This month: we spoke to Andy Croft of Smokestack Books in our imaginary poetry theatre pub somewhere in Lambeth…
Hello there, Andy! How long has Smokestack Books been running?
Andy: Since 2004.
Does your personal background lend itself being an independent publisher?
Andy: I have been involved in writing projects that finished with a published product for most of my working-life – in university adult education, in prisons and in schools. In the early 1990s I helped set up Mudfog Press, a small publisher based in Middlesbrough, still publishing new work today. My own poetry has always been published by independent presses (Five Leaves, Flambard, Arc, Shoestring, Iron), so I think I understand the impossible economics of the sector.
Where does the name come from?
Andy: From the Howling Wolf Song ‘Smokestack Lightning’. It’s a great song; it is also a reference to the Teesside skyline (in the US a smokestack is a chimney).
Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?
Andy: Left field, left-wing, old-fashioned, unfashionable, traditional in form but radical in content, satirical, comic, narrative, dissident…
How are you different from other independent publishers?
Andy: See above.
On average, how many books do you sell in a year?
Andy: Between 4-5 k. I publish about a dozen new titles each year.
Do you sell more online or by wholesale/retail?
Andy: Retail. And at poetry readings.
What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
Andy: Smokestack’s first title, Katrina Porteous’ Dunstanburgh, still sells steadily. Other steady sellers are David Betteridge (ed) A Rose Loupt Oot: Poetry and Song Celebrating the UCS Work-in, Martin Rowson’s The Limerickiad volume I, The Tale of Walter the Pencil Man by Ian McMillan and Tony Husband, Kate Fox’s Fox Populi and His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Victor Jara.
What’s the best thing you’ve found from the unsolicited pile?
Andy: Steve Ely’s Oswald’s Book of Hours, shortlisted for Best First Collection in last year’s Forward Prizes and for this year’s Ted Hughes Prize. Also Your Call Keeps Us Awake by Rocco Scotellaro, a poet of whom I had not previously heard.
How important is the physical book design for you?
Andy: A poetry book should be as interesting and as arresting on the outside as it is on the inside. But that is not to say that I think poetry books have to look distinctive and original. All Smokestack titles share the same format (matt laminated, perfect bound paperbacks, 198x129mm) and the same design (title across the top against grey, author’s name across the bottom against gray), single portrait image on the front, red spine, text in black against grey on the back.
What’s your submissions policy?
Andy: Most of Smokestack’s 90 or so titles were commissioned or invited. But of course I do receive a lot of unsolicited MSS, which I always try to read carefully.
What are some basic mistakes people make when submitting to you?
Andy: Not knowing anything about Smokestack, its back-list or its aims; not following the submissions guidelines on the website; not including a SAE.
What advice would you give to poets today trying to get published?
Andy: Read. Ask yourself why you want to be published, what it is you want to say and whether the world needs to hear it.
How do you pay your writers? How does remuneration work?
Andy: In the days when Smokestack received support from the Arts Council I always paid every author £500. It was a derisory figure, of course, but it was a lot more than I have ever received for any of my own books of poetry. Without ACE support, I do not pay my authors anything.
Do you make any money from publishing?
Andy: After ten years, Smokestack’s finances are now roughly stable, without any support from the Arts Council. But I have never been able to pay myself anything for running Smokestack.
What would help? Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for independent publishers?
Andy: Like Cyril Connolly’s respondents, I can’t help regarding the receding prospect of State subsidy with some relief.
Do you work full-time as a publisher?
Andy: No. I work full-time as a writer, which means dividing my time between lots of projects that earn me little or nothing.
Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?
Andy: Smokestack is a member of Inpress; the books are distributed by Central Books.
Do you have any staff? If so, how many?
Andy: Just me.
What other indie publishers do you like?
Andy: Five Leaves, Bloodaxe, Arc. In the US Curbstone Press (now sadly defunct); in France Le Temps des Cerises.
How optimistic are you about the future of independent publishing? Are you satisfied with your own solutions to the problems it currently faces?
Andy: The accelerated disappearance of independent bookshops, the Victory March of the e-book, the apparently irresistible commercial clout of Amazon, and the long-term decline of literacy and cultural literacy in the UK clearly threaten the purpose of independent publishers. On the other hand, our share of the UK market is so small that changes in the market are unlikely to affect our ability to operate successfully. Moreover, because most independent publishers are run on a shoe-string by unpaid or poorly paid enthusiasts, these presses are likely to survive long after commercially-run presses have folded.
Pub Chat 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.