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 Kirsten Irving, one half of the team behind Sidekick Books…
Hi there, Kirsten! What are you drinking?
Kirsten: Lime and soda, please!
How long has Sidekick Books been running?
Kirsten: Since 2009. September, to be precise.
What were some of the practical things you did to get started?
Kirsten: Both Jon (Stone) and myself work day jobs in London, and have used savings to fund the books so far. I was fortunate enough to receive training in proofreading and InDesign through my work, which saved a lot of money, and we bought a student edition of Adobe CS5 to get us started.
Does your personal background lend itself being an independent publisher?
Kirsten: Definitely. I volunteered during my year abroad for my host uni’s journal, the Tulane Review, which made me want to start my own magazine. Along with Jon, I started editing Fuselit magazine in 2005, and it was from the bonus booklets of Fuselit that the first ideas for our anthologies sprang.
Where does the name Sidekick Books come from?
Kirsten: We were toying around with ideas of alchemy and unholy mixtures for a while, and thought about calling it Fulminare Press, but it didn’t seem right. We hit upon Sidekick through our love of comic books and pop culture in general, and it seemed to have the spirit of mischief and adventure that we were after. We kept the working name in the form of Dr Fulminare, our fictional alchemist boss.
Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?
Kirsten: We publish multi-author collections featuring anything from two to 50-odd contributors. Most of our anthologies feature new commissions around a theme. These have included British birds, video games, Japanese monsters and tropical zoo animals. We also do Team-Ups, in which an artist and a poet are locked in a cellar for a few months and promised freedom in exchange for a collaborative pamphlet. Recently, we’ve also been experimenting with poetry greetings cards.
How are you different from other independent publishers?
Kirsten: We don’t publish single-author collections, for starters. With Sidekick, the emphasis is more on the collaborative element and the spark of the overall theme than on selling a person. We’ve always tried to introduce poetry to new audiences by marrying the form to unlikely subjects. Our video games anthology, Coin Opera II, was a great example. When was the last time a poetry anthology received coverage in a games magazine?
On average, how many books do you sell in a year?
Kirsten: Now you’re asking. Part of our challenge this year is to get our admin in order, so I’ll get back to you on that.
Do you sell more online or by wholesale/retail?
Kirsten: Definitely more online. We do well at fairs, as our books are visually arresting, but these are few and far between. We keep some books with Central Books for shops to order, but most people go straight to our website. We aren’t with Amazon, very deliberately.
What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
Kirsten: We hosted a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise half the printing costs for Coin Opera II, which led to press on Eurogamer, RockPaperShotgun and the New Statesman. That felt amazing and meant we could go all out on the presentation and quality of the book. It was a huge deal to know that we could interest the games community in poetry in this way, and vice versa, broadening the audience for both artforms. Oh, and Chrissy Williams and Howard Hardiman’s Team-Up pamphlet, Angela just sold out. The power of the Lansbury!
What’s the best thing you’ve found from the unsolicited pile?
Kirsten: Due to our commissioning process, we don’t actually have an unsolicited pile! That said, Fuselit has served as an excellent scouting tool. I’ve found a number of fantastic writers through the open submissions policy there.
Who prints your books?
Kirsten: We tend to shop around for different titles. Imprint Digital have done great short runs for smaller anthologies like Follow The Trail of Moths, which was an anthology of poems from Wayne Holloway-Smith’s home salons. Our flagship titles, Birdbook and Coin Opera II, are printed by the wonderful folks at Lavenham Press in Suffolk (with Munken paper from a Swedish mill – I kid you not), while full-colour pamphlets go to ExWhyZed in East London. It’s very sad to see printers go out of business as the years pass, as happened with Good News Press, the printers of our first four micro-anthologies.
What are some basic mistakes people make when submitting to you?
Kirsten: Not reading the brief is the main one. To be honest, most people are brilliant, and really get what we’re doing, but that’s because I tend to approach them and know they have form in writing to order.
Fuselit is more useful as a model here. Pet peeves include: ignoring our clear guidelines, carpet-bombing us with submissions clearly not written on the theme of the issue, addressing me as Sir, putting pointless copyright labels on work, as if I’m going to steal it and run off to Rio, CC-ing 100+ editors into a submission (even BCC is obvious because of the generic accompanying message), and my favourite, telling me about (or, better, listing) the 150+ magazines who’ve published your work. It’s almost never a guarantee of quality.
On a less kvetchy note, we are having our first open Sidekick submissions for poetry this year, when Chrissy Williams will be teaming up with artist Tom Humberstone to edit an anthology of comics poetry. So we’ll see how that goes!
Where do you look for new writers?
Kirsten: Both of us go to quite a few readings in London, and I’ve definitely collared poets after events for their email addresses. We also read magazines, especially those online, and for our Superminis bird series we camped in the Poetry Library riffling through anthologies for work. I also find the Foyle Young Poets anthology is a great indicator of poets to watch.
What advice would you give to poets today trying to get published?
Kirsten: Poetry does not work like fiction. Don’t waste time sending work off to major publishers if they don’t have an open call and you don’t have any publication credits. It’s a much better use of your time to submit to magazines, and particularly if they require you to write new work (Poems In Which is an excellent example). You might love a certain poem, but if you’ve hawked it to a bunch of magazines and nobody’s biting, put it aside and write some fresh work. NaPoWriMo is coming up in April. Writing a poem a day sounds tough, but I’ve found it’s turned out some of my best work. And some random crap, but even that was fun to write.
If you can get some experience reading to an audience, that’s also good. From a publisher’s point of view, a poet who can go out there as an ambassador for their own work is more likely to sell copies of a book. There are open mic nights everywhere and the audiences are generally very welcoming. Try out different styles and make sure you keep something intrinsically you about your delivery.
And if you’re under 18, do, do enter the Foyle Young Poets awards. They’re free to enter, the judges are really open-minded and they’ve started off many careers.
How do you pay your writers? How does remuneration work?
Kirsten: Up until now, we’ve paid our writers and artists in contributor copies, but, tired of relying on the kindness of strangers, we finally put in an Arts Council application last year. They said yes! We have funding to produce our next five books, though we’ve also planned far too many other ones because the ideas seduced us.
We work on flat fees, rather than royalties (frankly, poetry royalties, especially from anthologies, are titchy), though as we grow we’re exploring different sustainable models of payment.
What is your approach to marketing and promotion?
Kirsten: Being short on budget for marketing and promotion, we’ve had to get creative. Jon’s been busy producing flick-through Vines, while I helm Twitter and we both cover the Facebook page. We want to produce trailers for each book, treating them like movies to be anticipated, and review copies are built into our budget for this year. We’re also hoping to work with InPress on getting the word out to more retailers.
Do you make any money from publishing?
Kirsten: Not really, no. We aim to break even and fund the next book. Even with ACE funding, any profits go into our in-kind contribution pot – essentially, the chunk of money we pledge to co-fund our costs.
What would help? Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for independent publishers?
Kirsten: Yes and no. Some publishers have in the past grown accustomed to receiving public funding year after year, and after the cuts and restructuring meant that era came to an end, they were left without a plan. Some folded as a direct result. I think we all spend to capacity and any of us would struggle not to grow complacent when offered a constant flow of cash.
That said, I think more public commissions and collaborations would not go astray in terms of raising a press’s profile. The main drought, after all, is coverage. Review and features in major publications are few and far between for poetry, and those as make it tend to be for major presses. Maybe we need to be funding new cross-disciplinary arts journals with a remit to allocate a certain amount of space to independent poetry. It’s all a bit chicken and egg.
Do you work full-time as a publisher?
Kirsten: Lord, no. I wouldn’t survive in London! I used to work full-time for a university-focused publisher, and for the last 2.5 years, I’ve been freelance as a copywriter, proofreader and voice actor. Jon currently freelances as a court transcript editor, which meant he suffered through John Prescott’s enunciation during Leveson.
What do you think is a suitable second occupation?
Kirsten: Anything that doesn’t completely exhaust or dispirit you. If you like your work and it gives you time to do your art, don’t worry about prestige or status.
Has your work suffered from a diversion of energy into other employments or is it enriched by it?
Kirsten: That’s a great question. Both, definitely. Jon’s work is particularly intense, so it can leave him exhausted, and I sometimes have to juggle multiple paid assignments while making sure I leave enough time for Sidekick. That said, I found my previous full-time work particularly useful for publishing because I got free formal training in InDesign, proofreading and Excel. I also learned about picture editing, time management, supervision… the list goes on.
Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?
Kirsten: Central Books in Hackney are our distributor to bookshops, but most people prefer to buy direct through our website, www.sidekickbooks.com. And if you’re at the annual Free Verse poetry book fair in London, come and say hello, because we will absolutely always be there. Unless we’re on fire. Then we’ll be there on fire.
Do you have any staff? If so, how many?
Kirsten: Just us!
Apart from books/pamphlets, what else do you make?
Kirsten: We’ve also started making Unlikely Greetings Cards, designed by Jon and featuring our poems. Designs include three based on my three-course meal poem ‘Supper’, after Soylent Green. They’re titled ‘Starter: Lettuce Leaf’, ‘Main: Beef Stew’ and ‘Dessert: Strawberry’. My poem ‘On Coming Out To Your Parents Dressed As Dracula’ also makes an appearance.
My favourites are a set of cards Jon wrote about The Avengers (the 60s series, not the Marvel franchise), called ‘Death Daydream Season’. They’re all done as concrete poems shaped like the silhouettes of characters like John Steed, Emma Peel, Purdey, Tara King etc. and they appeal to the retro nerd in me no end.
What other indie publishers do you like?
Kirsten: The Emma Press do charming, really well-thought-out anthologies and pamphlets with cracking illustrations, and I love Emma and Rachel’s drive. Happenstance do gorgeous, clean pamphlets with some real clout and Nell Nelson is a fantastic editor (disclaimer: Jon and me are published by Happenstance, but we beelined for them because we liked their style). Annexe are pushing the pocket-money format wonderfully, with beautiful, simple bundle deals that allow writers to really experiment. And if you’re feeling flush, Tangerine Press make the most divine books, all hand-bound by the editor, Michael Curran.
How optimistic are you about the future of independent publishing? Are you satisfied with your own solutions to the problems it currently faces?
Kirsten: I’m really optimistic. It seems like every day a new press springs up. Money problems are nothing new to poetry, and nobody goes into it assuming they’ll make a killing. So with that aside, and with access to so much technology and knowledge now (you can learn so much online for free or via Lynda), the sheer playfulness with format and content is thrilling in itself. I’m very excited especially to see so many presses being run by women. And run well.
Additionally, there’s a fantastic camaraderie. For example, Alec Newman from Knives Forks & Spoons Press was incredibly generous in sharing his experience of applying for funding, and his guidance helped us write the strongest application we could. Everybody finds a space of their own, so we’re not rivals but cheerleaders for each other, and this specialisation is what’s truly exciting.
Do you have anything to add about e-books / Amazon / the Internet that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before?
Kirsten: Probably not much. I’ll reiterate that Amazon are an exploitative company with unethical employment and competition practices, and I truly believe we can thrive as publishers without shaking their hand. If you see our books on there, we didn’t put them there.
Regarding ebooks, I believe they can live happily alongside physical copies. A knock-on effect of the popularity of ebook readers has been a marked improvement in hard copy production values. It’s a genuine joy to walk into Foyles and see books calling out to you. Hotfoiling, cut-outs, inventive cover art – it’s been a wake-up call. Because a real book can be a gift in a way ebooks never will.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own independent publishing business today?
Kirsten: Buy InDesign and Photoshop. If you’re a student, you can get a sizeable discount. I swear I don’t work for Adobe. It’s just that these are really good programs for professional work. Aside from that, think about what makes your publisher stand out. Our USP was collaboration and cross-disciplinary work – we don’t publish any single-author collection. From Day One, it’s good to start thinking about your brand.
Tell me something about being an independent publisher that most people don’t know.
Kirsten: Opening the box that’s come back from the printer never gets old.
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.
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