Robin Houghton of Telltale Press explains some of the background
Telltale Press is a new poetry publishing imprint, and it’s a collective. For people who don’t know, could you explain what that means in practical terms?
As it says on the website: We publish primarily short, first poetry pamphlets and help develop and support one another to move forward with our poetry careers. The aim is for all members to be involved in the press, for collective benefit, rather like a co-operative, if that makes more sense.
What was the spur to starting the enterprise? What tipped you into action?
A few things. I was on a masterclass at Ty Newydd with Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, and the question everyone wanted answering was ‘how does one get published in this day and age?’ Carol Ann suggested we formed a self-publishing collective, citing a number of successful poets who had started by doing something similar, or self-publishing a small ‘calling card’ pamphlet. Personally, I really needed to be proactive rather than passively waiting for a press to publish my first pamphlet, which was draining my confidence, creativity and energy. I wanted to get those first few poems out and done with, in order to move on, write more, and have more time and enthusiasm for poetry projects. I also knew it would help get my name and work known, bring more reading opportunities and so on. There are huge numbers of poets getting published in the good magazines and winning the odd prize but struggling to get a first pamphlet published. It made sense to get together with them and do something collectively. I met Peter Kenny through Brighton Poetry Stanza and was delighted when he agreed to come in on the project, so that’s how it started.
On your ‘about’ page, you talk about ‘we’. Who is ‘we’? And how many poets do you hope to involve in the collective in the next couple of years?
At the moment it’s myself and Peter Kenny, and we’re about to sign up our third member. It would be great to increase the total to four or five, but beyond that who knows. We’re not afraid to say we’re learning what works as we go along. A lot of what we do will depend on the make-up of the collective, what members want to get out of it and what they bring to the table.
You say ‘new poets are recruited by invitation’. How does one get an invitation? (I know this is an unfair question but it’s like ‘unsolicited submissions’ – how does one get solicited?)
We’ve asked experienced poet friends and editors to keep an eye out for us. So it’s by recommendation. We also read the magazines and are always on the look out for new voices that stand out for us, and researching them online to see if they might be a fit.
You say you expect ‘a strong online presence’ from poets in the collective. Could you explain more about that?
Our members need to be unfazed by social media, and prepared to be active on the social web as Telltale Poets. If they already blog, or tweet, great, if not, we can help them with that, but they have to put in a bit of effort – as we all do.
What kind of editorial support can you offer to poets publishing pamphlets with you?
Catherine Smith is our Associate Editor and is on hand to help and advise but we don’t get heavily involved in editing. We’re looking for poets with a manuscript pretty much ready to go, one that they’re perhaps submitting to competitions, and usually the poet will have had some mentoring or editorial advice already. When a poet agrees to join us we publish right away – that’s a key aspect of what we’re about.
What about the typesetting and design? Will that function be bought in or do those skills belong to members of the collective?
A bit of both. We have a super designer, Hannah Clare, who did the first two pamphlet covers and has established a Telltale style. Layout and typesetting is done by us. The style may evolve and the jobs may be re-allocated – as new members join us – we’re totally open to that.
I notice you had an event at the Poetry Cafe very recently (which is how I saw Telltale had been launched). Do you plan to run regular events as part of your collective activity? Is it possible for a collective to get together on the wider activity of creating a poetry buzz?
Absolutely. There are more ‘Telltale Poets and Friends’ being planned for this year and launches when new members join us from other locations. Every member of the collective brings with them a network of poet friends, potential audience members and fans. Being part of a bigger entity gives a lone poet confidence and, being a part owner of the enterprise, they have a vested interest in its success. The collective grows not only in numbers but in creative ideas and energy. Everyone benefits. It works well in other industries/art forms. I used to be involved in an artists and makers group where the marketing costs were shared and skills were traded, and we had a much more impactful public-facing and industry-facing presence than any one individual could have achieved alone.
Dare I ask about funding? It sounds as though everyone in the collective is chipping into both costs and profits. Could you explain the financial side of things, especially since this is of particular interest to others who might be interested in setting up similar enterprises.
We are an ‘unincorporated association’ which means we are not aiming to make a profit, but to cover costs. If one of our members strikes it rich, good luck to them! But given that this is the poetry world, well. . . . Members contribute towards the fixed costs (for example printing or venue hire) but other roles and tasks are done between us. We believe in bartering.
You’ve published two titles so far. What’s next? Will there be books in the long-term?
There are no plans to publish books at the moment. The plan is to publish a short first pamphlet for each poet that joins us. For some that might be enough, for others they may subsequently want to pursue publication elsewhere, which we encourage. We haven’t ruled out the odd anthology though.
You’ve chosen to print quite short pamphlets – 12-14 poems. That sounds more like an Rack Press publication than, say, a pamphlet from Smith/Doorstop. What was the thinking behind this particular length?
This goes back to the ‘calling card’ idea. Our aim is to help poets in their publishing careers by giving them a leg up. A short first pamphlet can be sold or just as easily given away, as a way of showcasing what the poet can do. Prospective editors can’t be expected to remember your name or work, no matter how many times you’ve been in The Rialto or The North. But if they’re presented with the poems all in one place it’s kind of handy. Plus, a Telltale Poet brings a whole range of promotional skills to the party that can only benefit publishers.
Rack Press, the Welsh imprint who won the Michael Marks Award in 2014, says: Like most poetry publishers we have found that we have to work harder than ever to maintain sales. There is an interesting mathematical relationship between the increase in the numbers of people writing poetry and the numbers of people buying it.” What’s your feeling about this?
Oh dear, how long do you have?! Yes, my understanding is that the market for poetry in commercial terms is miniscule. But the vast majority of fiction sells poorly also, so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this.
And then there’s the problem that it’s only poets who buy single collections of poetry. Thinking as a marketer I would say that if more and more people are writing poetry, that’s more people to sell to. It should be easier to mobilise writers of poetry to buy more contemporary poetry than to convince ‘the general public.
The proliferation of courses, competitions, membership schemes and what-have-you is, of course, a response to lack of actual book sales. It’s a way of offering the growing army of poetry writers what they want – something that might contribute to their own success as poets – while at the same time subsidising what the publisher needs, which is to sell more books. Not that I’m accusing anyone of fleecing poets, but business is business.
This being the poetry world, naturally no-one can be in it for the money alone: courses, events and membership schemes offer a great deal in terms of education and exposure to fine poetry. They also help support the poetry business in general – and hopefully nurture the market for book sales. But the competition culture doesn’t suit everyone, so there’s a danger that some voices may never be discovered. Collectives like Telltale may be able, in a small way, to mitigate that danger.