In the latest of our series of feature-length interviews with independent publishers, set in our imaginary poetry theatre pub somewhere in Lambeth, we shared a pint with Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press…
Hello there! What are you drinking?
Brian: A pint of Easy Rider (courtesy of Sheffield’s Kelham Island brewery).
How long has Longbarrow Press been running?
What were some of the practical things you did to get started?
Brian: The growth of the press has been gradual, enabling creative development without financial risk. For the first six years, we focused on making handmade pamphlets in short runs; activity that doesn’t require much capital, and which was indirectly funded by my full-time paid work (a low-status job in the financial services industry). By 2012, I’d built up enough expertise (and cash savings) to leave my job and become self-employed, and edit, design and publish our first full-length hardbacks. And I stole a filing cabinet (in fairness, it was destined for a skip).
Does your personal background lend itself being an independent publisher?
Brian: I’m not sure. My father was a builder and carpenter; my mother worked in offices and shops. I owe my work ethic to them. My own work history is in the service sector – office admin, technical support, warehousing – which probably accounts for my competence in IT and patience with repetitive tasks. I moved to Sheffield in the late 1990s, where I met the poets Chris Jones and Matthew Clegg, among others. They introduced me to many of the writers whose work I still live by now – poets like Ken Smith and Peter Reading – and to an ethos of writing, performing and making that seemed independent of the postgraduate culture. I was gradually drawn into proofing and editing as a continuation of my dialogue with the poets. The press itself was the indirect outcome of a long-distance collaboration with the poet Andrew Hirst: I’d committed myself to creating a handmade, boxed edition of poems and photographs, and this became the first Longbarrow publication. The design and production skills took longer to acquire and refine, but I’m quietly bloody-minded and meticulous about these things; I needed to do it, and I knew I’d get there eventually.
Where does the name Longbarrow Press come from?
Brian: I grew up in Swindon, a few miles north of The Ridgeway, a 5,000-year-old track that passes near many Neolithic, Iron Age and Bronze Age sites, including Silbury Hill, Wayland’s Smithy and Avebury. Aged 10, I visited the West Kennet Long Barrow, a chambered tomb older than Stonehenge, and hid behind a limestone shelf. The name suggested itself without much deliberation, but I’ve come to think of the ‘long barrow’ as a repository for our objects.
Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?
Brian: There are intersections with landscape and history – in particular, the landscapes and histories of Sheffield, where many of the Longbarrow poets are based – and a consistent engagement with the theme of walking, from Matthew Clegg’s sequence Edgelands (not to be confused with the book of the same name by Paul Farley and Michael Symmonds Roberts, which appeared several years later), to our anthology The Footing, and Mark Goodwin’s recent collection Steps. The form varies considerably from one work to the next, taking in strict metrical patterns, ‘open field’ poetics, cantos, prose poems and adapted forms. Everything starts with the voice, though; if the conviction and necessity are missing, if the tone is weak or indistinct, then no amount of technical finesse will compensate. It’s important, too, that each new publication or event should, on some level, subtly redefine (or challenge) the idea of what Longbarrow is, or might be. Our two new collections for 2016, Envies the Birds by Angelina D’Roza and Contraflow by Fay Musselwhite, expand the range, formally and tonally – I’m really proud to be publishing them.
How are you different from other independent publishers?
Brian: Over the last ten years, we’ve developed a series of poetry walks focusing on the canals, rivers, back streets and outskirts of Sheffield and other parts of South Yorkshire. These journeys enhance the relationship between the poems and the landscapes, and make possible a non-hierarchical conversation between the poet and the audience. It offers a more memorable experience than a conventional reading, I think. The walks are carefully structured, but leave plenty of space for the unexpected, and allow the audience to make their own connections in their own time. We privilege the voice and the visual in other ways, too – audio and film work and collaborations with artists.
On average, how many books do you sell in a year?
Brian: Around 500, I think. We only publish two new hardbacks each year.
Do you sell more online or by wholesale/retail?
Brian: There’s a fairly even spread across launches, readings, book fairs, bookshops and online sales (I don’t supply to Amazon or other online outlets – all the online sales are direct from the website). The poets I publish are exemplary readers of their work, which boosts sales at live events.
What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
Brian: I’m reluctant to single out individual titles, as it suggests that the other books are ‘failures’. I don’t track sales figures, either. The books sell at different speeds at different times; whenever someone makes a connection with a book or a poem I consider it a success.
How important is the physical book design for you?
Brian: It’s one of the most important aspects of the process. Hours, days and weeks fussing over margins, spacing, point size and the resulting shape and structure of the book. I do all the typesetting and design, involving the poets at each stage, making them aware of any proposed changes and inviting them to contribute ideas. The main objective, of course, is to present the form of the poem as sympathetically as possible; sometimes, the form (and therefore the composition) of the poem changes in response to the typesetting process, as was the case with a number of poems in Mark Goodwin’s collection Steps. Mark conceived of each individual page as a landscape in itself, and this is how the book was (re)built from typescript to designed page. There’s usually a collaborative element to the jacket artwork and design, too – it’s a two-or-three-way conversation between the poet, the artist and myself. Emma Bolland and Beverley Green have created some great Longbarrow jacket artwork over the last year. There are continuities of design, and tone, throughout the books, but each one is created from scratch, rather than through the imposition of a ‘house style’, or the intervention of an external designer or agency.
Who prints your books?
Brian: TJ International have printed our hardbacks since 2013, and they do a fine job; handsome, robust editions. I’ve also taken the first few steps to reactivating our pamphlet series, so we should see a few hand-stamped, hand-stitched titles appearing in the autumn. Creatively, it’s a really satisfying process. It’s inexpensive and quick, and there’s less pressure than one might find with a full-length collection. You can take risks with the format, and make each one a unique object.
Could you describe your editing process? And how long does it take start to finish?
Brian: For a full-length collection, it’s usually a year or so between the initial conversation and the book appearing in print. The manuscript is often three-quarters complete when the initial discussions take place; many of the subsequent exchanges regarding the development of (and revisions to) the script will take place via email, but the most important ones tend to happen in person. For the dialogue around the book to be candid, respectful and, above all, useful, face-to-face meetings are crucial. Each book is different, though, and every working relationship is different. It’s important for me to voice my concerns if, in my view, some aspect of the script isn’t cohering – but it’s more important for me to listen to the response. The arguments for and against the inclusion of a specific poem will be heard on both sides, but the final decision is the poet’s.
What’s your submissions policy?
Brian: We don’t consider unsolicited submissions – I simply wouldn’t be able to find the time to read them. Most of the projects that I’ve worked on have developed indirectly and incrementally through reciprocal and creative relationships, both old and new.
How do you pay your writers? How does remuneration work?
Brian: Each poet receives 20 copies of their hardback collection (with the option to buy more at half price).
What is your approach to marketing and promotion?
Brian: The Longbarrow website and our email list are both important, but the presentation of each new book or event has to be considered afresh. I try to think of myself as part of the audience for this work: how would I find a way into this new collection? Does this performance sound inviting or uninviting? I don’t take support for granted. I don’t think that promotional formulae work, either. I try to offer different levels of access to the books, through short films, audio recordings, and crafted, considered blog posts. Twitter has been particularly useful in developing audiences (and discovering interesting people and their work). Some of our most enthusiastic and engaged readers are drawn from outside the ‘poetry world’, and seem to be attracted to our way of working.
Do you make any money from publishing?
Brian: Not yet!
What would help? Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for independent publishers?
Brian: I think the survival of the cultural infrastructure – libraries, museums and other public services – is of more immediate concern. Most small presses will find a way to continue, if it’s necessary for us to do what we do, and if enough readers need it too. We don’t receive Arts Council funding, or direct funding from any other source, but we have benefited from indirect support (publicly funded festivals, for example).
Do you work full-time as a publisher?
Brian: I spend between 50-60 hours a week on Longbarrow.
What do you think is a suitable second occupation?
Brian: An admin job – the discipline and skills are useful, and it’s surprising what you can get done in the downtime…
Has your work suffered from a diversion of energy into other employments or is it enriched by it?
Brian: Before I left Swindon for Sheffield, I was spending 40 hours a week on the day job and around 25 hours on Longbarrow. The office work kept me grounded, and provided space to think, access to different perspectives (and useful equipment), and a necessary pressure. Perhaps inevitably, the office work suffered towards the end… I’m now doing some freelance work outside of Longbarrow, which helps to finance the books, and refreshes my ideas about the publishing side of things.
Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?
Brian: I handle all sales and distribution; it keeps the costs down, and I prefer to make a direct, personal connection when possible. You can buy the full range of Longbarrow titles from our website (www.longbarrowpress.com), and we also have books in the London Review Bookshop, Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop and several outlets in Sheffield.
Do you have any staff? If so, how many?
Brian: Just me, but the support of the poets makes it a collective enterprise in many ways.
Apart from books/pamphlets, what else do you make?
Brian: CDs, matchboxes, short films, audio podcasts, performances, installations.
What other indie publishers do you like?
Brian: Bloodaxe achieved remarkable things in their first few years, and the work from this period is still a great inspiration. Credit is due to them for their guts, stamina and invention, and their support for voices in poetry (in the UK and further afield) that the mainstream presses didn’t seem interested in at that time. The range and frequency of Shearsman’s output never ceases to surprise me: through them, I’ve encountered fascinating, fresh collections by Donna Stonecipher, Nancy Gaffield and others. Corbel Stone Press, Uniformbooks and Oystercatcher are producing some beautifully crafted work.
How optimistic are you about the future of independent publishing? Are you satisfied with your own solutions to the problems it currently faces?
Brian: If the work is created for the right reasons, and enough people believe in it, then it will find an audience – perhaps not immediately, but it will happen. The problems will change and therefore the solutions will need to change. To this end, an independent publisher should act with conviction and integrity, while being responsive to challenges.
Note: a selection of these questions have been taken from Cyril Connolly’s 1946 ‘The Cost of Letters’ survey.