the Poetry Society Stanza Poetry Competition 2014, Hamish Canham Prize 2013 and The New Writer Poetry Competition 2012 (single poem category). Her how-to manuals, Blogging for Creatives and Blogging for Writers are published by Ilex.

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7 thoughts on “Robin Houghton tells tales”

  1. Self publishing seems so attractive – mainly, I think, because there is so little money involved.
    But there is the catch: money. Self publishing can only work if you go for the publicity, and that costs.
    A great interview, and an inspiring story!

  2. Lovely post, met Robin at Pighog last month, beautiful book and lovely to catch up on the whole story. Agree with the ‘newish’ and ‘frustrated’ and who is truthful about quality even if you sell the non existent family silver to try and find out?
    But six years ago I threw caution to the wind and self published because it seemed like now or never, having recently moved to a house just outside Brighton and the fact that I was 68.
    It was partly because I had just completed a course with John McCullough and that he was so encouraging, insisting he genuinely liked some of my poems, that I had the nerve do it.
    I made all the obvious mistakes. too many poems, colour illustrations which were expensive to re-produce, glossy cover. But then the B/W version sold well and I made my money back easily by making a good link with a local cafe.
    Subsequently I have been shortlisted or long listed in comps. and just once won a very small local comp.
    Despite the above I was really chuffed to be invited to read two new poems at ‘Troubadour’ recently. However on balance I wouldn’t self publish again unless it really is for family and friends.
    So up with Telltale, Emma Press enterprise etc. and just keep on writing.
    Sorry but I think one has to accept, that like most things it can all seem like a bit of a rat race out there.

  3. This is all REALLY interesting. Great questions & fascinating answers. Thanks for the inside scoop on Telltale press, Robin. All the best to you & your members in the future. PS I love your book covers too 🙂

  4. A really interesting article, tackling something that all poets have to negotiate! I think this is a very usable model, I like its collective nature, and its transparency. Also, the post-publication marketing and reading opportunities are properly linked up to the publication aspect. Nice one Robin! And Abegail, thanks for publishing this.

  5. Thanks everyone for the comments, the model certainly throws up talking points!
    Ann, that’s a very interesting ‘case study’ in self publishing, and kudos to you for finding a way to claw back your costs (black & white version, deal with cafe etc). I think going it alone is tough, but when there’s always another pamphlet (and poet) forthcoming you start to build up a little momentum. And publicity doesn’t have to be the biggest cost if you aim for a strong brand and everyone pulls their weight. For us the biggest outlay is the actually printing. We could have done it more cheaply, but the quality of the paper/design etc is all part of creating a ‘brand’ which I believe is key to survival and second only to the quality of the writing.
    Some presses go much further I think, making their pamphlets collectors’ items (letterpress, hand-stitching etc) which does appeal to me. But it would be hard to sustain that. Given our purpose is to get our work out there, we can’t afford to go too exclusive.

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