Hello there, Ken! What are you drinking?
Ken: Pint of Harvey’s best.
How long has Reality Street been running?
Ken: Since 1993.
What were some of the practical things you did to get started?
Ken: I went into an informal partnership with fellow poet and publisher Wendy Mulford. We each put a few hundred pounds into printing the first couple of titles, and had a verbal agreement that we would publish books by poets whose work we both liked. That was about it.
Where does the name Reality Street come from?
Ken: I had been running a magazine called Reality Studios (in London) while Wendy (based in Cambridge at the time) had been running a press called Street Editions. So when we amalgamated our operations, it became Reality Street Editions. After Wendy withdrew, a few years later, I shortened it to Reality Street.
Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?
Ken: I see the press not so much as a “poetry publisher” but as a publisher of innovative writing. Some have labelled it an “experimental poetry press”, but I hate such talk. In recent years I have been publishing more prose. The work explored in the 60-odd titles so far is extremely varied in approach and scope. I guess I like writing that doesn’t compromise, that is what it is, whatever that is. The late Bob Cobbing, most famous for his sound poetry, once said that you should try to make a poem as much like itself as possible. Or words to that effect.
On average, how many books do you sell in a year?
Ken: Over the past 20 years or so, Reality Street has published between one and five titles a year. Most books sell between 100-300 copies, a very few sell in the upper hundreds or just occasionally the low thousands. So you can do the maths.
Do you sell more online or by wholesale/retail?
Ken: Most wholesale/retail sales are online, I believe. There is a regular trickle of sales direct from our website. And there are some direct sales at readings and launches and at bookfairs. But the most reliable area of sales is direct subscription: the Reality Street Supporter scheme has attracted up to 120 subscribers each year, and is the thing that has kept the press going.
What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
Ken: Denise Riley is our biggest selling poet. Her 1993 book Mop Mop Georgette was a small-press hit, and we subsequently (in 2000) published her Selected Poems, which still sells consistently. Other successes have included the anthologies Out of Everywhere (innovative writing by women; there will be a sequel, 20 years later!) and The Reality Street Book of Sonnets. Maggie O’Sullivan and Allen Fisher have a lot of fans. I was very proud to publish a book by the great American poet Barbara Guest, If So, Tell Me, which sold a lot in the USA, less so in Britain. A couple of our recent successes have been novels: Paul Griffiths’ remarkable let me tell you, which uses only the vocabulary allotted to Ophelia in Hamlet to tell her back-story; and Philip Terry’s tapestry, an Oulipian fantasy on the Bayeux Tapestry, which was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize – the only Reality Street title to reach a prizegiving.
How important is the physical book design for you?
Ken: Usually I do the typesetting, layout and cover design myself, and this is probably the most enjoyable part of the process for me. Every book has to look good, and every book has to look unique, while maintaining some elements of house style.
Who prints your books?
Ken: The first books were usually printed by Antony Rowe of Chippenham. In 2003 I moved into print-on-demand, at first using Antony Rowe’s print-on-demand operation in Eastbourne in conjunction with Gardner’s, the book wholesaler, but later moving over to Lightning Source when their technology improved.
Could you describe your editing process? And how long does it take start to finish?
Ken: All done by email these days. If a submission requires a lot of remedial editorial work, I wouldn’t publish it in the first place. Occasionally, I’ve made suggestions for improvement, but if I trust the poet or writer I would respect their final decision. It usually doesn’t take long.
What’s your submissions policy?
Ken: As of now, Reality Street is not accepting submissions. In the past, a small proportion of the books by individual authors published – maybe 10% – have been from people I hadn’t known of before who submitted a manuscript out of the blue.
What are some basic mistakes people make when submitting to you?
Ken: Addressing their covering letter to “sir or madam” or even “to whom it may concern”; or sending a general plea for publication to a number of presses, even sometimes copying them all into the email; asking for advice about their writing and where else they might get published if they fail with us; failing to make even the most basic acquaintance with the press’s publication programme let alone its stated guidelines; sending a bunch of poems pasted directly into an email … you name it!
How do you pay your writers? How does remuneration work?
Ken: They get a straight 10% royalty, a year in arrears, after the first 200 copies have been sold. They are entitled to purchase unlimited copies of their own book at 50% discount, and these author purchases also count towards royalties.
What is your approach to marketing and promotion?
Ken: I have an emailing list, built up over the years. The website is an important marketing tool. I have been using Facebook over the past two or three years, though not Twitter. There is little or no money for advertising, but sometimes literary magazines offer free advertising space. I no longer send out review copies automatically, as I found most of these were wasted, but keep a list of reviewers to whom I send press releases about new books, with an offer to send a complimentary copy if they are interested.
Do you make any money from publishing?
Ken: Ho ho. In the early days, as I mentioned, Wendy and I put in a small amount of our own money to get things started. There was a period when Reality Street received the odd small grant, mainly from local Arts Councils, or occasionally other funding bodies, but for the past fifteen years I have not bothered applying for grants. The press ticks over from year to year, thanks mainly to the Supporter scheme, and to print-on-demand, which drastically reduces outlay. In recent years, it has made a small annual profit, of the order of a few hundred pounds. A long-term supporter recently made a generous, unsolicited donation, which greatly touched and slightly embarrassed me.
Do you work full-time as a publisher?
Ken: You must be kidding! My day job was journalism, but I negotiated redundancy and early retirement a while ago. I continue to be a full-time (largely unpaid) writer and a part-time musician and publisher; that’s how I see it, anyway.
Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?
Ken: Nobody, just me. You can buy them directly from the Reality Street website (www.realitystreet.co.uk), or at the odd reading, launch or bookfair. Or online via Amazon or whoever, or you can go into your local bookshop and place an order (they won’t have the books in stock).
Do you have any staff? If so, how many?
Ken: No. Only me. I do everything: commission books, edit, design and typeset, arrange printing, market, sell, invoice, deal with administration.
What other indie publishers do you like?
Ken: Shearsman Books, West House Books, Oystercatcher Press, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, Veer, Etruscan Books, If P Then Q. That’s mainly poetry. Reality Street currently has an informal promotion and marketing relationship with two fiction presses, Honest Publishing and Unthank Books.
Do you have anything to add about e-books / Amazon / the Internet that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before?
Ken: I have recently made my first foray into e-books, not with Reality Street, but with another imprint, ReScript Books, which revives out-of-print and out-of-copyright titles. I don’t see the readership for Reality Street going for e-books at present. People grumble about Amazon and the internet, but to be honest it has leveled the playing field. Many many years ago, you could get real bookshops to stock books of obscure poetry. Then we went through a period when they stopped doing that, or the ones that did went out of business, and our books became invisible. Now they’re visible and sellable again.
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.