Questions for Tapsalteerie
You’re new. But not that new. It will be 2015 soon and you began in 2013. So who is ‘Tapsalteerie’ – the people behind the imprint name? And who does what?
Well the person behind it is me, Duncan Lockerbie. I act as a sort-of one-man publishing band really. I have had a lot of help and support from my wife Hayley though, who is invaluable when it comes to things like book fairs, or when some neat handwriting is called for. I also have the input of my silent partner, Jess the publishing cat, so I'm not entirely on my own.
You began with a crowdfunding project. Could you explain how that came about? Could you even explain ‘crowd funding’ – because it’s still a new term for some?
Crowd funding, despite being a contemporary term, is actually based on a pretty old fashioned idea.
Basically you post details about your project online and invite people to give you money. You set a "funding target" and a closing date. If you don't reach your funding target by the closing date then all the money that people have promised is returned to them - you only get funded if you reach your funding target. It’s all or nothing!
There's numerous websites you can use for it, Kickstarterbeing the famous one, but I chose to use Bloom VC, largely because they were based in Edinburgh and they'd had a track record of success with literary projects.
I made a wee video to put up alongside the blurb I'd written, then came up with a series of ‘rewards’ to tempt people into giving me money. The general plan is for the rewards to get better the more you donate. So for £10 you’d get a pre-publication copy of Tapsalteerie’s launch pamphlet and a permanent mention on the website, whereas fifty pounds would get you that plus a two-year subscription to Tapsalteerie.
The reason I say it’s an old-fashioned idea is that it reminds me of the subscription model, where you go around getting people to give you money for a book before it’s published. Someone told me once that Dickens did this, although I'm not sure if that’s actually true or not.
I decided to go down the crowd funding route because I genuinely didn’t know how else to raise start-up money. My first pamphlet was written in Doric, so I thought I’d be able to generate enough interest locally to meet my funding target. It turns out I was right, and I even got an article about it in the Evening Express – not a publication that’s exactly well-known for its interest in poetry.
‘Tapsalteerie’ is a great name. Where did it come from?
Thanks very much! I spent ages casting around for a name and had tried quite a few different Scots words before coming to ‘tapsalteerie’. It just stuck, and I found myself thinking of the press as Tapsalteerie before I’d even really fully made the decision, so I just went with it.
Tapsalteerie is an old Scots word for chaotic, upside down, or topsy-turvy, and I think it fits in well with the character of the press. There’s a great verse in James Robertson’s translation into Scots of ‘The Day o Judgement’ an 18th century Gaelic poem by Dugald Buchanan:
As the universe gangs tapsalteerie
An awthin in it dwines awa,
The time draws in when aw maun staun,
Afore the judge an his dreid law.
The line ‘as the universe gangs tapsalteerie’ seemed massively suitable and so I’ve appropriated it as a tag-line for the press. Tapsalteerie – as the universe gangs. To me it speaks of the connection between poetry and the universe, of our attempts to understand our place in the whole vast chaos of it all through poetry.
Who does the typesetting and design? And if it’s you, how did you learn the necessary skills?
All the publishing work is done ‘in-house’ as you would say. The only thing I don’t take on myself is the actual writing of the poetry, the drawing of any illustrations, and the printing of the pamphlets. But everything else is cooked up at home, in my spare room, in front of my trusty PC.
I’ve gradually been learning the obscure art of book-design and typography over the past five years. I graduated from the MLitt in publishing studies at the University of Stirling in 2008, where I was shown how to use the necessary software and got a basic grounding in typography. After that I set up a wee thing called Lumphanan Press, where I offer publishing services to – mainly, but not exclusively – self-publishing authors. Through that I’ve designed and typeset quite a variety of different publications including technical manuals, children’s books, and novels. I just jumped in at the deep end and taught myself how to do it through a combination of experience and reading typography books. It was certainly a bit nerve-wracking at first, but I’m definitely getting the hang of it now.
The cover of your first publication, The Quait Chiel, was beautifully pictorial, done by Scott Simpson. The next two were mainly understated typographical covers. Do you like to think each one will look different, or are you going for a house style? Design thoughts?
Originally I started out with the plan of working with illustrators for every project. In many ways it makes the design job much easier if you’ve got pictures to work with, and I think it can broaden the appeal of a publication. However, I quickly realised that illustration adds considerably to the costs. What with the margins being so tight anyway it just doesn't always make financial sense.
So I’m now less dogmatic about it. I’m still really keen to produce illustrated pamphlets, and if it looks like I can make the financial side of things work, then I’ll happily do so, but just not as regularly as I first thought. Illustrations won't always be suitable for a particular text anyway.
The important thing for me is to treat each publication on its own merits. When I’m doing the typography, I always try to make sure that the design is suitable for, and beneficial to, the poetry it contains. The design has to reflect the material, and with the varied work that Tapsalteerie produces I wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to force each pamphlet into a house style.
For example, I would never use the same typeface for all my pamphlets. The choice of type is something I spend a huge amount of time on; to my mind it’s one of the most fundamentally important aspects of a publication. The cover of Tapsalteerie’s latest publication Glasgow Flourishes, for example, is set in FF Govan, which was designed specifically for Glasgow’s year as the UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999. The way it draws on Glasgow’s traditions to produce a contemporary design was just so reminiscent of the poem itself that I had to use it.
You sell publications online obviously. How else do they sell? And how do you manage to promote sales?
Well this is the million dollar question really, isn’t it? I’ve experienced a massive learning curve on this over the past year or so, as usual picking things up by trial and error. And I’ve still got an affa long way to go. . . .
I’ve discovered so far that, generally speaking, bookshops aren’t really the best way to sell pamphlets. Even if you can convince them to stock your publications. I think they have a tendency to disappear on the shelves; they’re too slight and small. However, The Quait Chiel has had quite a good run in what I think of as ‘non-traditional’ booksellers. Seeing as it’s written in Doric I’ve managed to get it stocked in quite a number of wee shops across the north-east, as well as in a few cafes and farmshops. Mither Tongue in Keith has also been a great supporter of Tapsalteerie.
Other than that and online, the way I've found they sell is at readings or events like the Ex Libris Book Fair I was at the other weekend. And it just seems to be the case that some go better than others. As someone fairly new to the poetry business, I'm hoping that over time I'll be able to recognise patterns and start to use that to guide the kind of things I publish. We'll have to wait and see on that count though!
The promotion that Tapsalteerie facilitates tends to happen through social media, the Tapsalteerie newsletter and blog, reviews in literary magazines like Northwords Now or Sabotage Review, and on a couple of lucky occasions through the radio & newspapers. One thing that’s become clear to me is the massively important role poets themselves have to play in this. With no budget and limited time, there really is only so much the publisher can do. I try to organise as many readings or appearances at things as I can, but it’s often the case that the poet is in a much better place to sort this kind of thing out than I am. They also have their own networks of friends, family and contacts who can go a long way towards making a pamphlet successful.
Why poetry? Why the hardest literary form on the planet to sell?
Ha! I suppose the immediate answer is simply because I love it and believe in its cultural importance. But it’s also because I’m thrawn, and when someone tells me it’s difficult to do (which many people have) I get even more determined to do it.
I also figure that learning how to publish and sell poetry successfully will stand me in good stead for the future. One day I would like to expand Tapsalteerie to be a fully-fledged publisher of fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry. And if I can sell poetry, then that stuff will be easy in comparison.
What kind of poetry are you most interested in – can you comment on what pigeon holes it might be likely to fly into?
Realistically I'll publish pretty much anything that interests me. I will generally look for stuff that’s new, unusual, or hasn’t much been done before though, and I’m usually looking for first collections from young poets, but that’s certainly not exclusive. If something is good and will fit into the list then I’ll be delighted to publish it. Hence re-publishing Tom McGrath's Sardines, for instance.
In terms of kinds, personally I like poetry that has philosophical ideas at its heart, as well as stuff that plays around with form. But my taste is massively varied so I do find it hard to pin myself down to particular types.
One thing I’m definitely interested in is poetry in Scots, and I’m particularly looking for avant-garde & experimental Scots poetry. One of the main aims of Tapsalteerie is to open up space for experimentation in the language. Of course I realise this is a double-whammy of un-commercial madness, but I justify it to myself by saying that it fits into the ‘culturally important’ section of what I want Tapsalteerie to do.
Do you welcome submissions, and if so, in what form?
So far Tapsalteerie hasn’t opened itself up to submissions but I will be doing so at the start of the December. I’m a bit clearer now on the kind of publications I’m looking for and the number of publications I can do year-on-year so I feel like it’s a good time to start.
I’m in the process of totally redesigning the Tapsalteerie website, binning what’s there already and starting again from scratch on a different platform. It’ll be ready at the end of November and there’ll be full submissions guidelines and instructions online then.
So far you look as though your plans are firmly Scottish rooted? Is that so? Or would you publish people from outside Scotland? Do people outside Scotland buy the publications?
Aye the plans so far have been very firmly rooted in Scotland, more through the fact of being based here rather than through any particular decision on my part. People outside Scotland have bought our publications, but only a few and mostly I think through personal connections to the poet. I would really like to expand my market out more to the rest of the UK though. There’s certainly no reason that Tapsalteerie publications would only appeal to a Scottish audience.
I would publish people from outside Scotland too, but I’d have to think very carefully about it. I like to be in fairly close contact with my poets and it would be difficult for me to organise readings and events for them from so far away. If it’s the right poet though, I don’t think that would be an issue.
So what’s next? Plans for 2015?
Well the main job for now is to redesign the website and revamp the blog. The plan for next year is to double Tapsalteerie’s output – I’m looking at doing at least 4 main pamphlets and at least 2 micro-pamphlets (in a similar style to Glasgow Flourishes).
Our next publication will be released at the start of 2015, the working title of which is Scottish Spleen. It's a selection of Baudelaire’s prose poems translated into Scots by some really weel-kent authors (including Tom Hubbard & James Robertson). As far as I know it’s the first ever publication of Baudelaire’s prose poems in Scots, so I’m tremendously excited to be involved with it!