In the latest in this series of feature-length interviews with independent publishers, we found a warm fireside spot in our imaginary poetry theatre pub somewhere in Lambeth, and spoke to Charles Boyle of the wonderful CB editions…
Hello there, Charles! What are you drinking?
Charles: Wine, large glass. (Given that we’re going to be here for some time, maybe getting a bottle would work out cheaper?)
How long has CB editions been running?
Charles: Since a rainy day in November 2007.
What were some of the practical things you did to get started?
Charles: Almost nothing. CBe started by accident: I got back from a holiday in late August 2007 to find a rejection letter from an agent I’d sent a short novel to and another envelope with a cheque for £2,000, a legacy from an uncle who had died earlier in the year. I googled ‘west london printer’ and hour later was looking at paper samples with a man called Chris. From the figures he gave me, I worked out I could print 250 copies each of four titles. I paid a man £70 to put up a single-page website but I had no distributor and I had no plans at that time to do any more books.
Does your personal background lend itself being an independent publisher?
Charles: I couldn’t have planned this better. Before going freelance in 2005 I worked for around 30 years for mainstream publishers in back-room jobs, where I picked up basic copy-editing, design and typesetting skills.
Where does the name CB editions come from?
Charles: My own initials, which happened also to be the initials of another person I hoped would join with me in this, and also the initials of a bookshop she ran. That didn’t happen.
Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?
Charles: I tend to favour books that are conceived as a whole – that is, book-length narratives or sequences – rather than collections of individual poems on a range of different subjects. I like to be surprised; I don’t like the feeling that I’ve read these poems before, by someone else, however good they may be. (I should add here, for those who don’t know CBe, that I publish fiction as well as poetry, and some non-fiction too.)
How are you different from other independent publishers?
Charles: Easy answer, I know, but I think we’re all different – tastes, models, approaches.
On average, how many books do you sell in a year?
Charles: In the year 2013/14, around 4,500 books. In each of the previous four years, around 2,500, and fewer before that.
Do you sell more online or by wholesale/retail?
Charles: More through the distributor than online. Very few from readings, because many of the poets I publish are dead, abroad, or not keen on giving readings.
What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
Charles: Each of first three first poetry collections I published won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, and was also shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize. There’s been a translation prize and shortlistings for a number of other awards, including two books for the main Forward Prize, but I’m no less proud to have published other books which have never got onto any of these lists.
What’s the best thing you’ve found from the unsolicited pile?
Charles: J. O. Morgan sent me 40 lines of Natural Mechanical as an email attachment, asking if I’d like to read more. He had never published before, even in magazines. The book won the Aldeburgh Prize and was shortlisted for the Forward.
How important is the physical book design for you?
Charles: I don’t feel that I’ve really taken on a book until I have a clear idea of what it will look like, both the inside and the outside. With very few exceptions, all the CBe books have brown card covers with a typographic design, no images. The model for this was a series put out by Alan Ross in the late 1960s and early 1970s, London Magazine Editions, which happened to have been designed by Ron Costley, with whom I worked for a number of years in one of my mainstream publishing jobs. There are practical reasons for this: I can design the covers myself, and I bypass the traditional author-publisher arguments about what image to use for the cover.
Who prints your books?
Charles: Chris, the man I mentioned above, at Blissetts, which is around 10 minutes from where I live. He happens to keep the brown card used for the covers in stock; with any other printer, I’d have to buy it in myself.
Could you describe your editing process?
Charles: Give-and-take. I’m generally non-interventionist; I’ll make suggestions, and argue for them, but in the end it’s the author’s book, not mine. Lots of to-and-fro emails (at which my oldest author, aged 93, is perfectly competent; though I do have another author who is not online at all).
What’s your submissions policy?
Charles: I don’t have a submissions policy, nor any guidelines. I assume that if someone wants to send me work they will, and it’s not for me to tell them hard copy or email attachment, complete book or just sample text, etc.
What are some basic mistakes people make when submitting to you?
Charles: If someone who submits can’t be bothered to find out who I am and what kind of work I publish, then I’m unlikely to read their work.
Where do you look for new writers?
Charles: I rarely go actively looking. (Though I did once like some poems I read on a blog and contacted the writer, and a book resulted.) Many of the writers on the CBe list have arrived there because their work has been recommended to me by other CBe writers.
What advice would you give to poets today trying to get published?
Charles: If I was trying to get published, I suppose I’d research the opportunities and be very clear about which magazines, publishers, etc, might consider my work appropriate. This seems so obvious as hardly to count as advice. One of the CBe authors, Dai Vaughan, when asked in an interview what advice he would give to aspiring writers, answered: ‘Be sure that a life of humiliation and disappointment is what you really want.’
How do you pay your writers? How does remuneration work?
Charles: The standard CBe contract – more an ‘agreement’, really, just spelling out what both sides are getting themselves into – specifies a £200 advance against 10% royalties on net sales income.
What is your approach to marketing and promotion?
Charles: I’m bad at this, nor do I enjoy it. I don’t think I even know what ‘marketing’ means. I blog (at http://sonofabook.blogspot.co.uk) but I rely very much on the kindness of others: ‘recommendations’ from the Poetry Book Society, people enthusing about the books in reviews, on blogs, etc.
Do you make any money from publishing?
Charles: Most years no. Even last year, when sales were almost double those of any other year, CBe income was not much more than expenses. But I’ve had more fun than in any other job I’ve ever had.
What would help? Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for independent publishers?
Charles: This: the restoration of the NBA (Net Book Agreement), or a similar measure. The NBA required retailers to sell books at the cover price. Its abolition in 1997 led to aggressive discounting (which actually forces up the cover price of books); to the concentration of bookselling in the hands of chainstores, supermarkets and Amazon; and to the closure of many, many hundreds of independent bookshops. This changed the whole literary culture in the UK. Independent bookshops and independent publishers are a natural fit; without the the former, it has become ever more difficult for smaller publishers to get their books into shops.
(France and Germany legislate to restrict discounting, and offer good breaks to independent bookshops. Not one of the political parties in the UK has a policy on this, as far as I know, but it’s a vastly more important issue than who gets what from the Arts Council.)
Do you work full-time as a publisher?
Charles: No, because I need to make an income. I do some other things, including typesetting for other presses.
What do you think is a suitable second occupation?
Charles: I once applied to be a postman: I had the idea that the job would be over before lunchtime, leaving the rest of the day free for me.
Has your work suffered from a diversion of energy into other employments or is it enriched by it?
Charles: Other work feels essential. (Coleridge (his italics): ‘Never pursue literature as a trade.’)
Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?
Charles: Central Books distribute, Inpress Books work hard to sell them into bookshops. Or buy online (free UK delivery) from the website (www.cbeditions.com).
Do you have any staff? If so, how many?
Charles: Just me. It’s a form of megalomania. Though, oddly, this year for the first time I’m in receipt of an Arts Council grant (to start up a magazine: see below), and recently I was halfway through my usual reply to someone who had expressed interest in working with CB – sorry, no space, no money, and anyway I’m useless at delegating – when I suddenly changed tack: if I gave you x amount of money, I suggested, what would you actually do? I think this could work.
Apart from books/pamphlets, what else do you make?
Charles: I used to make ships in bottles. Next year CBe will start publishing a twice-yearly magazine, Sonofabook, with the contents of each issue selected by invited guest editors.
What other indie publishers do you like?*
Charles: So many. Rather than name names, I’ll use this question to give a plug to Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair (www.poetrybookfair.com), which was started by CBe in 2011 and is now an annual event hosting around 60 independent poetry publishers each year. No one can possibly like all the work put out by all of them, but each year I make new discoveries.
How optimistic are you about the future of independent publishing? Are you satisfied with your own solutions to the problems it currently faces?
Charles: I think I’m pretty optimistic by temperament (otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing). The situation is open to small, flexible ventures inventing new ways of operating. As for satisfaction with my own practice, I think I’ve done some things right and fallen short with others (e.g., engaging efficiently with new media and technologies).
What advice would you give to someone starting their own independent publishing business today?
Charles: As was evident with the other ‘advice’ question, above, I’m uncomfortable giving advice. I’ve made the whole thing up as I’ve gone along. (Earlier this year, by the way, I blogged a sort of snapshot history of CBe, the downs as well as the ups: http://sonofabook.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/a-short-history-of-cbe-in-41-bites.html). Oh, but this: I think scale is important. No publisher can publish everything that they’d like to. Better to publish a tiny number of books, and do those well, than over-reach.
Tell me something about being an independent publisher that most people don’t know.
Charles: No one, in my thirty years working in mainstream publishing, even once whispered to me that publishing can be fun.
Pub Chat 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.