In the latest of our series of feature-length interviews with independent publishers, set in our imaginary poetry theatre pub somewhere in Lambeth, we spoke to Helena Nelson of HappenStance Press..
Hello there, Helena! What are you drinking?
Helena: Glass of Sauvignon Blanc, thank you (if you happen to have any Cloudy Bay, that would be perfect).
How long has HappenStance Press been running?
Helena:Just ten years.
What were some of the practical things you did to get started?
Helena: It’s hard to remember now. None of it was in the least practical. I just did it. I talked to James Robertson (who runs Kettillonia Press) about how he started, and then copied him. Learned as I went along.
Does your personal background lend itself being an independent publisher?
Helena: I don’t think so. Rather the reverse, in fact. But it helps with selection and editing.
Where does the name ‘HappenStance’ come from?
Helena: I had been thinking about starting to publish poetry pamphlets while on holiday one April, and then I dreamed about it. In the dream, the name of the imprint was HappenStance, so that was that. These days I would have googled it, and checked out domain names, and been careful. But then I was blissfully daft.
Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?
Helena: I wish I could. Each poet is too specific. I can’t generalise. I like it most of it though.
How are you different from other independent publishers?
Helena: I am anti-blurb. Officially, I mean. I have never published an ‘eagerly awaited’ poet.
On average, how many books do you sell in a year?
Helena: I don’t look at it too closely in case I get depressed. I do count how many are left (a sort of stock taking). More of my products are pamphlets than books. And it gets complicated in that each of my postal subscribers gets at least one free pamphlet per year as part of the deal. I think I shift, through sales, giving away, discounts and jumble sales, between 2000-2500 titles a year.
Do you sell more online or by wholesale/retail?
Helena: This question doesn’t really work for me. If I were counting sales one by one, I probably sell more pamphlets offline (but not by wholesale or retail) because they are sold by the authors or contributors themselves, who buy them from me at reduced cost and sell them at readings or events. I sell very few titles through retail (shops). I don’t normally sell wholesale, with a few exceptions. So ‘retail’ for me – for individual titles – is my online shop, which plays an important role in direct sales to readers. But I also sell by post to the HappenStance subscriber group, of which there are currently about 420, and many of them (how I love them) buy a copy of most new publications.
What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
Helena: My biggest success is keeping going for ten years, and maintaining thriving relationships with lots of poets and publishers I respect and admire. And the HappenStance subscribers: it has taken huge energy to build up that group and do all the necessary communication and networking. I’m proud of that.
What’s the best thing you’ve found from the unsolicited pile?
Helena: There is no one best thing. There are dozens, and most of them are now friends. My unsolicited pile is a small mountain. Nearly everything I’ve published so far has been sent in through open submissions.
How important is the physical book design for you?
Helena: I want to publish beautiful, high-quality publications, or nothing, but I’m operating on a tiny budget, and I don’t want to produce books that people on low incomes can’t afford. So they are as beautiful as I can make them on such finance as I have available, and with such skill I can muster in terms of design and typesetting. I can’t afford to pay anyone else to do anything and I won’t set prices high. So the design is important, very, but not in the end as important as the quality and finish of the poems inside.
Who prints your books?
Helena: At present most, but not all, of the pamphlets are handled by a local lithographic printer, The Dolphin Press. I’ve worked with Robert and Liz Smith since I started and they have taught me a great deal. The books presently are printed by Berforts, who offer a high quality paper and a sewn binding at an affordable cost.
Could you describe your editing process? And how long does it take start to finish?
Helena: It takes from weeks to years, depending on the poet, usually involves interaction by post and, in the final stages, on the phone.
What’s your submissions policy?
What are some basic mistakes people make when submitting to you?
Helena: Most people make informed and intelligent submissions. The care and standard they put into this is far higher than it used to be. But the most obvious mistake, just as other publishers will say, is not reading the guidelines on the website.
Where do you look for new writers?
Helena: I don’t look. They just turn up all over the place. I fell over one in the back garden earlier this afternoon.
What advice would you give to poets today trying to get published?
Helena: Go slowly. Write the best poems you’re capable of writing, and think of yourself as a ‘practising poet’, because that’s all anyone ever gets to be. As a separate challenge, if you really want the poems to be published, learn the business of how to get the work out there. It is a business, and needs dramatically different skill and know-how from creative work (which is not to say it is not, in its own way, creative).
How do you pay your writers? How does remuneration work?
Helena: Variable. Mainly I ‘pay’ in copies of the printed work, and then by offering them further copies as required at a substantial discount. I aim to cover my costs. I don’t make money from HappenStance and so there are no ‘profits’ out of which to pay poets.
What is your approach to marketing and promotion?
Helena: Apart from ‘dread’, you mean? I do it through blog, website, flyers, post, mail, events and anything else I can think of. I try to stay sane, keep a sense of humour, and avoid hype. I don’t want to sell anyone anything that the purchaser doesn’t want. I want to find the right readers for the work and the right work for the readers.
Do you make any money from publishing?
Helena: The right question in my case might be ‘how much do you lose?’ I’ve always intended to make some, and reinvest it in the press, but in fact, I’ve done lots of things that have failed. Failed to make money, that is. But I don’t think I can publish the work I believe in (which includes a good few debuts) and also make profit. Selling poetry is hellishly difficult and marketing it to posterity even more so.
What would help? Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for independent publishers?
Helena: Depends what you mean by ‘independent publishers’. Some ‘independent’ imprints do get funding, or run funded projects. But the whole sector benefits from arts funding indirectly. If one of my poets reads at a festival, I’ll send books, which will sell there. This will bring income back to me, but the festival event will have been subsidised in order to happen at all. Similarly, if I go and do a talk to some group about publishing or poetry or whatever, the organisation that pays me is almost certainly benefitting from government-channelled funding in order to give me a fee. What goes around comes around.
But actually, the answer to your question is I don’t know. I think it would be nice if there were funding for small poetry publishers to get together and talk. But someone would have to have time to apply for it, and organise it. Time is in short supply with poetry publishers.
Do you work full-time as a publisher?
Helena: Yes and no. That is to say, not officially.
What do you think is a suitable second occupation?
Helena: I prefer unsuitable ones.
Has your work suffered from a diversion of energy into other employments or is it enriched by it?
Helena: I don’t know. But I’ve always found hard to separate work from play, and life from work. I like work. All kinds of work. But I worry more whether my own writing (as a poet) has suffered from too much HappenStance. And then I think, what the hell – there is so much poetry around, lots and lots of good stuff. The world gets on fine without more from me.
Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?
Helena: I do. Would you like some? Get them from me direct and I’ll do you a wonderful bulk-buy discount. Or you can get them through my online shop (25% cheaper if you subscribe). I can gift-wrap. I can send to your mum and include a card she’ll love. Or you can get most of them, if you don’t disapprove too much, through Amazon.
Do you have any staff? If so, how many?
Helena: I have Matt. Matt is not staff, though he has a staff he sometimes leans on, especially when his sciatica is bad. Matt has been my bidey-in for the last fifteen years. He preceded HappenStance and is not interested in poetry. He is retired so he does all the parcelling, packing up and posting out of HappenStance publications, even though he doesn’t approve of them. In addition, he does all the washing, chops the logs, lights the stove and tells me when to stop work and eat dinner. Then there’s Sarah Willans of Zipfish, who designed and continues to maintain my website, and without whom there would be no online sales. And Gillian Rose, my artist daughter, who does the graphics for the covers of the pamphlets.
Apart from books/pamphlets, what else do you make?
Helena: Cards. Bookmarks. Badges. Bread. Poems. Trouble.
What other indie publishers do you like?
Helena: I prefer ‘respect and admire’ to ‘like’. I don’t want to answer this because I know I’ll end up missing out someone whose work I admire. I’ll just say there are a good number. Oh, but I will mention Anthony Astbury because he’s not an online person and sometimes, in this age of prizes for pamphlets, people forget The Greville Press, which has been going its own inimitable way since 1975. Tony continues to ignore the age of the Internet, and in that respect is a died-in-the-wool rebel.
How optimistic are you about the future of independent publishing? Are you satisfied with your own solutions to the problems it currently faces?
Helena: I don’t know whether I have what I would call ‘solutions’. I don’t know how optimistic I am about the future of the human race, let alone ‘independent publishing’. But I don’t think publishing poetry is like publishing anything else. I’m inclined to think good poetry will find its way to readers one way or another whatever happens. But there are days when I think the reverse.
Do you have anything to add about e-books / Amazon / the Internet that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before?
Helena: Maybe. But I’ll resist.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own independent publishing business today?
Helena: Go to bookfairs. Talk to other publishers. They’re incredibly generous with advice. Nice and interesting people. And if you speak to them (as opposed to write) they will tell you the truth. They will tell you things they will never ever write in answers to published interviews. And then, if that still hasn’t put you off, (there aren’t enough of us) go for it. It’s an incomparable learning opportunity. But if you want to continue to eat and drink, don’t give up your day job. And while I’m on this topic I’m going to quote Tony Asbury from Greville Press, who wrote to me today and said: ‘Are you in it (publishing) for the duration as I fear is my fate?! I remember when I asked the late, great Alan Clodd how to start publishing – and he immediately said Are you sure you want to do this? Because once you start you can never stop! (and he didn’t – after he handed over Enitharmon to Stephen he published broadsheets).’
Tell me something about being an independent publisher that most people don’t know.
Helena: I don’t think I’m the only poetry peddler who regularly feels poetry is the last thing in the world they want to read. It’s like producing and selling haggis. It can be the finest haggis in Scotland, but if you get it in all shapes and sizes every single day of your life, you yearn for fish fingers. And then – weirdly – an odd haggis shows up that you somehow love the look of, and immediately you’re chopping up the neeps and carrots, mashing the spuds and sitting down for a whole plateful.
Pub Chats aims to highlight the extraordinary amount of interesting poetry presses there are today, and the amazing work they do and the incredible writers they publish. We hope this series will give poets and writers alike a greater knowledge of the independent publishing landscape as a whole, as well as providing a public forum where publishers can be honest, open and candid about publishing as a business. Note: a selection of these questions have been taken from Cyril Connolly’s 1946 ‘The Cost of Letters’ survey.
Really interesting and, for me, very insightful. I set up a small press last year and it is a steep learning curve, but I absolutely love it. Love Happenstance; a real inspiration when I finally decided to ‘go for it’. Great interview.
A lovely variety of poets to read and invaluable comment on poems submitted to the ‘window’.