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Pub Chat: Penned in the Margins

In the latest in this series of feature-length interviews with independent publishers, we went for a drink with Tom Chivers of Penned in the Margins at our imaginary poetry theatre pub somewhere in Lambeth…

Hello there, Tom! What are you drinking?

Tom: A pint of London Pride!

How long has Penned in the Margins been running?

Tom: Penned in the Margins began in 2004 as a reading series in a converted railway arch in south London. You could hear the trains rumbling overhead as the poets read. This year is our ten year anniversary, and we’re celebrating with a big party at Rich Mix in Shoreditch on Saturday 6th September. Our first book, Generation Txt, came out in 2006 – which is also when Penned in the Margins became my full-time occupation. We have always combined publishing with producing live events and touring live literature and cross-artform productions.

What were some of the practical things you did to get started?

Tom: After I graduated I spent two years working at a small arts company in Whitechapel. That stint was my basic training – I learnt everything from writing fundraising applications to programming spoken word tours. My bosses were three brilliant, independent arts professionals, and were inspirational. One of them, Julia Payne, is still a mentor to me.

In terms of the publishing side of my business, everything is self-taught. But it’s really not brain surgery. I’ve picked up a lot along the way, but one thing you need to have as a successful publisher is a burning desire to build a readership for the books you love.

Does your personal background lend itself being an independent publisher?

Tom: I have always been a self-starter, and fiercely independent. In my teens I used to run Britain’s largest skateboarding website (if you can believe it). I like building things, and then maintaining them. And I love to support artists I think are super-talented.

I studied Medieval English Literature at university, which is sometimes useful in publishing, but by no means integral to it. It helps me as an editor that I have a good handle on language – not only basic elements like grammar and spelling, but more importantly register, tone, and structure.

Where does the name Penned in the Margins come from?

Tom: Shamefully, it’s a line taken from a poem of my own called ‘Guthlac’ (about the Anglo-Saxon saint who lived in the Fens). I’m a sucker for a good pun. If I could start the company again, I would choose a different name because I’m always having to spell out P-e-n-n-e-d… over the phone.

Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?

Tom: Not easily. If you look at our backlist you will – I hope – find a wide range of poetries, from beautifully crafted lyric poems to wildly innovative forms, as well as work that first found its voice on the stage. How can I compare Emily Critchley to Luke Wright, or Siddhartha Bose to Hannah Silva? I always wanted Penned in the Margins to be a possible home for poets (and readers, for that matter) of any stripe.

How are you different from other independent publishers?

Tom: Our ‘USP’ as a company is that we combine publishing with producing live events and productions. We often work across artforms, making work for theatre, performance and online as well as for the page. We are always looking for opportunities for each area of our business to bleed into another – for example, we are currently transforming Claire Trévien’s poetry collection The Shipwrecked House into a one-woman stage show that will tour the UK this Autumn.

On average, how many books do you sell in a year?

Tom: Several thousand. It differs year on year.

Do you sell more online or by wholesale/retail?

Tom: We sell most of our books through wholesale/retail with the help of the marvellous Inpress and Central Books, but our own website yields the highest income of all our sales avenues. Because of the percentages you have to give to wholesalers and shops, buying direct from small publishers is usually the best way of supporting them (and their authors).

What have been some of your biggest successes so far?

Tom: The last two years have been good to us in terms of prizes – Adventures in Form, Beowulf and Beautiful Girls all received awards from the Poetry Book Society, and Claire Trévien’s The Shipwrecked House was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. In terms of best-sellers, Luke Wright’s Mondeo Man has gone very well, largely as a result of Luke’s relentless touring schedule.                                                   

What’s the best thing you’ve found from the unsolicited pile?

Tom: Something like a quarter of our books are sent to us as unsolicited manuscripts, although I will very often know the writer already. Probably the most exciting thing I read completely cold was the experimental novella Count from Zero to One Hundred by Alan Cunningham. Although at the time it was called something completely different and Alan tried to convince me it was a sequence of prose poems. I had never even heard of Alan before he submitted to me, and I’m so glad he did.

How important is the physical book design for you?

Tom: As a company we pride ourselves on quality, considered book design. Good, clear, elegant typesetting can really improve readers’ experience of engaging with a text. It’s also something I enjoy immensely. It appeals to my OCD side. Each cover is individually tailored, and we work with a pool of talented designers. Almost every week I spend some time in Daunts Books in Cheapside checking out the latest fiction and non-fiction books from the big publishers. With a few exceptions (e.g. Donut, Salt, Pighog), British poetry publishers are not known for making beautifully designed books. In terms of design, I aspire to compete against larger fiction presses.

Who prints your books?

Tom: For years our books were printed by MPG Biddles of King’s Lynn, but sadly last year they went bankrupt, leaving us in the lurch with several releases in danger of being postponed! Since then we have been working with several printers, notably Bell & Bain of Glasgow for paperbacks and Berforts of Stevenage for hardbacks such as Mount London and In the Catacombs.

Could you describe your editing process? And how long does it take start to finish?

Tom: Editing is a dying art, especially in poetry. (Incredibly, many recognised poetry publishers do not edit properly.) It’s something I take very seriously. It is central to the relationship I have with my authors. Each project is different: some manuscripts arrive almost fully-formed, others are developed from scratch with the author in a process that is almost collaborative between writer and editor. I edit on paper, on screen, using tracked changes, through face-to-face meetings, Skype calls, phone calls, whatever works. It’s important to respect the author’s view, as ultimately it is their baby – however, as an editor you have to put your suggestions across forcefully and on occasion hold your ground, even if it’s painful.

What’s your submissions policy?

Tom: We encourage all writers who are interested in submitting a manuscript or proposal to read our detailed guidelines online:

What are some basic mistakes people make when submitting to you?

Tom: Not addressing me or the company personally (some people even CC in other publishers!).

Not explaining why you want to be published by Penned in the Margins as opposed to any other company.

Not attaching the right document, or attaching a separate covering letter rather than just writing it in the body of the email.

Inadvertently criticising your own work, or insulting the publisher. (Often through nervousness, I reckon, but it’s not a great sign.)

Not including a full biographical note. If I am going to work intimately with you and your writing, and support your career/practice, then I need to know who you are!

Where do you look for new writers?

Tom: Mostly writers find me, but I do try and keep informed about the poetry scene, and also take recommendations from trusted colleagues and my existing authors.

What advice would you give to poets today trying to get published?

Tom: Think very carefully about why you want to be published, what you expect to get out of it, and which publisher is genuinely suitable for your work. In fact, before that, I would ask whether you ought to publish in book-form at all. There are many other ways of being a poet nowadays. If you have answered all those questions, then fire up your ego and get stuck in.

How do you pay your writers? How does remuneration work?

Tom: I pay all writers royalties of 10% net. I also offer generous deals for authors who want to buy copies of their own books.

What is your approach to marketing and promotion?

Tom: After eight years of running an arts company, I have a number of systems and networks set up to promote books to readers and the press. Nevertheless, every title is different and requires its own marketing plan.

Do you make any money from publishing?

Tom: The publishing side of Penned in the Margins has always been self-sufficient (our productions, on the other hand, are usually dependent on grant funding). Each book must therefore turn at least a small profit. I can only think of a couple that haven’t. I try to choose manuscripts very carefully. I must love the work, but I also have to be confident that I can sell enough copies to pay my bills. It’s a precarious vocation.

What would help? Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for independent publishers?

Tom: I’m never going to make my fortune in publishing, but over the next three years I would like to get Penned in the Margins into a more sustainable position. Happily, the Arts Council has decided to bring us into their National Portfolio from March next year, so we have a great opportunity to build on that core funding.

There is certainly a role for public (and private) funders to help underpin the literature sector, though I would never want to be entirely dependent on funding for what can be (or at least should be) a commercially sustainable small business. I would like to see more public funding going into engaging readers, and with levelling the playing field so that small indies can compete properly with the big boys.

Do you work full-time as a publisher?

Tom: I run Penned in the Margins full-time, but book publishing represents between a third and a half of the company’s activities.

What do you think is a suitable second occupation?

Tom: I would like to see more small independent poetry publishers taking the leap to working full-time, as well as developing their professional skills as publishers, editors and marketers. I love the DIY and cooperative aesthetics in poetry publishing, but it’s not suitable for everyone. Some poetry presses can appear cliquey to potential new readers, and amateurish to bookshops and the media.

Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?

Tom: Our books are distributed by Central Books, who operate out of a Victorian warehouse in Hackney Wick. We also work with Inpress Books up in Newcastle – they help us sell our books to bookshops and wholesalers (and are extremely nice with it!).

Do you have any staff? If so, how many?

Tom: I have one part-time staff member, Nick Murray. He is in the office one and a half days a week, supporting me with research, marketing and production across all my books and projects.

Apart from books/pamphlets, what else do you make?

Tom: Over the past ten years I have produced hundreds of live events, ranging from site-specific theatre work to spoken word shows, from boutique literary salons to music and poetry collaborations. I enjoy working with the contrasting tones of publishing and performance. The immediacy and live-ness of performance is as thrilling to me as the sustained and concentrated labour of making a book.

What other indie publishers do you like?

Tom: Influx, Nine Arches, Notting Hill Editions, Enitharmon, Burning Eye, Donut, Flipped Eye, Canongate. My favourite non-indie publisher is Hamish Hamilton.

Salt Publishing has cast a large shadow over the poetry scene in the last ten years. I think they pushed poetry into some very exciting new areas, and it’s a shame they’ve pulled their poetry list.

How optimistic are you about the future of independent publishing?Are you satisfied with your own solutions to the problems it currently faces?

Tom: As an independent, I will never be satisfied with any solutions I think I’ve dreamt up – they must be constantly evolving in order to keep pace. I think it’s an interesting time to be small and agile within an industry that is historically dominated by a few large multinationals but which is shifting rapidly due to the rise of digital reading.

Do you have anything to add about e-books / Amazon / the Internet that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before?

Tom: I read my first e-book this year. It will always have convenience on its side.  However, there’s something of the Emperor’s New Clothes about the rise of e-books. I don’t think readers are going to move wholesale to Kindles and tablets – it will be a piecemeal transition, with lots of gaps opening up for inventive publishers and producers. Physical books will always be desirable, but they will have to improve. There has to be a reason to buy an object made of paper, glue and ink.

What advice would you give to someone starting their own independent publishing business today?

Tom: Think carefully about the skills you need to be a successful publisher. Do you have these skills? Are you really the right person to be doing this? Passion alone is not enough. Take advice from people who have made the transition before you. Be wary before throwing all your eggs in one basket. Have a back-up plan. Be prepared to work like a machine.

Tell me something about being an independent publisher that most people don’t know.

Tom: This isn’t the most exciting revelation, but I’m always surprised by how few readers understand how the publishing industry works; how convoluted supply chains and tightly controlled retail space combine to keep publishers’ margins low. If you’re a small independent, it’s almost impossible to truly thrive as a business. But on the other hand there are also opportunities nowadays that were not available to indie presses ten or twenty years ago. A decent website and lively social media presence can give readers direct access to your company and your books. For me, Twitter is a great way to sell books – but just as importantly it’s somewhere to build a genuine community that cares about what you’re doing and tells you so.

Penned in the Margins will be celebrating decade of innovative publishing and performance at Rich Mix this Saturday, with readings and live performances, DJs, panel discussions and free cake. Book your tickets here.

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. 

Tom Chivers is a writer, literary arts producer and the director of Penned in the Margins. His books include How To Build A City (Salt Publishing, 2009), The Terrors (Nine Arches Press, 2009; shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets) andFlood Drain (Annexe, 2014). He has edited a number of anthologies including the award-winning Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins, 2012). In 2009 he presented a documentary about the poet Barry MacSweeney for BBC Radio 4. He received an Eric Gregory Award in 2011, and was shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Prize in 2014. Tom was co-Director of London Word Festival from its inception in 2008 until 2011, and was a recipient of a Breakthrough Award from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. He commissioned and produced a range of work including The 14th Tale by Inua Ellams, Hackney Ascension Day by Iain Sinclair, Every Rendition on a Broken Machine by Ross Sutherland, and site-specific murder mystery The Crash. Tom has worked on a variety of arts and literature projects with organisations such as the Poetry Society, Writers’ Centre Norwich, Arvon Foundation and Free Word Centre, where he was Digital Editor 2011-12. He was a board member of the Poetry Book Society 2009-2013, and is currently a board member of Inpress.

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Image: In the Catacombs: A Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery by Chris McCabe