Sign In using your Campus Account

Pub Chats: Two Rivers Press

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 Peter Robinson of Two Rivers Press…

Hello, Peter! What are you drinking?

I think I’d better not … but, if I were, it might be a half of the local bitter. Perhaps I could taste one or two and see which one I fancy?

How long has Two Rivers Press been running?

It was founded in 1994 by Peter Hay, a local artist, so it will be twenty-two years old this year. Peter sadly died something over a decade ago and the press was kept going by a group of friends, painters and artists, such as Martin Andrews, Sally Castle, and John Froy. I was asked to take over as poetry editor from John in September 2010, and the press was formally constituted as a limited company four ago after Sally Mortimore and Karen Mosman joined us as managing publisher and web & publicity manager.

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

Starting a limited company is the easiest of the options open to a new publisher in form filling, legally responsible, duty-paying terms. The biggest and most expensive job we had in 2012 was settling a ten-year-old tax liability. Even if you operate on grant funding, you have to pay tax on income made from trading products. We had to hire a tax advisor and accountant and spent a lot of time going back through years of accounts. The most practical thing you can do when starting a company is to make friends with an accountant. We are very lucky to have a good friend of the Press who donates her time and expertise for free. In operating terms, we are extremely lucky in that our employment and building costs are negligible since most of our team works on a voluntary or paid-by-project basis and we all work from home. Nobody gets paid at normal commercial rates except the printers. So nearly all our costs are project-based. The problem with books is that you don’t get your money back in sales until after you have paid it out in production, so cash flow is an issue and restricts the amount you can publish each year. We started out as a limited company with well under ten thousand pounds in the bank and are slowly, year-by-year, improving that position. However, we couldn’t make it financially viable if we had ‘normal’ company operating costs; so again, the most practical thing you can do is have people who are willing to make the thing work for love, not money.

Does your personal background lend itself to being an independent publisher?

I moved to Reading in 2007, after spending eighteen years as a visiting lecturer in Japan. I had heard of Two Rivers Press, having found a copy of Adrian Blamires’ first collection in a Liverpool bookshop one summer, and made contact with them at a reading in Henley hosted by Jane Draycott. In 2010 I published a limited edition in collaboration with Sally Castle called <i>English Nettles and Other Poems</i>, which contained pieces inspired by those first years back in England and Reading — and it was out of this that the invitation to become an editor occurred. I’ve been involved in organizing poetry readings and festivals, and in publishing poetry with small and tiny presses, since the mid-1970s. So I suppose you could say I have a lifetime of training in the field.

Where does the name Two Rivers Press come from?

The press began as the organ of a pressure group set up to stop the development of a ring road that would cut across the conflux of the rivers Kennet and Thames, which both flow through Reading, where the press is based. The campaign to stop the road was successful, and the press continued as a venue for local interest books, illustrated classic poetry volumes such as <i>The Ballad of Reading Gaol</i> by Oscar Wilde, and poetry collections mainly by local writers.

Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?

There is a fairly thriving local poetry scene in Reading, centred especially around the Thin Raft writers’ workshop and the Poets’ Café at the South Street Arts Centre, though there are also at least two poetry slam groups as well. The poetry that Two Rivers Press was publishing when I took over as editor was largely furnished by the poets who are connected with the first two of these groups. We also have connections with writers in nearby towns in the Thames Valley and Hampshire. I would say that the poetry we publish — not only driven by my personal tastes, and always a committee decision — is craft-based and down-to-earth, reflecting something of the local ethos of Reading. However, in recent years we’ve begun to extend both the range and the location of poets we publish, including writers such as Kate Behrens, who produces a more intimately image-based kind of psychological lyricism, and Mairi MacInnes, a senior practitioner, much influenced by the many years she spent in the USA, whose first book was published by the Art School in Reading in 1953. She lives in York.

How are you different from other independent publishers?

Although our publishing is not limited by being Reading-based, we do feel it’s very important to acknowledge our roots and foster our strong connection with the town. Although small, we can make a positive difference to people’s lives in Reading through promoting appreciation of our culture, literature, art and heritage.

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

We sell about 6,000. Based on an income of about thirty thousand pounds and an average net price of £5.  Of those, our poetry book sales, including the Classic Poems series, amount to somewhere between one fifth and a sixth.

Do you sell more online or by wholesale/retail?

Currently we have a small number of sales through our website, and some sales through the retail trade; but by far the largest number of our poetry books are sold by the poets themselves through launches, reading occasions, and other similar events.

What have been some of your biggest successes so far?

You would need to define small press success. Given that making money is clearly not our primary goal, we can define it in terms of extending the appreciation of poetry, contributing to the literary and artistic heritage of the town, giving creative people in art, design, and writing opportunities for expression and a hearing. In this light, Adrian Blamires’ first book helped him to a platform on which to build; A. F. Harrold has become an internationally published author of prose and poetry for younger readers; Jane Draycott has gone on to be published by Carcanet; and Claire Dyer is beginning to establish herself as a noted writer of both poetry and fiction. Our most successful anthology is a gathering of <i>Reading Poetry</i>, which has sold out, and we have now produced three illustrated editions of <i>The Ballad of Reading Gaol</i>, recently reissued with a new Afterword by Peter Stoneley.

How important is the physical book design for you?

A balance has to be managed for each book in the relation of cost to projected income. Most publishers want to make beautiful books, but you have to work within your means. Colour is usually prohibitively expensive for the kinds of print runs we work with. Books also need to be books, so we have to use standard formats with spines, which, though they may be perceived as boring, are vital to make a collection buy-able from a bookshop, easy to distribute and also a pleasure to read. We work more or less within buyers’ expectations, adding little twists (such as illustrations or end papers) to make each of our books individual and unique. We use 80gsm Bookwove cream paper, and good quality art board to ensure stiff covers that don’t warp, with matt laminate to give the books a thoughtful, quality, tactile feel. The format is standard paperback 210 x 135mm, which is economical to print.

Who prints your books?

Imprint Digital in Exeter: they provide an excellent service, with a quick, efficient online quote system, and can produce economical, short runs.

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

We use e-mail, track-changes on Word documents, and PDF proofs. The whole process from scheduling to publication is likely to take about a year; but there’s often a fairly protracted wait for the poets from submission to acceptance and scheduling, because of financial constraints.

What’s your submissions policy?

We ask for a sample of six poems. On the basis of that, we will make a decision about pursuing a publishing possibility further. Though our history might suggest we are strictly a press for local writers, this is not in fact true: submission is open to all, from anywhere, but a strong idea about how your book will be made visible and sold is, more or less, a necessity.

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

Not thinking about whom it is they are writing for: always keep your audience in mind and then communicate clearly who they are and provide clues in the blurb that will attract them. This is probably true, though less so, for poetry – where the identification of audience develops in the coteries and circles of friendship and alliance from which poets emerge.

Where do you look for new writers?

We do it mainly through personal contacts and word of mouth, competitions and anthologies, or collaborating with other Reading-based organizations such as spoken word events, fringe festivals, creative writing groups, and the university (which has a creative writing programme in which I’m also involved).

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

The best way to do it is to pay your dues by editing little magazines or websites, attending workshops and readings, organizing them, and getting to know what is called the poetry scene or world. That way you can develop a grass roots reputation and take one small step towards a collection at a time. You’ll also start to make the sort of contact that may help in finding an editor who, with luck, will be loyal over the longer term. Surviving a lifetime of writing requires some skill in navigating those waters by way of a start.

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

We can’t pay our writers, and all rights on their works remain entirely with them. What we tend to do is to sell at least fifty copies of each collection to our poets at half the cover price. Their ‘royalty’ comes from their selling them on at the trade price. By adopting this policy, we are able to cover much of the printing and design costs of our books, and they can make the difference between the cost and sale price as a return for their efforts. Most of the underlying administrative and editorial costs are absorbed gratis by those who work for the press, such as myself, doing it for love

What is your approach to marketing and promotion?

We do what we can, and have employed a publicist for one recent volume (though not a poetry book). In effect, though, we cannot take on books where the poet is not willing to organise events and readings, and to promote their books through circles of readers and social media.

Do you make any money from publishing?

We have been able to work with a small annual operating surplus since the end of any support from public arts funding bodies. Much of this is due to our being a publisher not only of poetry, but also art and local interest volumes.

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

I’m afraid I don’t think that – in the current climate – poetry publishing comes high up in the agenda of urgent calls on public funds. Publishers’ business plans for individual books need to aim realistically at least at breaking even. What would help is a change in the broad perception of what is valuable in life, and how involvement with the arts including poetry can greatly enhance enjoyment and endurance. There are always some positive signs, and simultaneously some less encouraging ones. Of course the state could become more intentional about its responsibility to enhance people’s lives through things like beauty, art and culture – rather than merely the utilitarian money, transport links, and work. Still, there’s no reason to despair.

Do you work full-time as a publisher?

No, I work for the University of Reading as a professor of English and American literature. As I say, my labours for the press are done out of love and as a mainstay of my social life in the town.

What do you think is a suitable second occupation?

I don’t think there is such a thing: it depends on individual cases.

Has your work suffered from a diversion of energy into other employments or is it enriched by it?

I doubt it has suffered, and expect it’s been enriched.

Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?

Our books are represented by Inpress and distributed by Central Books. They can be ordered directly from any bookshop, which will access them through the trade. Our books are also available on Amazon, and, best for us, they can be bought directly through our own website:

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

Until constituted as a limited company, we were a cooperative, so we are the staff. In practice, the work on a poetry book is divided between the poetry editor, the managing publisher who handles production, the designer, the cover artist, the publicity manager, and our factotum assistant. So six people are involved, to differing degrees, in the production, publicizing and distribution of each book. Publishing decisions are made by the agreement of all these, plus two others who sit on the board but are not usually involved in the practicalities of this process.

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

We have also, very occasionally, published wall maps, posters and postcards.

What other indie publishers do you like?

Well, I naturally like the ones that have recently published my own work: Shearsman Books, Worple Press, Isobar Press, and, for fiction, Holland House Books. In addition, I very much admire what CB Editions, Enitharmon, Oystercatcher and Shoestring are doing. I also feel solidarity with practically all the small poetry presses that have managed to survive in such a climate.

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

 My pessimism focuses on the intricacies and complexities of the book trade. The way it is set up makes it impossible for small publishers to make money on books due to the huge number of different entities involved in the value chain. Books have a low ceiling price and the expectation is that a paperback won’t cost more than £10. Between the publisher and the customer stand the sales representation company, the distributor, the wholesaler and the bookshop all taking their cut. So the net price the publisher receives is generally less than half the list price. The big publishers can make this work by driving down production costs using suppliers in the Far East and India and because of the huge volumes they shift (hence their difficulty in selecting unusual or niche books and future classics). But for small publishers, it’s impossible to make a small print run viable unless you have people working on the projects for love rather than money. There is an answer, though, and it lies in the demise of the trade system as we know it. Publishers will need to sell their books direct to the public by having their own bookshops. ‘Department stores’ could exist with multiple publisher franchises, because, for a healthy culture, a wide range of publishers need to be able face their public fairly and squarely, talk to them, find out what they want, and publish for them – rather than have international cartels drive them out of the market so as to dump their mass product in a non-competitive bookshop monopoly. I don’t know where this leaves small publishers with no money for retail space, but maybe they could share franchises in these ‘department stores’ or ‘book boutiques’. Small presses would have, in effect, to form a trade cooperative with sufficient membership fees to afford shared rents on a national network of viable shop-space.

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

You should only do it if you’ve got lots of friends with all the various necessary skills, with the same vision, and who are in it for love not money.

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

It’s great fun, and hugely satisfying.

With the exception of five years spent in Wigan, Peter Robinson grew up in Liverpool. In the 1970s he edited the poetry magazine Perfect Bound, helped organize several international Cambridge Poetry Festivals between 1977 and 1985, and was festival coordinator in 1979. After teaching for the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and at the University of Cambridge, he held various posts in Japan. In 2007 he returned to the UK to take up a post as Professor of English and American literature at the University of Reading. Since returning to Reading, as well as leading research at the university on poetry and poetics, he has organised a centenary conference on the work of the poet Bernard Spencer (1909–1963), instigated the publication of an annual creative arts anthology, and helped found the Reading Poetry Festival. He is now also literary editor for Two Rivers Press.

Note: a selection of these questions have been taken from Cyril Connolly’s 1946 ‘The Cost of Letters’ survey.

Add your Reply