Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Making No Marks: Behind the Scenes in the Valley Press Pamphlet Department

In August 2013, Valley Press entered Phobia, Form, Sea Swim, Destroyed Dresses and Couples into the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets, which also gives an award to recognise an outstanding UK publisher of poetry in pamphlet form. This week, the shortlist for both awards was announced: to Valley Press, the judges awarded the special prize of no mention whatsoever.

Fortunately I'm an excellent loser, and in that spirit, I am posting the thousand or so words I wrote in my entry form for the award (composed over many long, candlelit evenings - but not as many as it took to produce the pamphlets!) To find out about more successful pamphlet publishing operations, see here, otherwise read on...

Please give a brief description of your pamphlet publishing programme from Jan 2012 to June 2013, with a statement of your publishing philosophy, aims, strategy and future plans with regard to poetry pamphlets.

Pamphlet publishing programme - Between January 2012 and June 2013 I published five pamphlets, all poetry, varying in length between 26 and 38 pages. I had an open submission policy during this period, though only one of the five was a true unsolicited submission: two were commissions where I contacted the authors directly, and two were established writers who contacted me with a specific project in mind.

Publishing philosophy - I run Valley Press full-time, as a (theoretically) profit-making business, without funding, with each new print run funded by sales of the last one. With this in mind, and so much at stake, you may ask: why did I choose to publish five of the ‘slim volumes’ this competition is celebrating?

I am passionate about pamphlets. When I started publishing, I found some resistance to this form; buyers at the chains didn’t think a poetry pamphlet could be successfully stocked, and as a result, my sales agency didn’t include pamphlets in their catalogue or represent them to the trade – though I’m pleased to say I later changed their minds on this issue, based on the success of my pamphlet programme from Jan 2012 to June 2013.

The three main reasons I pursue pamphlet publishing are as follows: a) they are ideal for young poets who have a growing reputation and an existing fanbase, but – crucially – not enough poems to merit a full collection; b) they are ideal for short-form projects by established authors, ideas that would lose appeal if stretched over a full-length book; c) if priced and displayed correctly, they can be ideal impulse-buy items for readers who wouldn’t buy poetry ordinarily, or haven’t a lot of cash to spend on new books. Also, there is the great economic plus of pamphlets: they inevitably require fewer resources (less investment in cash and time) than a longer publication, which is great for me. All of the pamphlets entered have made a significant profit; enough to justify my time working on them, at least.

As for the content of the pamphlets, I am looking for poetry that can appeal to both a complete novice – perhaps someone who has never bought a poetry book in their life – but also people who are passionate about poetry, and have been regularly spending money on poetry books for decades. This may sound like an ambitious goal, and it is, but hopefully as you read the pamphlets you will agree I have achieved this (though perhaps with varying degrees of success).

Aims/Strategy - My primary aim, once I had found my five pamphlets, was simply to sell as many as I could – you can read how I went about fulfilling this aim in my answers to the next two questions.

Future plans - I plan to continue publishing pamphlets in the future; I am currently pursuing several poets for 2014, and I don’t plan to change my approach as described above and below.

Please provide a brief statement of the design and print criteria you employed in publishing poetry pamphlets in 2012 and 2013.  This will be looked at in conjunction with your submitted pamphlets.

The most distinctive feature of my design and print criteria for pamphlets is that it does not vary at all from my approach to a full-length collection. I use the same printer, the same format (all my pamphlets have spines, important for bookshop display), and spend the same amount of time designing the covers for my pamphlets as I do any other book.

This means, instead of forming a ‘series’ of covers, each of my books has a unique cover and design, which illustrates either the mood, the topic or the themes of the book (ideally, all three). Initially I concentrate on finding a high-quality photo or illustration, then I choose a font and arrangement of that font to complement it. For the back covers, I use review extracts where possible, otherwise samples of the poems (or both). My most successful pamphlet cover is probably Destroyed Dresses, where I used an old dress-pattern packet, front and back, erasing some (but not all) of the original text and replacing it with text relating to the book.

With regards to internal design, I simply attempt to display the text as clearly, and with as much ‘class’, as possible. If I didn’t make this clear earlier, I do all the design work on these pamphlets myself – this is how I am able to make a profit.

My 2013 pamphlet Couples had a special design feature – the author had written the poems in complementary pairs (or ‘couples’), so I set the book with the poems in their pairs facing each other, usually justified towards an equal margin in the spine. I also split up the acknowledgements and contents pages to keep this theme consistent. The cover photo for Couples was staged specially for that cover; I actually appear on it, as an ‘extra’ in the background.

Please provide a brief statement of your sales and promotional strategy and activities for poetry pamphlets in 2012 and 2013, giving examples of achievements.

Email newsletter: Many of my general promotional efforts are aimed at increasing the subscribers of the Valley Press email newsletter, with a particular focus on getting regular buyers of new poetry titles to subscribe, and value the newsletters as entertainment in their own right. In this way, I have a direct route to these buyers, and can explain to them in an unhurried way why they should purchase the pamphlets. I have doubled my newsletter subscribers every six months since I launched the business (today, more than 600), and I feel most of my website sales (and thus, most sales of the pamphlets) are a result of this.

Social media: Valley Press has a presence on all the main social networks, and fortunately, with the pamphlet authors being on the younger end of the age spectrum, so do they. As such, I make sure everyone on my networks and the authors’ is aware of each publication; not by posting a link over and over again, but by sharing samples, news, or original creative content related to the title.

Web advertising: All five of my pamphlets had a particular marketing ‘angle’, which I could exploit on services such as Facebook adverts and Google adwords. For example: I aimed Destroyed Dresses at young women interested in literature and/or vintage items (the book has a vintage feel), and I aimed Couples at people with an interest in – or suspicion of – all things romantic (it was released on Valentine’s Day).

Events: Readings, or chat-show style events, are another essential angle for promoting pamphlets. With some help from me, the authors have done a dozen readings each since the publication of their pamphlets.

Yours sincerely,
Jamie McGarry
Editor, Valley Press

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