Chris Hamilton-Emery, Director of Salt Publishing, answers a few questions about the pamphlet series ‘Salt Modern Voices’. . .
Chris, the Salt Modern Voices series (all pamphlet-sized publications) was launched in 2010, I think, with Lee Smith’s Away From the City. These little perfect-bound publications are quite like small books, aren’t they? What was the thinking behind starting the series?
The publishing side of the business can only take so many risks with poetry and I was under pressure from my colleagues and trade customers to pare things back. To just do less. So I started to think about a more expansive and risk-taking series of pamphlets that wouldn’t have the same cost profile attached to them, the same commitment of resources, that we could experiment with, take some chances on more new talent. I thought I could make it pay for itself with a small expectation on the sales side but less investment too, if that makes sense.
I was wildly ambitious about the scale of it. The products themselves were designed to be spineless and booklet-like rather than wire-stitched. We’ve moved a lot of our publishing into B format — almost pocket-sized publications really.
When you first launched Modern Voices, you mentioned the list might include up to 50 titles a year. So far, we’ve had nine, with three more forthcoming on your site. Did you have to curtail the original ambition?
Yes, it was a crazy idea really, a characteristic of mine, sadly. We realised quickly it was going to be far too much work to produce 50 collections and we also learned from experience that each pamphlet was as much work as a book, so we were risking yet another drain on our resources. It’s all much smaller and more manageable now.
So far, all the Modern Voices have been poets, though the series was originally intended to include fiction too, I believe. Is that still on the cards? And if so, what sort of fiction—will it include flash?Yes, we intended to do short stories and we’ve done one, but Jen is rather caught up in her big fiction titles and that’s meant that she’s not growing that just yet, but I believe she’s a few lined up for next year. We’re certainly interested in longer short stories as well as little collections of flash fiction.
To what extent, do you think, are short modern prose writing and poetry occupying similar territory?
That’s a very interesting question and some writers I’ve looked at tend to occupy this space between genres. I think the difference almost lies in writerly intention — a reader might be hard pushed to categorise when a piece of flash fiction is, or isn’t, a prose poem. The market is virtually the same, in the sense that the same people would read and buy both forms of writing and probably not be too hung up on the terms.
Of course some novels are deeply poetic and some (I’m thinking of Venedict Yerofeyev’s Moscow Stations) are described as ‘poems’. But our pamphlets will all be short works, something around 36-48 pages in total length.
In your original blog heralding the series, you said each of these pamphlets would be available as an e-book, and perhaps some of the material could be accessed by smartphone. How has that aspect of things progressed?I’ve completely shied away from doing the pamphlets as eBooks — to do them well is time-consuming and poetry sales have been relatively poor on the Kindle and almost non-existent in ePub format. I’m now quite happy to be a late adopter on eBooks. We’ve mastered how to do them and I think we’re capable of formatting them as well as one can for the current devices — when the time is right.
How far does the success of these publications depend on the author’s ability to market and sell the products?
Oh hugely. You’ve almost no chance of making a book succeed if the author isn’t backing it energetically. I like to think we bring this big social media presence, this powerful bibliographic — book information — presence . . . all those discoverability things. We bring those to the table, along with our website and our work with booksellers. We do quite well with broadsheet reviews, with poetry magazines and blogs. In fact, we bring a lot of support to a writer, but if they have little interest, or if they have poor skills in working with people in our line of business, then a book can simply disappear. That happens more often than I’m happy with.
The Salt Modern Voices are (allegedly) taking part in a tour of the UK. How is this funded and what part do the Salt Cellars have to play?
This is being entirely funded by the writers themselves in a perfect collaboration. We’ve had no input into this whatsoever, and it’s the ideal support to our aims in taking this series forward. I’m enormously grateful to the writers concerned and we’re doing what we can to spread the word about such events everywhere we can. I deeply welcome a collaborative approach. In fact we’ve a private bulletin board at http://saltpublishing.com/forum/ dedicated to collaborations for all our authors.
What kind of relationship, if any, do you see between the increased number of poetry pamphlets and the decreased sales of poetry in bookshops?
We’re not selling huge numbers of pamphlets, and it’s not really about that for me. Bookshop sales are rising again — let me just look that up for you — yes, we’re up about 14.5% on last year. I don’t see pamphlets eating into book sales. They don’t seem to work like that. They’re complementary.
Of course, if one were publishing a pamphlet and its entire contents were to appear, slightly augmented, in book form only a short while later, then I think that could pose a problem — people won’t pay twice for content. But if the book is substantially different, or the pamphlet is an experiment and departure for the writer, then I think they each have their own space. Bookshops are barely interested in poetry books. They’re not going to be interested at all in pamphlets — unless you’re Faber. In fact, I don’t think pamphlets are really a trade format at all.
How many copies of a Salt Modern Voices pamphlet would need to be sold to make the enterprise more or less worthwhile?
That’s a good question. I’d need to be selling around 150 copies of each to make real sense of it. I don’t think we’re there yet with any of the list, but I’m not especially vexed about that. I’ll certainly constrain its impact on my business though, because I need to spend more of my cash on the big frontlist books — but that’s a matter of pragmatism, really.
Would-be poets clicking on the submission tab of Salt’s website, are now confronted with the ‘We are not accepting any unsolicited submissions’ message. Obviously, you are publishing new people all the time. How do they find their way into your good books?
I’d like to give this question more time than I can afford right now, because it’s important. But briefly, I think submissions are massively ineffective as a way of finding new talent. Why? For a start, I’d say over 90% of Salt’s poetry submissions are from men, so if you want to balance your list you need to find other ways of talking to women.
Then there’s the fact that less than 1% of submissions are worth reading, never mind publishing. Submissions tell you very little about who a writer is, and when I’m betting my money on someone, I need to have a feel for them in the context of the writing world, the social world of writers and readers.
On top of all this, there’s the time needed to wade through 500 submissions a month — all that unpaid time. If you’re a publisher you have to be out there actually looking for talent, not sat on your arse waiting for the post to arrive. You have to go and get people you want to bet money on. So in this sense, I think editors ought to be investigative, acquisitive, social beings, who have a sense of what’s happening, or can reach people who do know.
I’m a great believer in recommendations, too. They show the writer is already connected to the world of literature, that they have backers, people willing to get behind them. Even then, one has to have a sense of the writer beyond mere recommendation, a sense of whether they will, in fact, sell. And, of course, poetry’s a highly connected world where you can easily hear from people who’s ‘hot’, who’s doing interesting things.
You say you like authors to have “a substantial online presence”. What does that mean exactly?
They should have a social media presence, certainly on Facebook and preferably on Twitter, too. They should blog regularly, network with other writers and be engaged perhaps on bulletin boards. They should actively review others, support others and help keep the community going. They need to be a player. As I’m fond of saying, no book sells itself. Salt can do a lot for writers who are already active online: we can bring some big numbers to bear in terms of readers and potential buyers. So we’re looking for that heady mix that spillsover into word of mouth. And word of mouth is what really sells books.