Verve Poetry Press grew out of its sister organisation, Verve Poetry Festival. It publishes both books and pamphlets, and describes itself as ‘a new Birmingham based indie press with a purpose’. The main man behind the publications is Stuart Bartholomew, who is also co-founder of the festival, lead festival programmer and a Waterstone’s bookshop manager. Sometimes he even writes poems. Here he answers some a few questions for Sphinx.
It says on the Verve festival website that it all started ‘from an idea floated on Twitter to a whirlwind force’? Can you say a bit more about that? Whose idea? When? Who came up with the name VERVE?
I think what surprised us all was how quickly a vague idea of something necessary for Birmingham turned into something real, big and serious.
The phrase ‘pushing on open doors’ springs to mind. It felt so necessary for Birmingham to have its own poetry festival, to unite a lively but very fragmented poetry community, to add a touch of confidence, and bring poets of every stamp and style together in a city where every stamp and style of poetry was being practised. We touched the door and it sprang open and wouldn’t close again!
Cynthia Miller (Verve’s festival director) and myself were at the heart of it, but we were cheered on and heavily helped initially by former Birmingham Poet Laureate Roz Goddard, and Emma Wright from the Emma Press, and then so many other people got involved to help.
The Verve name came from a long evening of Cynthia and me coming up with bad names. When Verve appeared, we just knew it was right.
The idea originally presented itself in March 2016 and the first festival took place the following February. We were astounded by the process. We couldn’t have hoped for a more successful first year, both in terms of content and attendance.
A lot of people praised our programming for being diverse, and our celebratory atmosphere. But all we did really was aim the festival at what we saw in the town. We wanted something everyone could feel was theirs.
Photo shows Stuart Bartholomew and Cynthia Miller
And following that, when did the publications idea become a reality?
Verve press came along about a year later, because it felt like there was no-one picking up the poetry being written and performed in our city and certainly not in the BAME or LGBTQ communities. Once there was a festival, it simply felt like there had to be a press.
The festival has helped the imprint be accepted quickly and allowed us to secure some of the wonderful names we’ve been able to include in our pamphlet series. But in many ways, the full collections we do are the important things.
Stuart, I think your background is in bookshops isn’t it? And you still manage one, right? So how does the publications side of things fit into your working life?
Simply it doesn’t. I’ve dropped one day a week at Waterstones, where I’ve worked for my whole life, and the press takes up the other three days and most evenings. Quite simply, if I didn’t love it, or feel it was important, I wouldn’t do it.
What being part of the book trade has helped with is that I have an understanding of bookselling that not many publishers seem to have. As a result I’ve made good strong connections with a small but growing group of super indie bookshops who support us and our books, who I offer good terms to and help out with left-over stock.
I also know that the book trade can’t be relied upon for us to make the sales we need. The model we have is for trade to make up about 33% of what we sell, with the rest coming from direct to customer website sales and via events/bookstalls etc.
And the rest of the publications team — who does what? (Commissioning, editing, typesetting, proofing, production, marketing, accounts etc.)
It’s all me I’m afraid. ;/
How does the funding for publications work?
We don’t receive any funding for the press. I also don’t charge authors to publish with us. We have a simple scheme whereby we pay for printing, do inhouse design, and pay royalties that vary depending on route to sale. Poets are able to buy copies to sell at their own events (at min. half price which is fairly standard).
Are sales closely linked to scheduled performances? (e.g. selling copies during the festival)
Performances make up about 33% of sales and this varies from title to title. But the festival isn’t the Verve Poetry Press Festival. It’s its own thing and will always be multi-publisher.
I’m very careful not to let Verve Press poets dominate and probably as a result go a little too far the other way. But we hold launch events for all titles, and then a lot of the poets are jobbing poets, which is a real help.
The model is that poets get the best deal if they sell their own books, and I do best if I sell them via the website, so we’re all incentivised to try hard to make sales.
There’s a lovely ‘house’ look to the pamphlets — they mingle together deliciously with that turquoise-mustard-pink-black colour branding, which characterises the website too. Who does the design?
Thank you. The colours are from the festival and were chosen by a design team that we got in for that purpose with the remit to create something that we can then take forwards ourselves and adapt. I kept the colours for the press site and used them to form the identity of the pamphlets.
I wanted strong branding for the pamphlets, while the full collections tend to be more varied. Having said that, I think some other publishers’ pamphlets are too similar and others are too plain — there’s no reason for pamphlets to look less good than other books in my view.
The poets you’re publishing are mainly charismatic, performance-y style writers, so far as I can see. Sometimes these guys don’t work so electrically on the page as they do in live action. Have you thought of using recorded performance to promote – eg YouTube? SoundCloud?
While I’d agree with that statement where some of our collections are concerned, and you’re right to point out the power of video (if only I had more time!), I thin
k the pamphlet series is on the whole very much about the page.
Certainly Luke Kennard, Jenna Clake, Claire Trevien and Katrina Naomi are to my mind electric on the page, although I think it’s a real boost if a poet has an ability to connect their work with an audience via performance too.
My favourite poets are able to deliver on both, but I also value excellence on both the page and performance sides of the poetry spectrum. I think the way I programme the festival reflects that. For me, the pamphlet series forms a link between the festival and collections we put out, in that everyone we’ve published in pamphlet form has appeared at the festival.
As a bookshop manager, how do you feel about the place of pamphlets in a bookshop? They get lost so easily, don’t they?
Yes, they do. I don’t know what the answer is. I completely ‘get’ why many bookshops won’t stock them — particularly when they need every space to make a certain amount of money for the store.
I think in many ways it’s up to publishers to make them as irresistible to readers as they can, to work harder to sell direct via websites and events, and hope that booksellers fall in love with them and stock them against their better instincts.
With debut authors, it’s often a lot easier to get them into shops if the books have spines.
But pamphlets are so lovely aren’t they? And provide something that a full collection just can’t. And there does seem to be a real appetite for them.
It can be such a long wait for the first/next collection to come along, can’t it....