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 Jess Chandler of Test Centre…
Hello there, Jess! What are you drinking?
Jess: Gin & tonic!
How long has Test Centre been running?
Jess: Test Centre began as a project in 2011, and has gradually grown and expanded since then. The two of us (Jess Chandler and Will Shutes) were friends with similar interests and ambitions, and it grew naturally out of the discussions we were having.
What were some of the practical things you did to get started?
Jess: We registered the company as a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) with Companies House, and set up a business bank account. We both invested a small amount of personal savings to fund our first release – a 50/50 share. Our first project was a spoken word vinyl LP with Iain Sinclair, and having his support was extremely valuable and enabled us to promote the album, and announce ourselves as a new company. We then did everything we could to contact relevant journalists and publications that we hoped would be interested in what we were doing. It takes time to build a reputation, but launching with a strong first project will give you a head start.
Does your personal background lend itself being an independent publisher?
Jess: We both have English Literature BA and MA degrees, so we’ve always been interested in literature. I spent about 6 years working in factual television – researching and developing history and arts documentaries – which was very useful experience, even if not obviously relevant. Will co-authored a book about the art of Syd Barrett, and had worked for other publishers/publications and bookdealers, and we’d both done quite a bit of freelance writing, so our combined skills and experiences seemed to lend themselves well to setting up as independent publishers. We’re both hard-working perfectionists, and very well organised, and those qualities have been essential.
Where does the name Test Centre come from?
Jess: It’s actually hard to remember where the name came from! We had quite a few different ideas, and chose to go with Test Centre as we liked the openness it suggested, and the possibilities it offered and invited for experimentation – both on the page and in a more physical capacity. Test Centre is both a publishing company and provides a space for bringing new and forgotten work to life.
Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?
Jess: One of the great things about running your own press is that you have a lot of freedom to publish work that you admire. So the poetry we publish is poetry we love. I’d like to think that we don’t limit ourselves to any particularly type of poetry, but are open to publishing anything which we feel is doing something interesting and unusual – experimenting with language and form, and playing with conventions.
How are you different from other independent publishers?
Jess: We publish things in a range of different mediums and forms – vinyl, cassette tapes, risograph-printed magazines, poetry books, novels and even some poster artwork. I think this in itself makes us different from many publishers. We are open to all forms and genres – as long as it’s something that interests us. Another difference, certainly from more mainstream publishers, is the attention we give to the design of our books. We don’t have a house style or format that we stick to for each poetry collection, for example. Every book is designed through a process of discussion with the author, researching other books that have been influential, looking into images and formats that are relevant to the content, and creating something unique and with an aesthetic that makes sense for that particular work. As a result, every publication looks completely different, and this is something we’re very proud of, and which we hope appeals to writers, and makes the experience of working with us more rewarding.
One other difference is our limited and special edition releases. Most publications have a special edition, with additional material added by the author. We know that this appeals to a lot of our customers, and is something we really enjoy working on. The special editions quickly become collectable, and show that publishing doesn’t need to be about volume and sales, but about quality and rarity.
On average, how many books do you sell in a year?
Jess: Hard to say, as our output is increasing every year, but probably between 1,000 and 1,500.
Do you sell more online or by wholesale/retail?
Jess: Most of our sales are through our website, though we now sell some of our books through a distributor, so our retail sales are increasing. Because of the cuts taken by shops, and by a distributor on top of that, it is much better for us to sell directly through our website, even though it involves a lot of packing and frequent trips to the post office!
What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
Jess: One of our biggest early successes was Iain Sinclair’s Austerlitz and After: Tracking Sebald, which sold out almost instantly. Derek Jarman’s A Finger in the Fishes Mouth was also a big success, and was our biggest print run, also selling out quickly. Most recently, Tom Chivers’ Dark Islands has been a big success. We’re also very proud of Oli Hazzard’s Within Habit, which had a very unusual format and received unanimously good reviews and sold out within a year – which for a 2nd collection by a young poet, is extremely good.
What’s the best thing you’ve found from the unsolicited pile?
Jess: Quite a few of our recent poetry books were unsolicited, though sent to us by poets we already knew of and who we had started to build a relationship with through other things. Tom Chivers and SJ Fowler both sent us manuscripts, and both were so good that we had no hesitation in deciding to publish them.
How important is the physical book design for you?
Jess: The physical design of our books is extremely important to us. Most of our books are designed by Traven T. Croves (Andrew Lister & Matthew Stuart), two extremely talented designers and expert typographers. Much of Test Centre’s aesthetic is the outcome of our working relationship with them. The design of each publication emerges through discussions with the authors and with Traven T. Croves, who take their cues from the author’s ideas, which they then develop. We also ask our authors if they have anything in mind for the cover image and format, and try to use this as the basis for the design. We have used a range of different types of printing, though we usually use either riso or offset. Our books don’t normally contain images or illustrations, though Iain Sinclair’s RED EYE contained 16 colour film stills. We feel very strongly that the physical design of a book is an integral part of its overall existence, and we take great care to ensure that the design adds a new layer of interest and meaning to each publication.
Who prints your books?
Jess: We use a range of different printers, including Aldgate Press, ArtQuarters Press and Studio Operative. The poetry anthology I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best was printed in Berlin, and Iain Sinclair’s RED EYE was printed by Lecturis in Holland.
Could you describe your editing process? And how long does it take start to finish?
Jess: Most of our editing is done via email. Any major edits will be made before the book goes in to design, and then a final proofread will take place once the design is almost done. For longer texts, we will edit on printed proof copies and then input the changes once they’ve all been agreed upon. The time it takes varies from book to book, but it can be anything from 2 weeks to 3 months.
What’s your submissions policy?
Jess: We welcome submissions in any form! http://testcentre.org.uk/about/submissions/
What are some basic mistakes people make when submitting to you?
Jess: Common mistakes include misspelling our name, or simply addressing us as ‘Publisher’, which makes it clear that we are just one of many publishers they’re submitting to. Typos in emails or covering letters are always off-putting. Blank emails with attachments and no covering note at all aren’t good either! We are always more interested when we can tell that somebody knows our work and is submitting to us for a good reason.
Where do you look for new writers?
Jess: We often discover new writers through personal recommendations. We speak to the writers we work with about people whose work they are interested in, and often make great discoveries this way. We also come across new writers through other magazines and journals, and occasionally through poetry readings.
What advice would you give to poets today trying to get published?
Jess: Research the work of different publishing companies and find the one you feel is most suited to you. Try to get as much work as you can published in journals so that publishers know you have already started building a reputation for yourself. There are many great magazines interested in publishing the work of new poets, so there are opportunities if you persevere. Try to get some support from other poets who have already had work published, as recommendations from them may be the best way to get another publisher to notice you.
How do you pay your writers? How does remuneration work?
Jess: We have paid writers differently for different publications, depending on the kind of work it is, the number of copies, etc. We normally pay our writers a royalty of sales after production costs have been recouped. We need to make back the cost of production before paying the writers otherwise we wouldn’t be able to keep going.
What is your approach to marketing and promotion?
Jess: We have built up a substantial mailing list over the past few years and this is our most important marketing tool. Twitter is a very good way of spreading the word about things too. We have also built up good relationships with a number of journalists who we can generally rely on to promote our work. Marketing is extremely difficult, especially when it’s not something you have any training in. It takes patience and a thick skin and lots of determination. The more professional your marketing material is, the better. We compile PDF press releases for every publication, and use MailChimp to send out email newsletters to our mailing list.
Do you make any money from publishing?
Jess: It is extremely difficult to make money in the early days of being an independent publisher. For quite a few years, all of the money we made was put back in to the company to fund the next publication. We are now able to pay ourselves a very small salary, and the finances are steadily improving. It takes time, but it isn’t impossible. We try to sell our books for around three times the cost of production, as this allows for the cut taken by shops and distributors. However, we are also conscious of making sure our publications are affordable, so our margins are sometimes narrower because of this.
What would help? Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for independent publishers?
Jess: We would love to have some financial support, though only if it didn’t entail any kind of compromise. I certainly think that independent publishers need more support from institutions and government funding, as it is extremely hard to access any kind of funding for what we’re doing.
Do you work full-time as a publisher?
Jess: We both do other work which complements our publishing work quite nicely. Will runs the bookdealing side of the company – Test Centre Books – while I work as the Digital Editor for Poetry London magazine and as a freelance editor.
What do you think is a suitable second occupation?
Jess: For your own sake of continuity, it’s good to have a job which feels like it’s part of the same world and doesn’t force you to switch between different identities too much. All of the work we do outside Test Centre is related to books and literature. The downside of this is that it’s not a very lucrative industry, so perhaps we’d be wiser to have other part time jobs, but it’s what we love, and we’re happy to pay the price for that!
Has your work suffered from a diversion of energy into other employments or is it enriched by it?
Jess: At times are work has suffered from a diversion of energy – in both directions – but it’s been necessary to divide our time in order to earn enough money to support ourselves. It’s also been enriched by the other things we do. The main problem is that it’s exhausting trying to do too many things at the same time, and eventually you just can’t do it any more and need to find more consistency in your working life. We still continue to do several different things, but we’ve found a good balance which doesn’t entail quite so much sacrifice.
Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?
Jess: We have only recently started using a distributor – Antenne Books – who’ve been great. Otherwise, you can buy all of our books through our website (www.testcentre.org.uk) and in many independent bookshops: the LRB, Foyles, the ICA, Donlon, Broadway Bookshop, X Marks the Bokship, Ti Pi Tin, to name a few London shops – as well as a number of shops outside London.
Do you have any staff? If so, how many?
Jess: We don’t have any staff – it’s just the two of us, working from our home offices. There’s something nice about being responsible for every element of the publishing process, though at times it can be overwhelming.
Apart from books/pamphlets, what else do you make?
Jess: We also produce vinyl LPs and audio cassette tapes.
What other indie publishers do you like?
Jess: We are fans of Penned in the Margins, Influx Press, Bloodaxe Books, Emma Press, Strange Attractor and Book Works, among others.
How optimistic are you about the future of independent publishing? Are you satisfied with your own solutions to the problems it currently faces?
Jess: We are generally optimistic about the future of independent publishing. It feels like a real community is developing, and there are a lot of inspiring people dedicated to creating a space for experimental work. Mainstream publishing is becoming increasingly soulless and commercialised, and we so often hear about the bad experiences writers have had being published by these big companies. As a result, more and more writers are choosing to be publishing by independent presses. Money is the big challenge, but with time and perseverance, it’s possible to build a following and a reputation which allows you to survive and keep growing.
Do you have anything to add about e-books / Amazon / the Internet that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before?
Jess: Probably not! Our experience has shown us, however, that the printed book is far from dead, and there are plenty of people who feel the same way as we do and really care about beautifully designed and printed books and who want to support alternative and independent presses.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own independent publishing business today?
Jess: Make sure you know the other publishing companies in a similar field and try and find a niche for yourself. Then be prepared for a lot of hard work and patience and learn how to juggle multiple jobs for a while – but we can assure you its worth it. The sense of satisfaction is incredibly rewarding, and the gratitude people will show you makes you feel as though there is real value and significance in persevering.
Tell me something about being an independent publisher that most people don’t know.
Jess: You might think that publishers get to spend lots of time reading books – but that’s not quite the case! A lot of what we do is working with and managing people.
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.