Can poetry go 'mainstream'? The future's bright, says Valley Press publisher
In the latest of our Publisher Showcase series of interviews, Jamie McGarry of Scarborough’s Valley Press reveals to Greg Freeman that he had no alternative to becoming a poetry publisher, talks of the long odds that submissions face, speculates whether poetry has the potential to go “mainstream” at any moment – and reflects on a night to remember at Buckingham Palace.
You’ve recently completed a “national tour”, to celebrate, among other things, your five-year anniversary. How did the tour go, and how did Valley Press start?
The tour went well - I'd always envisioned a tour before Christmas on the five-year anniversary, and it was tremendously invigorating to see it come to fruition, and to be living out of a suitcase, travelling round the country celebrating the books I'd published. I usually lead a rather quiet, uneventful life, so this for me was literally the most excitement I'd had in years... I think the authors and attendees had fun too. In terms of enjoyment it was a success, and I also made a bit of money out of it, so no complaints.
I had also planned to release a celebratory anthology at the five-year anniversary, featuring an extract from each VP book and details of the origins and development of the press. In the end, it wasn't possible, but I still hope to do it later this year - I may rewrite history and say Valley Press began with the first publication of someone other than myself, in October 2009, thus keeping the whole “five years, 50 books” thing going (which was the title of the tour).
The story from 2008 was that, after failing a primary teaching course, I decided to throw myself into literature as a possible alternative career. I'd been pursuing teaching simply because it seemed like a sensible route to take, but with that door now closed, I was suddenly free to experiment... and with a novel and enough poems for a book sitting on my hard drive, I decided to leap straight into self-publication, without even trying other routes. It wasn't about the fame and fortune at that point, it was more about the process: I published the first two VP books just to see if I could bring a book into existence. I think there were only 40 copies of each produced, most of which I gave away, but it was enough to get a taste for what publishing would be like.
By 2010 I had published 10 books, and got myself a degree in English Lit, so the future would have been back on course - except, eight months after graduation I was unable to find any employment, so I had almost no choice but to try running Valley Press full-time from January 2011. And things have worked out surprisingly well! I suppose the moral of all this is, every failure is an opportunity - just keep plodding forwards, and keep bumping into walls until you find a door.
You also publish fiction and non-fiction. How big a part does poetry play in your output? How do you regard the prospects for poetry publishing and sales of poetry?
Valley Press is mostly about the poetry, truth be told. The ratio of poetry to non-poetry reflects my own interests as a reader; therefore around three-quarters of the output has been, and will always be, poetry. Your visitors will be pleased to hear that I think the prospects are extremely good for poetry publishing. Maybe it's just the way my operation is skewed, but VP poetry titles have always performed as well as - if not better than - the fiction and non-fiction titles. When marketing, and direct selling at events, I've found readers are readers and are interested in the topic, content and appearance of a book primarily, not worrying too much if it's in verse or not. I may be wearing large blinkers, but I can only see engagement with poetry growing in the future. Each identifiable niche of the media seems to have an increasingly audible voice, and with people's attention spans allegedly shrinking, poetry could go truly “mainstream” (the way erotic fiction has) at any moment. I'm waiting ...
In 2013 came the intriguing news that Valley Press and another small press publisher, The Emma Press – known in particular for its Mildly Erotic anthology – had become “engaged” with a view to marriage. Can you explain this a bit more?
I heard about the Emma Press when Emma published her first book. There was just something about that book, and the press, and its owner, that captured and held my attention like nothing I'd ever seen before. As we began communicating, in a series of lengthy emails, I realised our values were pretty much exactly aligned. Not only did I believe the Emma Press was destined for great things, I wanted to do all I could to help it get there; so we began sharing information and resources in an admirably selfless manner, as well as selling each other's books at markets and events.
The “engagement” was our idea for formalising this arrangement, in the amusing, romantic and wholesome style preferred by Emma and myself. Our first act post-engagement was to start a joint blog - see here for the first post, announcing our intentions. This connection is probably the best thing that ever happened to Valley Press, and I'm keen to keep it going (and growing) in the years to come... though we haven't set a date yet for the “wedding”, which would perhaps come with a shared anthology. To add a pleasant extra note of complication, I myself am engaged and planning a wedding at the moment, so the key question is: will l beat Valley Press to the altar?
What has been your most satisfying moment in poetry publishing so far?
The moments I remember the most are the book launches; where it's a book by a person I really admire and respect, we've spent months editing/designing it and got it exactly right, and where dozens and dozens of people horde in and buy big handfuls of copies each. There was the palace visit as well (see below), but nothing can compare to nights that fit the description above - and I have been lucky enough to have quite a few of those.
Your website mentions the weighty number of submissions you receive each year. How should a poet who wishes to be published approach you? Are there any dos and don’ts?
I am constantly grappling with submissions, and it is not an understatement to say I change my policy on them every month - which can be quite frustrating for submitters, I imagine. A look at the statistics should deter people even further: since I started seeking subs in 2011, I have received more than a thousand unsolicited submissions and published just six of them (with the other titles coming into existence more organically). All of those six broke through on quality alone; in a couple of cases, they were the best examples of a genre I was keen to try, but it was still quality that got them through. So the only “do” for submitters is, write an amazing book - one that happens to sync up exactly with my own tastes. On you go!
One thing I plan to do (and Emma has already started, I think) is to only accept submissions from people who have purchased a book through the Valley Press website in the past few months. This may be a slightly controversial approach, but it's started to make a lot of sense. Before I can reopen submissions with that new rule though, I need to work through a big bag of unread manuscripts that has been ignored since September ... watch this space!
Your website says you’ve designed nearly all the Valley Press book covers. Again, are there any rules you think should be followed, in creating the look of a book?
The most important rule of cover design is to not give up until it’s perfect, or at least at a truly professional standard. When creating a cover, you should look at it and think: “Would (major publishing house) publish a book with this cover?” You have to be brutally honest with yourself, and if the answer is “No”, keep working.
I'm ashamed to say I haven't always followed that bit of advice, for a variety of reasons, but I have done okay (for someone with no design training) and plan to continually improve this aspect of the business in future. My approach now is to realise my limitations as a designer, and concentrate on getting the most interesting, eye-catching, high-quality photographs for the covers - then adding simple text that doesn't detract or draw attention from the photo. I can see this becoming a sort of house style in future, though I would never go with the conformist, “series” covers that a lot of poetry publishers employ (not that there's anything wrong with those). The great thing about the “photo/simple text” approach is it doesn't require a great deal of technical skill; just a bit of positioning and good taste.
Readers can see all the VP covers on this page, if they are curious. I should also mention, in the interests of having a holiday this year, I do hire out my cover design skills for extraordinarily reasonable rates - contact me through the website if you need one doing.
You have your own book of poems, The Dead Snail Diaries. Does publishing get in the way of your creative output at all?
It definitely does, and the truth is I haven't been able to write a single poem since I started full-time publishing back in January 2011. It was literally off like a switch; until then I used to write at least one a week, after that, not a thing. If any psychologists are reading this ... what happened there? Answers on a postcard!
Fortunately, by that point I had written enough poems about snails to create a themed collection, and though the VP edition is now out of print, I'm pleased to report the Emma Press will be re-releasing The Dead Snail Diaries (with new illustrations by Emma) later this year. It will be extremely bizarre to be on the other end of the publishing process for a change, and to be promoting myself and my writing again after a three-year break, but I'm looking forward to it.
Finally, how did you enjoy the recent poetry reception at Buckingham Palace? What was it like to meet the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh?
It was a wonderful experience, a real once-in-a-lifetime thing, to walk through the halls and see the not-too-rebellious cream of British poetry there in their best suits and frocks (and queuing to get their coats back at the end ... very strange to see the likes of Armitage and McGough in that context). It was a night where I'd pass someone, look at their name badge, and double-take on realising who this was, remembering all the incredible poems I'd read by them over the years. And it was such a compliment to be invited; it's really the only recognition or reward I've had for my publishing so far, the first hint that what I'm doing might be somehow important. And you can't imagine how chuffed my old mum was when I showed her the invite.
As for the Queen and the Duke, the meeting could best be described as surreal. As they ushered us through the corridors, at one point I looked around and said: “This is intense!”, at which a footman appeared and said: “This way, sir.” My name was then called out, I stepped round a corner and the Queen was literally there, suddenly, in front of my eyes ... I have no memory of what followed, but the official photographs include one of me shaking hands with her and one of me bowing awkwardly, so I know I didn't go too far wrong. A night to remember, in any case.