Rack Press and publishing poetry on a small scale
Having spoken to many small publishers of poetry I have been told that it is a labour of love because, as Nicholas Murray of Rack Press explains, they run on very tight margins. But because of the passion of the people running independent poetry presses, poets get a valuable opportunity to publish their work and reach their prospective audiences.
Last November Rack Press won the Michael Marks Award, for poetry pamphlets, for Publisher of the Year.
How would you describe yourself?
I usually describe myself as a poet and biographer. The reason why I put it like that is because although I have written several biographies published by mainstream publishers, it is my poetry that recently has come much more to the fore. I have been doing a great deal more of it and it’s how I began. I wrote poetry long before I published any prose book. Poetry has always been a continuous thread throughout my life, so I always like to mention it and it is the most important form of writing I do.
I earn my living from writing as I’m a freelance author and also do some teaching. The teaching has only come in the last few years.
Being a publisher is a very responsible position, particularly with something like poetry because so much can be conveyed by saying so little. Why did you decided to start a poetry press?
I’d always like the idea of doing it. Although I had my poetry published in reputable magazines, I had never managed to get my own collection published. So I thought if I set up a press I could do it. I remember getting some advice very early on from an experienced poet and editor, John Powell Ward, the former editor of ‘Poetry Wales’. He said to me ‘If you’re going to do this, do it properly and you should publish at least three or four people a year.’ It was the best piece of advice I ever had and is exactly what I did.
So far the press has published 34 poets in total. This means Rack Press is a proper publishing press and is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. It has given me a lot of satisfaction, which is just as well because no one makes money out of poetry publishing. As Robert Graves once said ‘There’s no money in poetry but there’s no poetry in money either.’ Having said this, it is possible to set up a poetry press on a tiny budget.
This does mean that there are problems with distribution and getting the work out and about and getting people to buy it. But all poetry publishers are reporting that people aren’t buying enough at the moment and sales are down.
There’s been an assumption that social media has helped, but I’m not sure there’s any evidence for that. Although social media have increased the amount of talking about poetry. I don’t know of any poetry publisher who would claim that people are buying more than they were a few years ago.
What you’re saying is that running a poetry press is a labour of love.
It is and in the ten years Rack Press has been in existence we haven’t had a single penny of public subsidy. It is very complicated applying for grants and funds and there are always strings attached largely associated with having written policies in place for a variety of issues. For the small sums the press needed, the work involved was far too onerous.
At the moment the press is not making any profit, but nor is it making any serious loss, because the sales cover all the cost of printing. There would be a problem if I were to charge for my services and the hours I’ve spent working on the pamphlets.
Has the advice you originally received about publishing other poets been good advice?
It is, and it has prevented the press being perceived as a vanity project. It’s nice to publish people because you get to meet them and know them. They’re interesting people and the press has quite a diverse list. There isn’t an immediately identifiable Rack Press poetry style, although we like the poetry to be well-crafted. The press has quite a few poets who are what you might call late-developers. They’ve come to writing and publishing poetry late in life. This is not because the press doesn’t want to publish younger people; it’s just nice to be able to give a voice to people who are emerging later.
Age seems to be irrelevant with regards to writing.
Yes age is irrelevant but perhaps not gender. Although a few years ago, the press had an interesting incident with an American lady, who was visiting London, and came to one of our launches early on in the life of the press. She wrote a disparaging blog about this group of people she had seen (which was us), implying that it was an all-male line up. That was a real wakeup call and encouraged the press to address this gender issue. This has resulted in the press now having a 50/50 male and female split. It’s an easy policy to adopt, because there are so many wonderful women poets around you do not have to go around looking for them.
Are you publishing older poets for the first time because they have come to poetry later on in life?
In some cases it is. They’ve done other things in their lives or they’ve always been writing, but haven’t been able to do it properly. Or they’ve attended workshops and discovered they can do it.
What is the purpose of poetry pamphlets?
The pamphlet is a perfect vehicle for poetry, because it can contain a lot of power. Whereas a small pamphlet of fiction would leave you itching for a full-length novel. Poetry is very good in small doses.
But the misconception about a pamphlet is that it’s the stepping stone on the way to publication. This was highlighted when trying to persuade one the of the country’s leading poetry festivals to offer Rack Press a slot. Their e-mail to us said that they had very little space for poets who were ‘at the pamphlet stage’ as they put it. This gives the impression that when poets have made it they put the pamphlet behind them.
Indeed the pamphlet can be stage in a poet’s publishing career and it’s very gratifying when a Rack Press poet goes on publish full length books. But the press has also published pamphlets written by poets with established reputations such as Christopher Reid. If you look at the short list for the Michael Marks award this year, there are many established poets who have published in a pamphlet or chapbook, as it is sometimes called. It is good that very well-known poets are still published in pamphlet form.
So a pamphlet is a very useful medium for poetry.
Rack Press published a pamphlet of Christopher Reid’s poetry called Airs and Ditties in No Man’s Land. This was set to music by the composer Colin Matthews and premiered at the Proms. We did another musical collaboration last year with David Harsent Songs from the Same Earth set to music by Sir Harrison Birtwistle at Aldeburgh. More copies of that pamphlet were sold in the interval than we had ever sold at one event in the history of the press. These are two examples of very well known, established poets who saw that there was an opportunity to publish their text as a free standing pamphlet, because in both of those cases the music might predominate and the words, perhaps, get pushed into second place. The pamphlets meant the words were given their chance to be enjoyed as an independent publication. I would like to do more of that because I enjoy these types of collaborations.
What do you look for in a poet’s work that you want to publish?
Rack Press does get a great many submissions and because we publish so little, I am in the sad position of having to turn away a lot of work that is very good.
When I first set the press up I thought I might be deluged with terrible stuff. Nothing prepared me for the fact I would be getting submissions of such high quality that I would have to say no to on the grounds of space.
There are two things I’m looking for. Firstly, I like poetry that is well crafted, where the language and the writing is exceptional. I don’t like slack writing. I don’t mean by that traditional forms. Good poetry comes in all shapes and forms. Secondly the press does have a slight bias (possibly because many of our poets are more mature) towards writing with a feeling of a weight of experience of life behind the poetry. I don’t like it to be too abstract or removed from life. By this I don’t mean documentary realism, I just want a sense that there’s a real human being behind these poems who has experienced life.
Does the fact that you are responsible for the poetry of the poets you publish make you reflect on your own poetry and how it’s delivered and presented.
I think it does make you more aware of the fact that publishing is about putting work out in front of the public and thinking about how you write. But I’ve also become much better at reading my poetry at readings than before, because I didn’t do it in the early stages of my career. So I’ve learned by watching other people do it. The poets have been very encouraging to each other and me. A poet like Christopher Reid is very well established, but has offered me advice and help. This exchange of views has left me feeling as if I’m moving in a more professional milieu, rather than sitting on my own in a room scribbling away. This has also been very encouraging because it makes me feel there are people out there who like what I do.
Do you edit any of the poetry that you publish?
Occasionally I may query a particular line or question how something is spelled. But I try not to be a heavy editor. I know some people are. I have experienced very interventionist editors with my work. The press chooses people who are professional, competent and skilled, so therefore shouldn’t really need very much in the way of editing, unless it’s at the micro level.
Does it help to be a poet if you a publisher of poetry or is it a hindrance?
On balance it’s probably an advantage because you know what to look for, what’s good and what’s bad. Sometimes poetry publishers are poets and sometimes they’re not. There’s a tradition in Faber, for example, to have poets as editors, because TS Eliot was one of their poetry editors for many years, as well as Christopher Reid and Craig Raine. Equally there have been poetry publishers not known for being poets, but I think it does help.
Many people see a poetry pamphlet, because of its size, as something that has not required a great deal of effort.
Why do you publish only a small number of poets each year?
I don’t have unlimited time to devote to the press, because I don’t make a living out of publishing poetry, I have to do other things to bring in an income. I write books, teach and give talks and lectures. The press does now publish about half a dozen poets a year these days, but I cannot do more because of the problem with time and if I did my own writing would suffer.
We have the concept that huge global companies dominate publishing now and so we have the sense that everything has to be done on a very big scale. But there are publishers who don’t publish very much but are very highly regarded. For example, in France, Les Editions de Minuit has enormous prestige because they’ve published Beckett, but publish very few books a year. So I don’t think the number of things you publish is necessarily important. One small problem that has been raised once or twice is that people say ‘You charge £5 for a 12 page poetry pamphlet, when I can get a full length novel for £8.99 or so.’ The simple answer is economies of scale. If you’re only producing a short run, limited edition pamphlet, you have to charge something like that. In central London that’s not much more than the price of a pint. This is the only way the press can get work printed.
What the press has tried to do is give readers good value for money, because the pamphlets are very carefully produced with high quality paper and a great deal of attention is paid to the design, to make an attractive product that is worth buying.
The audience for poetry is small which is why well known names will sell far fewer books than anyone might imagine. There are a lot of people writing poetry through creative writing courses, and creative writing degrees. Unfortunately they’re not buying it in sufficient numbers to support fellow poets. I feel quite strongly about this and I am told that the Internet must be helping sales, because all the poets have Facebook sites. But if you look at a Facebook site, everyone says they can’t wait to read it when it comes out, but the sales don’t reflect this enthusiasm. There is currently no evidence that social media is boosting sales.
Rack Press has seen in the ten years that it’s been going that fewer people are buying poetry which is strange because more of them are writing it. The press website does say that if you want to submit work for consideration then buy one of the pamphlets and see the sort of thing we do. But only a very small number of people do this, because all the majority want to do is get published and are not very interested in what other people are doing, which I think is bad because you learn from reading other people. The best poets do read widely.
Despite all the problems you encounter running a poetry press, you’re still passionate about Rack Press.
Yes, for all the reasons I mentioned earlier and for the satisfaction of seeing things published and attractively presented. It is a satisfying thing to do when so many parts of the publishing map are not very satisfying. It is much more difficult now for serious writers to get contracts for books. So I feel very fortunate to be working in an area of publishing where quality is the only thing that matters.