Why all poets should… support small presses.

A while ago I explained why all poets should… buy zines. Here’s the next in that series!

1. Small presses = hidden gold. There are some poets we’ve all heard of — mention Carol Ann Duffy or Simon Armitage or Billy Collins, and most people can reel off a couple of their most famous lines or at least name a poem or two. Sure, that’s because they’re incredibly talented and widely-read, but it’s also because they’re “signed” by large publishers with teams of PR people, employed solely to spread the word and sell as many books as possible. However, there are plenty of fantastic and highly distinguished poets out there that few people have really heard of, and the only reason is that they’re with smaller presses who don’t have the means to make them ‘famous.’ Most of my all-time favourite poets have names that meet with totally blank stares whenever I mention them, but they write incredible stuff. If you buy small press publications, you’ll find gold — big presses do not have the monopoly on fabulous writing talent!

2. They need your support. Sure, during dark times like these, all publishers and booksellers need your support — but small presses most of all. Profits for smaller presses are generally tiny; most are non-profit or run at a significant loss. Many small presses last only a short time and fold through lack of funds, but without smaller publications, the poetry community would be severely lacking. Think about it from the writer’s point of view, too — a writer whose book is with a small press generally won’t get an advance, or not a very sizeable one. That means they need to sell books in order to make any money from their book — literally, every sale counts.

3. Small presses are where you’ll probably start out. OK, there are poets who are so fabulous that their first collection is immediately snapped up by Faber and Faber without them even having to ask — there are also poets who just get incredibly lucky breaks. However for most poets, a small press is generally the first port of call for that debut pamphlet or collection.
Small presses make it so much easier for poets to get published. If the big publishing houses were the only ones, many poets would never get a chance to put a book out at all — not necessarily because they’re not ‘good enough,’ simply because even huge publishers can only accept a tiny percentage of the stuff they see. Small presses step into the breach to publish all variety of fabulous stuff… which may include your own work, now or in the future!

4. There are loads of them… which is a very good thing! If you want variety, sorry, but the last place you want to go is to a large publisher. The big guys are business-driven — they publish what will sell, which can mean that books from larger publishers don’t provide too much in the way of variety. It’s always a good idea to read stuff that’s new, different, surprising and original, and the best places to find that stuff? In the halls of Small Poetry Pressville. You not only get a huge variety of poetry though — there are a huge variety of publishers, too, all with different focusses and specialities. Variety is the spice of life so make your reading extra spicy — support a number of small presses and you’ll vastly enrich your book list.

5. They offer great value for money! Obviously, cover-price varies from publisher to publisher, but while publishers like Salt churn out £13 books and Carcanet price even their slimmest volume at around the £9 mark, smaller presses are able to stick cover prices closer to four or five quid on their books. How? Because their imprints are smaller, and because small presses don’t tend to have the bell-and-whistles “needed” by the bigger guys (full time graphic design team, typesetters, PR people etc), their overheads are nowhere near as high. Small presses also value every single sale and they know that more people will pick up their book if it’s only a fiver. They’re doing you a favour by making their books more affordable for you — do them a favour, and buy them!

6. You’re supporting local business. Or, you could be! Try if you can to hunt out the small presses in your local area, and concentrate on supporting them. That way, you’re contributing to your local literary scene and helping to keep it vibrant and alive. You’re also familiarising yourself with poets who are probably also local, which heightens your awareness of your immediate literary community and can help you to feel more involved in what’s going on in your area!

Recommend your favourite small press!

(Photo by sweetie pie press)

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13 Responses to “Why all poets should… support small presses.”

  1. Regina Says:

    Such a good post, Claire- and I agree wholeheartedly. The bookstores are a big disappointment when trying to find any other poets than the usual suspects so small presses are the way to go… and there is so much available now on the internet- thank goodness.

  2. Rachel Fox Says:

    In past few months I’ve bought from Calder Wood, HappenStance, Donut. All very good.

  3. Crafty Green poet Says:

    Calder Wood Press definitely. But there are others that escape my mind at the moment

  4. Rob Says:

    I agree that’s important to support small presses - the ones mentioned above - also Shearsman, Arc, Red Squirrel, Flambard, Mariscat, Kettillonia, Shoestring… the list goes on and on. I was published first by HappenStance, so I know personally the value of having the support of a quality small press publisher. I may not have been picked up by Salt had it not been for that chapbook. Of course, supporting a press isn’t an act of charity - they need to produce the goods (i.e. good poetry books and chapbooks) to make themselves worth supporting.

    I’m not totally convinced that small presses provide the “new, different, surprising and original” more than many of the larger poetry presses. Bloodaxe publish JH Prynne, Jen Hadfield, and WN Herbert. Salt publish John Wilkinson, Luke Kennard and Robert Archambeau. Carcanet publish John Ashbery, Katharine Kilalea and Richard Price. That’s a huge range of extraordinarily original writers, all from the slightly bigger presses. Many poets in the smaller presses don’t seem to me to be much different (or new, surprising or original) than their compatriots in the bigger presses.

    Over at the Magma blog, Neil Astley (director at Bloodaxe Books) gives some fascinating statistics - http://magmapoetry.com/too-many-poetry-books/comment-page-1/#comment-4768

    Basically, what he shows (well, he shows many other things too!) is that all poetry publishing is small and sales are tiny. In this tiny pie, a large percentage of sales is divided between a small number of *bigger* presses, but there are thousands of presses out there dividing about 1 percent of sales between them. Even among the bigger presses, the profits (if there are profits) are small, and every sale is vital.

    What happens with some small presses (such as Carcanet, Bloodaxe and Salt) is that they break through and challenge the status quo. The former two have, over time, become influential players in the poetry world, and Salt is looking to join them. One or two of today’s tiny presses may be the bigger presses of tomorrow. I personally think it’s just as important to support the Salts, Bloodaxes and Carcanets as the tiny ones - without them, quality poetry would be far less visible even than now.

    I’m really with you all the way on the importance of poets buying poetry books and of looking beyond the established names. I just feel the need to defend poor old Bloodaxe, Carcanet and Salt, who are doing a great job and very much need poets and readers to buy their stuff:)

  5. Andrew Philip Says:

    Hear, hear, Rob!

    The Donut books are fabulous little objets d’art, aside from the high quality of the work in them.

    Let’s not forget Knucker Press, especially while we’re on local publishers.

  6. Rob Says:

    and Two Ravens, tall-lighthouse, Arrowhead etc…

    This video showing what happens when you order a Salt book may also show how things are! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9N1IMcGs9Vw

  7. Claire Says:

    Rachel & Andy — Donut are fab, I love all their books, they’re absolutely gorgeous! Another favourite small press of mine are the tiny-but-fabulous Verve Bath Press… each book is handmade and one of a kind which really adds to the book-buying and reading experience!

    Rob — The point of this article is not to do down large publishers (not at all!), but to ‘big up’ small ones. The big guys have PR budgets… small presses don’t. A lot of my readers are new to the poetry world and don’t know about the existence of a lot of these smaller presses, hence my attempt to bring them to the fore. What the larger publishers do is great as well and they should also be supported, but somehow I don’t think they need my help to get noticed!

    As for the ‘more original’ point — you have to admit that there’s a remit for large publishers — some things they just won’t publish. Collections that are seriously experimental or perhaps not that widely saleable. The Chemical Poets’ poetry manual (Red Squirrel Press) for example — would Salt or Carcanet or Bloodaxe ever have picked up that book in a million years? I doubt it — and yet it’s a gem waiting to be discovered. Naturally I was not deriding the quality or denying the originality of poets published by larger presses! Just pointing out that small presses can — and often do — take more risks with what they put out there.

  8. Rob Says:

    Claire, yes, I understand the reason for your post and fully support and applaud it, and I hope it does introduce your readers to some great new poetic voices from the small presses. I know you’re not doing down the bigger publishers. I was just pointing out that the bigger independent poetry publishers are actually very small indeed. In most genres, they would be tiny publishers. Their PR budgets are microscopic.

    Also, I think your blog can make a material difference to those *bigger* publishers and they do need your help to get noticed. When you look at Neil’s statistics and see how few people buy poetry books of any kind, even from the likes of Bloodaxe, I’m sure any mention of them will introduce their books to new audiences, including many of your blog readers.

    On publishing experimental work, Salt has published a great deal, as have Bloodaxe and Carcanet. I don’t think they take less risk than anyone else.

  9. Titus Says:

    I like the littl’uns!
    Roncadora Press, Dumfries.

  10. swiss Says:

    i could just go on and on and on…!

    i very much like roncadora also.

  11. Rachel Fox Says:

    I was going to say Roncadora too but worried about my possible Hugh McMillan groupie reputation. But seeing as the others have brought the subject up…

  12. Titus Says:

    Better than being a Hugh Bryden groupie. And the newspaper down here still can’t tell them apart.

  13. Claire Says:

    I’d also like to put in a word for Edinburgh’s Monboddo Press, and in particular ‘Test Landings’ by Lauren Pope - fabulous pamphlet! http://www.scottish-pamphlet-poetry.com/index.cgi?publisher=67