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 Nicholas Murray of Rack Press…
Hello there, Nick! What are you drinking?
Nick: A glass of Ralph’s Cider made by my neighbour Ralph Owen who claims to be one of the few Welsh cider makers or at least the only one in Radnorshire. Across the border in Herefordshire just now the cider orchards are thick with blossom. I wish I had their pruning skill.
How long has Rack Press been running?
Nick: Ten years exactly; this is our birthday year
What were some of the practical things you did to get started?
Nick: We started publishing with very little preparation. We just dived in the deep end. During the 10 year life of the press we have had not a penny of grant or subsidy and, because we value our freedom and independence, we are happy with that. We never wanted to be tied in to structures of dependency, keeping our nose clean, pleasing funders or sponsors, speaking the Poetryspeak. Small independent poetry presses like ours are not businesses, because profit cannot be made, they are a labour of love, publishing poetry for its own sake, for the love of it.
Does your personal background lend itself being an independent publisher?
Nick: Being a writer and reader of poetry over a period of years I was naturally clear about what I wanted and didn’t want to publish.
Where does the name Rack Press come from?
Nick: The house in Wales where Sue and I live is called The Rack. In local dialect rack means “a straight path or track through the forest”. Although I am a Liverpudlian we are proud to be a Welsh publisher, all our pamphlets published and printed in Wales. But we are not parochial and we can even see England from our window in the distance across the valley.
Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?
Nick: We have very diverse tastes and would hate the idea of there being a “Rack poem”. We just want the poetry to be excellent, well-crafted, imaginative, fresh and original – if we can get it. We also have a fear of the in-group or the cultish (a trap for small presses) so we are always looking for different kinds of poetry, provided it is extremely well-written.
How are you different from other independent publishers?
Nick: I can’t answer that. I don’t know how different we are really. There’s so much self-proclaimed hype around I fear I would add to it by trying to answer this.
On average, how many books do you sell in a year?
Nick: About six titles with print-runs of 150, occasionally 200, and in the end most sell out. Sales of poetry in the UK are pitifully small even for well-known names from mainstream publishers and sales are getting harder as all (honest) poetry publishers concede. There has been a surge of poetry writing and activity but not in buying poetry books.
Do you sell more online or by wholesale/retail?
Nick: Online (good old Paypal!) probably sells more but also live events, readings, and our big annual party launch sell lots.
What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
Nick: Dream Endings by Roisin Tierney won the 2012 Michael Marks Award and was reprinted and not long after (like several other Rack poets) published a full length book. Ian Parks’ Cavafy Variations and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s Lime&Winter…I don’t know where to stop. But I think all our poets are wonderful and for us “success” is about publishing good poetry and the satisfaction of doing so. Winning the 2014 Michael Marks Award for Publisher of the Year, having been shortlisted the previous two years, was a very gratifying recognition after 10 years of our commitment to serious, quality poetry and the prize money has helped us to do one or two things we might not have done.
What’s the best thing you’ve found from the unsolicited pile?
Nick: It would be invidious to pick any one out. I would say half a dozen of our pamphlets (often the best ones) have been from poets who weren’t well known. It’s important to say that we publish alongside complete “unknowns” (of course they aren’t unknown) some very big names. All are treated equally and we don’t have a star system. All are part of the Rack family and it has been wonderful working with them all.
How important is the physical book design for you?
Nick: Very important. We have always been determined to produce high quality pamphlets, in a uniform, plain style but on quality laid paper. I hate the smudgy, grungy pamphlet though I used to read the prose sort in my days as a left-wing political activist. My dream publisher is the Parisian Editions de Minuit with their unchanging, simple white covers and lovely bold clear type on nice paper and not an ounce of hype anywhere to be seen on the jackets. I don’t want to make a fetish of design because content is the thing but beautiful layout improves the reader’s experience.
Who prints your books?
Nick: Artisan Print, a local Welsh family firm, who never did poetry before but who have served us admirably. It’s nice to deal with real local people and support the local economy (in the limited way we do!)
Could you describe your editing process? And how long does it take start to finish?
Nick: I can’t really answer those questions as it varies from title to title. We are very careful with what we select so we would not take on a poet who needed extensive editing. We choose only skilful and accomplished poets who have offered us highly finished work. Anyone who needs radical editing should not have been submitting in the first place and there are workshops and mentoring schemes for them. I know there are publishers who offer to work with people until their poems are ready to publish and I admire that commitment but we simply don’t have the resources to do it.
What’s your submissions policy?
Nick: We have a clear submissions policy, stated on the website, which says what you should do. Some people actually take note of this but others still think that blanket submissions, invitations to explore their websites, grossly overlong manuscripts etc are preferable. We also say that anyone considering submitting should buy one of our pamphlets at least, read it, and see what we do. A minority actually does this.
Running a poetry press is great fun but the one disagreeable thing about it is having to say no. I find myself, because of the sheer volume of submissions, having to turn away lots of good, publishable work simply because we don’t have space for it and I never like doing so and will never get to like doing so.
What are some basic mistakes people make when submitting to you?
Nick: Not reading the clear, simple guidelines and thinking about the kind of poetry we publish.
Where do you look for new writers?
Nick: We don’t need to look very hard; they beat a path to our door. Sometimes another poet will recommend someone to us or we spot someone in the magazines or at a reading.
What advice would you give to poets today trying to get published?
Nick: Read, read, read. Immerse yourself in contemporary poetry, seek out the best, value other people’s work as much if not more than your own then, if you think you have a well-written, thoroughly revised, outstanding collection follow the guidelines and submit.
How do you pay your writers? How does remuneration work?
Nick: We do not pay writers because we have no money and are non profit-making and even if we sell out we barely cover our costs. Small poetry pamphlet presses like ours are in essence charities that subsidise poets and we love doing so. We try to help by offering copies to poets at discounts greater than a trade publisher would offer them and offering them 10 free copies of each pamphlet. By selling these at readings poets can claw back some income. One does not write poetry to make money.
What is your approach to marketing and promotion?
Nick: We have a blog-website, we tweet (but not Facebook which makes me ill), we try to get our poets exposure at literary festivals and readings, we have a few specialist bookshops which take our stock. We do everything we can to publicise and spread the word about the pamphlets but this is the single most difficult challenge for a small poetry publisher. Some poets really get behind their pamphlets and work with us and get very good sales; one or two over the years have done nothing and their sales reflect this. It is a kind of collaboration; that’s the only way.
Do you make any money from publishing?
Nick: No; the press exists only because we have put in small amounts of our own money and work for nothing.
What would help? Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for independent publishers?
Nick: What publishers like Rack need is help with sales, marketing and promotion, someone (publicly-funded) who would go round repping just small press poetry. That single thing would be worth more than any general handout or grant. There are people like Inpress and, for distribution, Central Books but they are very selective in who they choose to help and we haven’t qualified.
Do you work full-time as a publisher?
Nick: Certainly not. I have to earn my living as a freelance writer and teacher otherwise there would be no Rack Press
What do you think is a suitable second occupation?
Nick: Anything freelance which leaves you plenty of flexibility to respond quickly at odd times of the day.
Has your work suffered from a diversion of energy into other employments or is it enriched by it?
Nick: Probably enriched though there are times when I worry that my own writing has suffered. If I really thought it was doing that seriously then Rack Press, loveable old nag, would be turned out in a field to graze peacefully in the sun.
Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?
Nick: We not have a distributor because no one would want to do the job but we supply bookshops direct and everything can be bought online our website. Amazon, for small poetry publishers, is a calamity…
Do you have any staff? If so, how many?
Apart from books/pamphlets, what else do you make?
What other indie publishers do you like?
Nick: I love the pamphlets of Mariscat Press which are beautifully produced. Like everyone else I think that CB Editions are wonderful. I never forget Charles Boyle coming to one of our launches and saying he couldn’t face applying for an Arts Council grant “because they would want me to provide a business plan!” Our business plan is to cover our printing costs each year to enable us to go into the next year. I think all independent publishers are wonderful.
How optimistic are you about the future of independent publishing? Are you satisfied with your own solutions to the problems it currently faces?
Nick: I am never satisfied. There is always more that you can do. I think that independent publishers HAVE to exist and, because the smaller ones like Rack are not commercial businesses they can survive anything. The dumbing down, marketing inanity, and sheer lack of willingness to take risks that characterises so many trade publishers, especially the bigger ones, means that independent publishers are more vital than ever.
Do you have anything to add about e-books / Amazon / the Internet that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before?
Nick: No, except that it is scandalous that Amazon brand all our titles “not available” and we can’t stop Nielsen supplying them with the information that allows them to say this when we register each ISBN. The social media in general are good at spreading the word and creating a “buzz” but they don’t help sales very much because sales involve “negotiating a paywall” which the netheads don’t like doing. I make people cross when I talk like this but it just happens to be true.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own independent publishing business today?
Nick: Don’t go into it thinking you will make money. Go into it because it is a compulsion, an act of love.
Tell me something about being an independent publisher that most people don’t know.
Nick: It is actually quite fun and will enable you to meet all sorts of people in the world of poetry you mightn’t otherwise have met.
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.