Nine Ways To Get To Ten
May 31, 2011
Role: Senior Editor
Area: Fiction & Poetry
Original Career: Scientist
Editor of the main poetry imprints until 2007, now focussing on fiction. Editor since 2001 » »
Just so you don’t think we’re greedy, we sent this out to news people but they weren’t interested. Maybe it’s because we’re only 10, or maybe it’s because we’re not connected enough. The important thing is we’re still here. I also wanted to add that one of the small publishers we admire is BOA Editions in the US, who recently turned 35 (another great press, Peepal Tree in the UK turned 25); BOA got coverage on Publisher’s Weekly – I’m sure we will when we’re that old.
Anyway, here are a few tips for those who aspire to a life in small press publishing…
- Remain a dreamer: remember that you started publishing because you wanted to see something different out there, hold on to that vision and use that as fuel to carry on through the tough times… because they are coming. I started flipped eye publishing because I thought there were many good writers not being published, but – more importantly – I believed that perhaps one of the reasons that poetry enjoys such poor sales is that poetry books are over-priced. Remembering my motives has been a guide for every major strategic decision we have taken as a company – even when the margins have been challenging.
- Ask, ask and learn fast: It is no coincidence that the average business has a shorter lifespan than a cheap breast implant; in spite of all my research I ended up spending more in the first year-and-a-half of flipped eye publishing than I did in the three succeeding years when we published more books. That’s an indication of just how steep the learning curve can be so be prepared to ask designers, printers, distributors, retailers, how things work and the best way to make your budget stretch to meet your objectives.
- Pull a good team around you: I believe I have two of the best young poetry editors in the world (in Niall O’Sullivan and Jacob Sam-La Rose) working with me right now – their ears are well-tuned, they have an eye for technique, flippers in the waters of history and fingers on the throb of contemporary culture – they go the extra mile for me and I go the extra mile for them. They also have a myriad of skills beyond editing so it feels like I have a team of seven for the price of two. Side-by-side with them and the best freelancers available, I know we can move mountains of books.
- Get what you can for free: I remember paying £150 to have a barcode generated in 2001 – that was just a cost component in the production of a single title; now, if we work in house, we can have 50 copies of a title produced from scratch with that budget. We generate barcodes for free online with the fantastic online engine at tux.org (no longer active), we get free fonts from emerging designers at fontspace.com and give them credit. And, in the downturn we are focussing on using what we already have – producing new formats e.g. audio and e-books from content that we already have. It is no fluke that we’ve had less than £55,000 in Arts Council funding in the 10 years we have been running.
- Fix up, look sharp: When we started flipped eye publishing, I sat down with a graphic designer and we spoke about the importance of creating iconic looks. It took four books before we came up with the recognisable format we use for our full poetry collections, but by the time we started the mouthmark series, we had imprint identity down to a fine art. The point is, if the books look professionally produced, people take them more seriously as literature – and as fine art! Some of my proudest moments have been at the Brooklyn Book Festival where customers have stopped at our table to buy a whole series because they like the look of our books. Who said poetry can’t be sexy?
- A little madness goes a long way: We are a weird little ideas factory at flipped eye mind central. We spoke about full show-choir street advertising in the days before Glee; we let loose pages of poetry fly in the streets of East London; we celebrated our 10,000th book sold with a wild wild party; we set up guerrilla stages on the streets of Brooklyn to appear in the New York Times; we launched our own jazz band to celebrate our eighth anniversary at the Southbank Centre; we wrote lyrics and music for a song called ‘Poetry’; we had an official wine sponsor. And – let’s be frank – who sells full collections of poetry for £5.99 in the UK? But that’s who we are.
- Be adventurous and conservative: When we said we were going to start a pamphlet series (mouthmark series) which was specifically a mentoring and development series for poets with a performance background we were really pushing boundaries; now, after tall-lighthouse’s fantastic pilot series with Roddy Lumsden, there is Faber New Poets. Even more satisfying, four of the ten-title mouthmark series have sold in excess of 500 copies and we’ve won a few awards for it too. But, just because you produce great books doesn’t mean you will sell hundreds of copies. Many a small press has drowned because they took a wild punt on one title. To sell that many books with a small-press budget you need your authors to support your marketing efforts, and, as much as I love them, authors will let you down. So, will Waterstone’s buyers who chat at parties and then don’t respond to your follow up e-mails. Be adventurous in what you publish; be conservative in your sales projections – however be flexible enough to respond if sales go through the roof.
- Don’t underestimate the value of relationships: One of the things that really helped establish us and get certain authors on board was that we were stocked in Borders in at least six cities most of the time. That came out of my organising a monthly poetry open mike reading for Borders Charing Cross for many years, and, subsequently, a buyer (Caroline Mileham) championing our work. For banking, HSBC have waived several charges for us over the years simply because we communicate with them. Small things, but in publishing, every little helps. Of course, Borders later folded with unpaid invoices from us, but, hey, you can’t always win!
- Never lose your faith in your ability to identify talent: If you lose it, retire. Of course, there are basic standards – a writer must be able to spell, pass basic grammar tests and structure a story. But publishers’ choices are made on something that can’t be measured by simple grammar; their perceptions of talent and potential. Without faith in your own weird and wonderful tastes and predilections, your effort is really not worth the weight of a dream.