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Pub Chat: an interview with Shearsman Books

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 Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books

Hello there, Tony! What are you drinking?

Tony: Tequila, Herradura Reposado.

How long has Shearsman been running?

Tony: Well, the magazine (Shearsman) started in 1981. The first pamphlets appeared the same year, as part of the magazine (one issue in fact consisted of 4 pamphlets). The first book would have been some time in the 80’s. However, I was living abroad at the time and did a lot of this under the radar, albeit with UK distribution provided by the late Ian Robinson’s Oasis Books. The press as it is now dates back to 2003, when it adopted short-run digital printing & print-on-demand as a production & distribution model. Three books came out that year, and since then the press has done anything up to 60 books a year, albeit spread across a number of separate lines: UK poets, US poets, Poetry in Translation, Classics, Essays & Criticism, plus the occasional indefinable prose volume, and even two novels.

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

Tony: In the first phase (prior to 2003), I subsidised the press from my own resources. Post-2003, I incorporated the press as a limited company, stumped up £2000 as initial capital, and ran from there. I bumped up the capital by 50% a little while later, and for three years, from 2005-2007, had Arts Council funding which was a great help when I was trying to gear the press up for a more robust future and needed to do things like print full-colour catalogues to convince people that I was serious — this was a great help with overseas funders of translations, in particular. The idea was that the ACE funding would set the press on a course where it would not require further aid. And it hasn’t been needed since. I’ve not taken anything out of the company, either, either by way of salary or dividends.

Does your personal background lend itself being an independent publisher?

Tony: I was in banking for 25 years, which probably helps —alas, not investment banking, so I’m not wealthy; but accounting, planning, budgeting, etc. hold no terrors — and I think I have some sense of design, which may hark back to my degree in Art History.

Where does the name Shearsman come from?

Tony: The second line of Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’: The man bent over his guitar, / A shearsman of sorts. The day was green…

Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?

Tony: It varies. There’s a decided inclination towards more experimental kinds of writing, but I’ve likewise nothing against a well-written sonnet in metre and rhyme. The catch is of course that most people, in my experience, can’t actually write metre and rhyme very well. There are exceptions of course: Robert Saxton has an extraordinary ear for form. I adore John Donne, Robert Herrick, and Wallace Stevens, but that’s not very helpful…

How are you different from other independent publishers?

Tony: What typifies a small press is that it’s the creation of one or two people, and the press reflects the aesthetic sensibilities of the creator(s). That should ensure from the off that it’s different from any other press; if it isn’t, there’s probably not much reason for it to exist. Shearsman probably has a broader spectrum of poetry than any other publisher here in the UK and the robust translation list alone probably leaves us only behind Arc in terms of the number of books published in that area. (Arc covers a wider linguistic area, however; Shearsman tends to specialise in Hispanic poetry.)

I was sniffily referred to as “opinionated” by someone last year, after I spoke at a public event, and while I suspect that that was meant pejoratively, it’s actually not unfair. Of course I’m opinionated! I believe pretty strongly in what I do; if I didn’t, I’d have no business doing it in the first place. If I’m wrong, no-one will buy the books — and sometimes a book does indeed die a death, no matter how much I believe in it. To be a small-press publisher, you need a belief in your own taste, and need to be prepared to back it, with both reputation and with money. If you had no strong opinions while doing so, you’d just end up looking like one of those vanity presses.

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

Tony: It varies from year to year of course, but I’m expecting to shift about 14,000-15,000 this year.

Do you sell more online or by wholesale/retail?

Tony: Approximately: print-on-demand 35%; wholesale 25%; direct sales to the end-user 40%. This varies by 5% in either direction in each case.

What have been some of your biggest successes so far?

Tony: Some of the biggest sellers have been prose, actually, but the biggest poetry seller is Harriet Tarlo’s anthology of radical landscape poetry, The Ground Aslant, which has sold close to 1,200 copies and continues to sell every month. I’m very proud of that book, not just because the contents are terrific — and they are — but because it was my idea, and I then asked Harriet to edit it, as she was the best-equipped person I could think of to do it – she is also a Shearsman author, and her latest collection will appear later this year.

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

Tony: I’d rather not show preference to any one book over another, but, of the most recent titles, Aubrie Marrin’s first collection, published in March 2015, Incognitum, was a real pleasure to find. It came as a recommendation from an existing author, rather than directly from the slush pile, however.

How important is the physical book design for you?

Tony: The paper stock is restricted to two types by my printer, or has been until now; they’ve just this month started offering a heavier stock which will be ideal for an illustrated modern version of the Aeneid (Books I-VI) that I’ve scheduled for publication in late 2015.

Cover design and typesetting is almost always by me, although now and again there’s a designer who comes along as part of the project — the recent books by Aubrie Marrin and Nancy Kuhl are the latest examples. Two of my authors are actually graphic designers and designed their own books. I find those fascinating — and invariably rather humbling.

Two series here have “family” cover designs: the chapbooks (i.e. pamphlets), and the Classics series, but I’ve resisted the family look for the whole list because I don’t wish to impose a unified look on a list that is anything but unified. I’m not a natural talent at cover design, and often take inspiration from covers produced by the big presses: a particular favourite is the German house, Suhrkamp, where the designs are almost always tasteful to an extreme, and where the use of lettering is very instructive.

The fonts used vary from book to book, although the digital printing I use doesn’t like fonts with very thin upstrokes, so I’ve learned to avoid certain types of font, or the parts of a particular font that are badly affected (such as, often, the small-cap version, or the italic face).

Who prints your books?

Tony: Lightning Source in the UK, the USA and Australia. They’re owned by the Ingram Book Company, the largest wholesaler in the US, and offer a fully-integrated system which is ideal for Shearsman, above all for the US market, where US orders are met by US printers, and don’t usually involve me at all.

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

Tony: It’s almost always email, and Word files, though some people use RTF files, Apple’s Pages software and, occasionally, other obscure programmes. I dislike Word intensely, but we’re stuck with it, as almost everyone has learned to use it, for good or ill. The amount of editing that goes on varies from book to book: sometimes very little intervention will be required, above all with more mature writers. I will tend to intervene more with less-experienced writers. Sometimes, I confess, if I sense that there will be too much work involved in getting a book into shape, I will just let it go. And I hate being dumped with a massive pile of poems and being asked to compile a book from them. A common problem is that manuscripts are much too long; I can usually see what should be done with those, but usually give the author first shot at trimming down the manuscript, unless I feel strongly about some aspect of the MS; that’s an instructive process: a writer should have a better sense of the shape of a manuscript than anyone else, and also a better sense of which are the weaker poems. That can lead to some conflict, and even irreconcilable differences, but usually one can agree to part ways amicably, if it comes to that.

I have one author who has no computer, and no telephone. I receive typescripts from him which are scanned here, OCR’d, and then compiled into draft book form, before being printed out on the laser-printer and sent back to the author for detailed proofing. I’d prefer not to have go through that process too often — one such book that’s in the works right now is over 200 pages long.

What’s your submissions policy?


This and the two linked pages (for the magazine and for newcomers) probably cover everything anyone needs to know. The somewhat dyspeptic tone is deliberate.

The greatest bugbear is submissions from people who just don’t read the guidelines, or, worse, do read them and then ignore them. Like everyone else who runs a press I tend to get a glut of email submissions sent with a massive CC list (usually addressed to Faber, Cape, or Bloodaxe, and then copied to the rest of us). Then there are the slightly more careful submissions, which have quite plainly been sent to a BCC list. And of course there are also the inordinate number of submissions from poets whose first language is not English and who are convinced for some reason that they want to publish a book in the language even though they don’t live in an English-speaking country. I sympathise with those in India, for instance, where there is an English-language market, and a robust presence for the language, but I can’t understand why they don’t try Indian outlets first. Perhaps they have, of course…

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

Tony: The usual problem is simply that they haven’t done any research. This is rarely a problem with American submissions, in my experience, but very often a problem with British submissions. Poets who want to send their work out should try to familiarise themselves with the output of the press they’re approaching. The Shearsman website has sample PDFs for almost every volume published here, so there’s no cost to the wannabe poet in the research, other than the effort of clicking a few hyperlinks.

The most irritating submission enquiries I’ve received in the recent past were (1) “Do you publish poetry?” and (2) “What kind of poems are you looking for?” These arrive rather frequently.

Where do you look for new writers?

Tony: I no longer have to look very hard, really. Recommendations from existing authors have been an especially good source of new writers. And the slush pile can still sometimes generate good material. Running a magazine is useful too, as interesting new voices can appear there and then be approached if it seems they have more than a couple of good poems to offer.

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

Tony: Please, please pay attention to the publisher’s requirements. We all have websites; we all publish our guidelines. If you read them, and follow them, you’ll stand a much better chance of getting accepted. When I say “Send 6-10 poems as a sample from your manuscript”, it doesn’t mean 200 pages will be fine. Likewise make some attempt to understand the nature of the work published by the press: if you were a fiction writer you wouldn’t send your SF novel to Mills and Boon, or your bodice-ripper to Gollancz. By analogy in poetry, field composition, scattered bits of words and shattered syntax won’t get you through the door at Faber, and nor will a rhymed epic on the death of your cat have much success at, say, Reality Street.

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

Tony: As our website says, Shearsman isn’t generous. No advances, and royalties at 10% of retail price only kick in after 150 have been sold. So, we sell 250 copies, and royalties are paid on 100. Authors can buy copies of their own books at 50% of retail but they’re not obligated to buy any at all. I’m very clear about all of this, and at least two authors have walked away when it was clear that the rules applied to everyone, across the board.

What is your approach to marketing and promotion?

Tony: Website, catalogues, leaflets, readings, bookfairs, direct email to our mailing list. Advertising isn’t cost-effective, or doesn’t appear to be so for the Shearsman list. (I used to place ads in strategic journals, but wasn’t sure it was having much of an effect — then, when I cancelled all ads, sales rose by 20%. I’m not suggesting a direct causal link there, but it was instructive.)

Do you make any money from publishing?

Tony: The press is a limited company, and it makes small annual profits, which so far have all been ploughed back into the business to give it more of a financial cushion. One year recently we made a small loss but that was simply down to paying for an all-new website and online store to replace the creaking previous one.

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

Tony: I can’t see why publishers should be supported by the state — there are better uses for the public’s taxes. And the ACE needs to catch up with the times — it’s stupid to finance a 1,000-copy print-run for a book that has no chance of shifting that many copies.

The only exception, in my view, would be minority-language publishing, such as Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, and perhaps Scots, where the audience numbers probably aren’t large enough to sustain a publishing infrastructure. It’s also dangerous for any press to become reliant on external funding, as it means not paying enough attention to the customers and also means that you run the risk of collapse when the funding (inevitably) disappears.

I can see an argument for funding of some kind going into reader development, but, alas, I can also see such an initiative also being hijacked by vested interests of one kind or another. I can hear the screams of “Elitist!” even as I write this.

Do you work full-time as a publisher?

Tony: Yes. But I can afford to do so as I don’t need to live on the non-existent dividends or wages.

Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?

Tony: They’re best bought direct from us, or from online outlets such as Wordery, Book Depository (and, yes, Amazon); in the US, Barnes and Noble, Small Press Distribution, Amazon and assorted others. Bookstores usually won’t carry much in the way of stock from our list, though there are brave exceptions here and there: some titles are at the London Review Bookshop, some are at the splendid Five Leaves in Nottingham; assorted branches of Waterstones will have some copies. Realistically, however, just look at the size of the average bookshop poetry section in even a big city with a local university, and you’ll realise that the chances of getting onto the shelves is remote.

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

Tony: Just me.

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

Tony: A magazine that comes out twice a year and is in book format, being produced in the same way as all the other titles.

What other indie publishers do you like?*

Tony: Arc, CBeditions, Reality Street, Carcanet, Peirene; Anvil (though they’re closing down soon); Archipelago in the USA. Probably many others that don’t leap immediately to mind.

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

Tony: As far as I can see, indie publishing is going to grow. The big combines will increasingly exit more marginal types of writing (marginal in the sense of low sales, that is), and that will mean literary fiction and short stories. I assume more indies will appear to take up the slack. There will also be more high-priced limited-run publications with great design and letterpress-printing.

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

Tony: I still don’t think eBooks work well for poetry. They’re OK on the iPad, especially the larger models, but lousy on a Kindle. Amazon was a force for good at first but has turned into a ludicrous all-devouring beast. Their business model may in fact trip them up at some point, as they will have to make a profit at some point, rather than just coasting along on a cloud of collective belief by investors that they will do so at some undefined point in the future. It will be interesting how they react at that point; I’ve always assumed that their model was to get a quasi-monopoly and then ratchet up prices and garner the profits.

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

Tony: Ask those of us who’ve already done it. Don’t try to run before you can walk. Remember that lack of cashflow is what kills businesses, not lack of profits. Don’t (as one outfit did) spend all your cash on renting an office in a fancy location and then wonder why you can’t afford to publish anything. Don’t blow your ACE funding – if you have it — on your wine cellar (as one press did) and then complain when your grant is withdrawn.

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

Tony: I’m not sure how to answer this one. I would say that it’s a community, however, and – although there’s a little competition here and there — presses help each other with advice when it’s needed.

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. 

Tony Frazer has been publisher of Shearsman and Shearsman Books since 1981. Apart from this, he has edited the anthology A State of Independence (1998) for Stride Publications, and Roy Fisher's Interviews Though Time (Shearsman Books, 2000; 2nd edition 2013). He was also co-editor of the poetry selection in Chicago Review's special double issue New Writing in German (2002), and has been an occasional translator of contemporary German poets. Giramondo Publishing, Sydney, published a collection of his translations of Lutz Seiler in May 2005 as In the year one — Selected Poems.

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Image: Cover, The Ground Aslant — An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (detail)