It seems incredible to me that you only started The Emma Press in 2012. You’ve done so much in that time! I know from your interview with the Poetry School that you used to work for Orion, and you left to make brooches and poetry books. Also I know your design and illustration for the Emma Press publications (and hence its distinctive look) is all created by you. You can draw! So why did you leave Orion? Was it because you needed to be more creative? And what did you learn from your Orion job about publishing that helped you in starting up on your own? (I know that’s three questions).
I left Orion because I was frustrated with my role, which was to manage the production of 500 backlist ebooks per year. I loved working the Production and Design department, but there wasn't any scope for creativity or promotion in my job and I couldn't handle the thought of doing it for a third year. I wasn't earning much money and I didn't want to be one of those people who bitches tediously about the job they've been in for far too long, so I resigned. I think it was more of an assertion of my freewill than anything else – I felt like I was expected to stay in the job because I wasn’t rich and I’d been lucky to get a job at all in the post-recession wasteland of 2010.
I did want to do something more creative, which is why I started thinking about sewing brooches, doing illustrations and making books. The first book I published, The Flower and the Plough, began as a collaborative project with my old school friend Rachel Piercey, meant to showcase her poems and my illustrations. I’d learned about typesetting and InDesign at Orion, and I’d picked up a little about the overall book production process (designing the book, liaising with printers, choosing the paper) as well as how to make ebooks. I think the most important thing I learned at Orion was the commercial, trade approach to publishing books. A lot of small presses don’t expect to make a profit or break into the wider market, so I think it’s more helpful for me to model my business on a publisher which aims to produce bestsellers.
Congratulations on this year's Michael Marks Award shortlisting: marvellous! You're going great guns. What gave you the confidence to think you could do it? You obviously worked closely with Rachel Piercey, your co-editor and first published poet, from the start. Was that friendship crucial?
I don’t think it was confidence initially so much as frustration with my options in 2012. There weren’t any interesting and challenging jobs in publishing for me to even apply for, and my skillset was so specialised I wasn’t sure what other industry I could enter. A lot of large companies depend on the narrowness of the job market to keep young people in their low-paid, prospect-free roles, and I didn’t want to be trapped.
When I started the Emma Press, I had a hunch that I could create things that people would want to buy. I wasn’t particularly confident in my ability to run a business, but I got a lot of encouragement from friends as well as people I met up with in the publishing industry – everyone seemed to think this was an interesting, open period for publishing and that there was no absolute correct way of running an imprint.
A lot of people say small press publishing is a lonely business, but I’ve never really felt alone because Rachel Piercey has been such a brick from the very beginning. I run the business on my own, but we do all the editing together and she’s always there for me to talk through ideas with and rant about the various frustrations of small business ownership. Our friendship is the foundation of the Emma Press, which is why it feels peculiarly fitting that our next publication is about female friendship: Best Friends Forever, edited by Amy Key and coming out on 4 December 2014.
Why on earth did you choose poetry – the hardest form of literature on the planet to sell? Do you write it yourself?
I started off with poetry because I wanted to publish Rachel's brilliant poems, and then I had the idea for The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse so I stuck with it. I didn't set out to be a poetry publisher, but once I'd learned more about the poetry publishing scene it made sense to explore it before branching out into prose. Also, I became really excited about all the modern poets I’d encountered and I wanted to work with them!
I don’t write poetry myself, which I hope gives me a bit of critical distance when editing as well as marketing the books. I’m a poetry fan trying to sell books to other poetry fans.
Were your ideas for the Emma Press Club and the Poem Club an organic response to what happens when you set up in publishing poetry – i.e. hundreds of people want you to publish them and hardly any of them want to read or buy your publications?
Yes. I started the Emma Press Club because I'd had hundreds of submissions for the first few anthologies and mere dozens of sales on my website. It struck me as odd that so many people wanted to published but didn't make the connection between buying books and the publishers continuing to exist in order to publish them. If you don’t support small publishers, you can whistle for your small publishing deal! Or just wait for Faber to come knocking on your door, of course.
I spotted on the Poetry Library website that the Egg Box submissions policy encouraged the purchase of a book from their website, and I’d also found at least a quarter of our submissions were barely-relevant poems fired off with little consideration for the brief. So it occurred to me that I might kill two birds with one stone by introducing a policy whereby people submitting had to buy a book from us. I know I can't sustain my business purely on the custom of hopeful writers, but it’s been useful for cashflow in this early, crucial stage of the business. And the quality of submissions has improved immensely.
As for Poem Club, I wanted to create something fun for people who don’t write poetry themselves. I think my various briefs for anthologies provide interesting challenges for poets, and I don’t want non-poets to feel left out. Poem Club didn’t exactly go viral (my hope for everything I do), but it did have a really nice response and I connected with a handful of new and lovely people. I wound it up after ten installments because I was getting increasingly busy and couldn’t promote it properly, but it may return next summer.
Chris Emery at Salt Publishing once believed one could make a business of selling poetry – that it could be commercially viable. Now the statement on the Salt website says: We are happy to receive fiction submissions from your agent. Please note, we do not publish poetry (adult or children's), biography or autobiography, plays or non-fiction. What makes you think this won’t happen to you?
We’ve just launched a call for prose pamphlet submissions, which is part of my plan to find new audiences for my poets. The prose pamphlets will join the existing series of Emma Press Pamphlets, which is currently just poetry, so I’m hoping that people who like the prose pamphlets will be tempted to explore the rest of the series. I think poetry will always form an important part of our list, but I don’t think poetry will provide our first best-selling title, and nor should it have to. I think that as long as I focus on creating a strong, profitable business I shouldn’t have to hack off any metaphorical limbs.
I know you (like me) think the covering letter is important with a poetry submission. Supposing someone had no confidence at all about writing one of these—could you give them any simple advice about what to include and how long it ought to be?
I think the covering letter is a basic test of being a nice, polite person. It doesn’t have to be very long at all – just 3-4 sentences. It just has to demonstrate that the person has read the brief and knows how to write an email and interact with a fellow human being. If I accept a poet’s work for an anthology, I’ll begin quite a lengthy correspondence with them as we work towards producing the book, so I need to know that the poet is courteous and takes care when reading important information. What I’d say to poets is: if you have an impressive publication history, then by all means mention a few of them, but don’t worry if you've never been published anywhere before: this does not rule you out!
Have you made any mistakes that you’ve learned from – the sort of mistakes you wouldn’t mind sharing?
I’ve been playing around with print runs all year, trying to work out the best number. I’ve concluded that I probably started too high (with 500 copies of The Flower and the Plough) and that there’s a good reason why most people start with 200 copies. I’m still hopeful that I’ll eventually get such large numbers of pre-orders that my initial print run will have to be huge, but for the moment 200 copies is usually enough to last the first couple of months. The great thing about digital printing is that I can always print more within a few days.
I notice you had the brilliant idea of combining your blog with Jamie McGarry of Valley Press, as part of your official ‘betrothal’. Also I noticed that both you and I blogged further on our websites to explain the process and policy of dealing with submissions after our panel event at the Poetry Book Fair earlier this year. How important do you think blogging is in terms of promoting the imprint and selling the publications?
It’s difficult to tell if blogging translates into sales, but I think it’s definitely very important for my business. When I search for a company online and they have a rarely-updated website and no social media presence, I’m sceptical about that company because they’re clearly sceptical about the power of the internet.
I think we’re moving away from the faceless supremacy of big organisations and people now want to see the inner workings of businesses. It’s not in my interests to pretend I’m a flawless, super-efficient book droid – I’m a periodically exhausted, occasionally inspired young woman who wants to have a fulfilling job and personal life. The ‘engagement’ with Valley Press was part of this very human approach to business, and I think both Jamie and I like blogging because it allows us to show people what we actually do on a day-to-day basis, as well as airing our opinions. I hope this means people feel more invested in our business and more likely to buy our books.
In an interview with the Poetry School, you said ‘I think the state should subsidise the arts for as long as the arts need subsidising to survive, but I do also think that some organisations, such as independent publishers, ought to be able to support themselves as businesses’. I agree. I just haven’t worked out how the hell to do it. Have you any idea what the key might be?
I don’t think many small publishers are actually trying to support themselves – a lot of people are running presses as a side line to their existing jobs. I've been reading the Poetry School 'Pub Chats' with independent publishers avidly and so far it’s just been me and Jamie from Valley Press trying to support ourselves fully and everyone else has said ‘Lord no, of course I have another source of income.’
I think small publishing is the kind of industry that can only become profitable with someone working full-time on it, needing it to be a successful business because this is their livelihood. I’m not sure what kind of business can become profitable without 100% effort and desperation from the founder, but that’s irrelevant because small press publishing is definitely not one of them. People won’t discover what it takes to create a successful business unless they actually try to run one. This is why my friendship and alliance with Jamie McGarry from Valley Press is so important to me: we’re both always looking for ways to develop and expand our businesses because we need them to succeed, because we have no back-up plan.
I think small presses need public funding to get together and talk about what they’re doing and how. And maybe make more of it happen. I had a Plan for this, but the problem is I just don’t have enough time to do what I do and still continue to think creatively about co-operative planning. I don’t think we’re in competition. I think we’re in cohoots. Do you have any idea how this might be made to happen?
I have a Plan too! I’d like to run a conference called ‘Drowning Not Waving’ which gathers publishers, author, distributors, booksellers, printers and media people together to discuss practical solutions to publishing, marketing and selling books in the digital age. The printers will bring paper samples and books, along with various quotes, and I'll chair panel discussions where people have to offer practical suggestions for running a successful independent publisher – absolutely no self-congratulatory waffling on about the smell of paper. I'm very keen on this, so maybe I'll pull it together for next year.
I’d support that. Down with the smell of paper! But I’d like it best if the conference was just about promoting and peddling poetry. If you can sell poetry, the others are a doddle. Well, maybe poetry and short stories. Do you ever have a day off?
Every now and then...