When I started the Emma Press in 2012, I knew very little about small presses or poetry publishing. I came from a background of tech blogging and major trade publishing, which I’d stumbled into after completing a Classics degree, and my Prince’s Trust business mentor was in the electronics industry. Additionally, my initial idea was for an Etsy shop with fabric accessories.
Possibly the most helpful thing I’d learned up to that point was that no one really knows what they’re doing, in general but particularly in the world of work. I suddenly understood the truth in that episode of Black Books where Fran has no idea what her new temp job actually is but progresses up the ranks at a remarkable rate just by acting with great confidence. No one starts an office job knowing exactly what it entails, and no one in publishing really knows the best way to publish books in the modern world. Having spent my entire academic life and beyond assuming that everyone was more clued-up than I was, this was very liberating.
As it turned out, it was also useful not knowing much about the poetry publishing world, as it meant I wasn’t held back by those old chestnuts ‘you’ll never make a living’ and ‘poetry books don’t sell’. I didn’t set out to make a living from poetry books – I set out to make a living from handmade silk brooches, with a small publishing arm – but my fingertips got sore from the backs of needles and I started phasing out the fabric side of things to focus on publishing. I learned as much as I could about small press publishing and the poetry world, but I drew my main business inspiration from other industries: musicians like Kate Bush and Jens Lekman; broadcasters like Adam and Joe; and beauty brands like Benefit and Lush. I thought about what made me a fan of all these, and my mentor Geeta encouraged me to think about how I could sell enough books to make a living, rather than if.
So, am I? Nearly five years on, I’d say I’m getting there. Having moved back in with my parents and lived off my savings till I felt confident enough to support myself, I managed to move out again two years ago and since then I’ve been alternating between treading water and doing powerful strokes (I’m not much of a swimmer, but that won’t stop me attempting this metaphor). I’ve drained my savings account, but I now pay myself enough to cover my rent and bills, and I understand cashflow enough to keep the cash… flowing.
Probably the best decision I’ve made was in 2014, when I decided to make it mandatory for people to buy a single book from my website in order to submit to all the calls for poems I ran throughout one calendar year. This was for several reasons: 1) to make explicit the link between understanding what I publish and sending in a successful submission, 2) to draw a connection between buying books and this small press surviving to continue to read submissions and publish work, and 3) to bring in direct sales through my website, rather than waiting 6 months to receive around 30% of the RRP of books sold in bookshops. I called this ‘The Emma Press Club’ and I think the worldly nature of it bothered some people, but luckily worries about worldliness and people not liking you are a luxury you can’t afford when you have little money and there are no jobs around.
I used to think that doing a job that was arty and risky was something other, richer people did, and that the most responsible thing for me to do was find a stable job and pursue creativity in my spare time. My two years in a stable job made me realise that: a) 9am-5pm, five days a week, is a substantial part of your life – it’s too many hours to be dismissed as ‘just work’ and secondary to your real, creative life, b) if you’re commuting to London or, frankly, just living somewhere affordable on the outskirts of London, you won’t have much spare time in the evenings and additionally you’ll mostly be too tired, and c) it’s not fair that the poorer you are the safer you have to play it. Why shouldn’t you be able to make a living doing something you enjoy, if that’s what you want? Other people do, so why shouldn’t you?
Emma Wright founded the Emma Press, an independent poetry publisher based in Birmingham, dedicated to producing beautiful, thought-provoking books. She runs it by herself with Rachel Piercey as a regular co-editor. The Emma Press were shortlisted in the Publishers’ category of the Michael Marks Awards in 2014 and 2015, and won it in 2016. You can find out more and see their full list of publications by visiting theemmapress.com