‘There are not enough hours in the day to publish all the submissions that we like’
After starting out by running regular open-mic nights, Surrey-based independent poetry publishers Dempsey & Windle have published well over 100 poetry collections over the last five years (including two of mine). In a wide-ranging interview with Write Out Loud undertaken just before they set off on a well-earned two-week break, Janice and Dónall Dempsey reflect on what they are looking for when receiving poetry submissions, what motivates them, future challenges, how their partnership works, and the advice they would give to other poetry publishers.
How many poetry collections have you published over the last few years? What is your philosophy, your publishing ethos?
Over the last five years we’ve published 131 collections and pamphlet-length books, ranging from 32 to 128 pages long. The 107 authors on our list include people of all genders from all over the UK and Ireland (and before Brexit, one from France). We’ve published 50 debut poetry collections by poets whose ages range from 23 to 85. We’ve also published books by poets all of whose previously published work had been playwriting or prose writing.
We are both writers of poetry and we value the work of others. The strength of the poetry is our criterion for accepting work for publication. Our aim is to publish poems that we like and enjoy, without regard to the reputation of the writer or current ‘fashions’ in poetry. A fresh slant on a traditional topic, or a rigorously crafted collection that evokes a response beyond mere admiration for the writer’s skill, or poems with a sense of humorous meaningful absurdity — all these qualities have led us to accept books. In the process of publishing, we hope to develop a creative partnership that all of us value and enjoy.
You began by running very successful and popular open-mic nights in Guildford for many years, and still run a monthly one on Zoom post-pandemic. When and why did you decide to start publishing poetry?
We began by creating pamphlets and A5 books of our own poems, from which to read as performers, originally printing and binding them ourselves by stapling or hand-sewing them. That was in 2010–12. Then in 2013 we had the idea of rewarding the people who had read at our open mic nights by making an anthology of their poems and inviting contributions from poets who had kindly featured, unpaid (all our events were and still are normally free). We gave a copy to each contributor and offered the rest for sale. That’s when we began to learn the business and techniques of commercial publishing and began to publish annual anthologies. Then we were approached by individual local poets to publish their collections and by 2016 we had to admit that we were no longer losing money and began to pay tax! Also in that year we introduced our annual competition, the Brian Dempsey Memorial Competition (in memory of Dónall’s much-loved younger brother who died suddenly that year). It’s judged by a different independent judge each year and offers winners a free contract and copies of their collection, with cash prizes for three individual poems. Through this competition we have discovered and published several new young voices. In 2023 we’ll award publication to two or more winners.
What are the problems that you have encountered – if any?!
The biggest problem we have found is that there are not enough hours in the day to publish all the submissions that we like.
What have been some of your poetry publishing highlights?
Ask me this after one of our online launches, and I’ll probably refer to that as a highlight, because we love these Zoom events where we get to hear the poems come to life in the author’s voice — and to meet other poets whom they invite as guest readers.
We were very excited when Of Algae & Grief by Pip Osmond-Williams, the winner of the 2021 Brian Dempsey competition, was selected by the panel at the Poetry Book Society as their Spring Pamphlet Choice of 2022. By coincidence, another poet by the name of Williams — Imogen Russell Williams — gave us another highlight when in 2019 she commissioned Chris Riddell OBE, the award-winning illustrator, to illustrate her book The Women Left Behind and it was picked as Observer’s Author’s Book of the Year by Hilary McKay, a Costa award winner. We were also thrilled when one of our earliest books, Timothy Adès’ Loving by Will, received a glowing endorsement from Stephen Fry, which we included on the back cover of its fourth edition.
Is there anything that distinguishes you from other poetry publishers, would you say?
We would like to be distinguished from other small poetry publishers by our enthusiasm for poetry, our love of books, our sympathy and support for new poets both young and old, and our efficiency, but we believe that any small company that keeps on publishing poetry does so because they share at least some of these traits with us.
One service we offer that is perhaps relatively unusual is a page on our website for each author we publish, where we post extracts from reviews of their book, sometimes videos of their readings, and other information. We also publish a free weekly newsletter full of poems, video clips, poetry-related information and news of our books. On the home page of our website we feature and update extracts from collections we’ve published less recently, so that they won’t get overlooked.
According to the testimonials we’ve received since setting up a page on our website for them, we seem to be notable for the relative speed of our work: we’re scrupulous about replying promptly to emails, too. People seem to appreciate the work we do and enjoy working with us.
The name is Dempsey & Windle (Windle is Janice’s previous surname). How do you share the publishing duties?
This is an interesting question. When it’s asked, Dónall always says ‘Janice does everything’ or ‘I just make the tea’ but that’s absolutely not true. Here is our more thoughtful analysis of our respective and collective responsibities:
Janice is the first point of contact on email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Emails to this address are all forwarded to Dónall’s personal email and he is copied into all Janice’s replies. We discuss and remind each other to reply or take action.
Both Janice and Dónall read all submissions for publication, discuss their merits and decide whether to accept them. Dónall supports with his advice and ideas all the work of selecting and editing books, and checks and shares responsibility for our replies.
Janice does the practical IT work of downloading and editing books that we have taken on, keeping records of their progress and ensuring that copies to the national and poetry Libraries are sent off. She manages the accounts, orders the print runs and records internet sales. She organises and hosts book launches on Zoom. She manages and updates the website (www.dempseyandwindle.com).
Dónall provides ideas for book covers and publicity, through his photography and social media posts. He interacts creatively with poets on Facebook and Twitter (Janice prefers email as a medium). He is the first reader of the anonymous files of all the 1,000+ poems entered in each of our competitions.
Janice and Dónall together edit and compile our weekly newsletter. Dónall, a more experienced poet, provides many of the ideas and much online research for the Poet’s Profile that forms the body of each week’s online issue. We also publish a reader’s own poem every week, giving them the opportunity to publicise poems they’ve previously had accepted by magazines and other publishers.
When we were focused on performances in face-to-face venues, Dónall was the ‘front-man’ of Dempsey & Windle while Janice was the back-room support. Covid has made hosting face-to-face meetings more difficult and forced us to learn online hosting, which Janice enjoys — whereas Dónall enjoys it less — so Janice has become the front-person and Dónall supports her in the background. We work together on everything except purely technical computer-based tasks and are a happy team of two!
We’ve introduced a new imprint, VOLE Books (an anagram of LOVE, of course) which we’ve used for all our full collections in 2022, reserving the parent imprint, Dempsey & Windle, for books of less than 55 pages. We thought of renaming the company as a whole, but find we’re oddly loath to jettison our original name, with its echoes of the eighties TV drama series Dempsey and Makepeace!
What challenges do you see ahead? Soaring inflation is an obvious one, I suppose.
Inflation is a problem. Already printing and postage costs have gone up and will continue to rise. We raised the recommended retail prices for our books earlier this year and would rather not do so again in 2023 but a small increase may be unavoidable. We are already ordering a lower stock of new books to sell online, to hedge against the risk of tying up our financial resources in hard copies that may not sell for several years, if ever.
The steep reduction in public funding for the arts, and the closure of libraries and other public venues where poetry books may be sold by their authors, may reduce opportunities for authors to sell their own stock despite the easing of Covid restrictions.
We’ll carry on regardless, because we love what we do.
What would be your advice to anyone thinking of setting themselves up as a poetry publisher?
I would advise anyone considering setting themselves up as a poetry publisher to bear in mind the following:
1 Poetry books are sold to a niche market and profit margins are very low.
2 You would be well advised to begin by learning to do every job (apart from printing) yourself or with a partner. If you grow your business into a larger concern, you will need to employ IT assistance, proof-readers, cover designers, website builders, marketing and social network admins, and an accountant. At first, you may hold all these positions.
3 If possible, set up the company using money you already have, not borrowed funds. Paying back a loan may be difficult for several years after setting up.
4 Expect to work very long hours on a reliable desktop computer. (We use Apple Mac and store files on Icloud.)
5 Expect to develop your communication skills on phone, email and Zoom to include boundless tact and patience (Janice is still working on that!)
6 Expect to enjoy meeting a great many like-minded people, reading a lot of poetry and feeling the satisfaction of promoting good writing to the best of your ability.