Pub Chats is back! After an extended hiatus, the Poetry School’s long-running series of interviews with indie publishers returns with a fresh round of innovative small presses. First to join us in our imaginary theatre pub somewhere in London’s docklands is Rosie Johns, Marketing and Communication Officer at Seren.
Hello there! What are you drinking?
Rosie: You know I think I fancy a Diet Coke.
How long has Seren been running?
Rosie: Seren started life in 1981 as ‘Poetry Wales Press’ thanks to Cary Archard, who at the time was Editor of Poetry Wales magazine. Cary still serves as our Director, and Mick Felton, Seren’s Publisher (and Manager, and Non-Fiction Editor) has been at the stern for at least 35 years. We’ve always been known for our strong poetry list, but as the years went by, we diversified and now publish a really varied mix of fiction and non-fiction too.
What were some of the practical things you did to get started?
Rosie: I’ve been with Seren for three years so I came in when things were already going at full speed. But I’ve been told that back when Seren first started, it was operating off of Cary’s kitchen table. At one stage we were based in the garage of Dannie Abse’s cottage in Ogmore-by-Sea – it’s a beautifully picturesque place, and a mere ten-minute drive from our current premises. In the early days it was a much more gung-ho operation with limited funds, and times were tough – I don’t think anyone will disagree with me when I say it’s hard to get a foothold as an independent publisher. One thing that has really enabled us to grow and thrive over the years, and something we are very grateful for, is support from the Welsh Books Council, and the Arts Council. Without the funding we receive, we simply wouldn’t exist in the same capacity.
Does your personal background lend itself being an independent publisher?
Rosie: I’d say so – first off, I’m from a working class background, so I have a very realistic view of budgets and financial limitations. And as an English Literature graduate, I have a strong appreciation for good writing – I know when I’m reading something special. The quality of the books we publish is always at the forefront of our minds. Personally, I spend a lot of time thinking about how best to communicate the literary value of our titles to all the potential readers out there – which, let me tell you (with dwindling review space and indifferent chain stores), can be extremely difficult. In a way I’m a bit like a literary matchmaker – I have to connect with strangers and say, ‘Hey, you might not have heard of this author, or of us – but read this book. You’re going to fall in love’.
Where does the name Seren come from?
Rosie: Seren is the Welsh word for ‘star’. It’s also a really popular girl’s name – in Wales and, occasionally, beyond!
Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?
Rosie: Our Poetry Editor Amy Wack has a brilliant eye for new poetry. We publish quite a diverse list – formal, prose poetry, metaphysical poetry, sonnets – but quality always comes first. Amy’s view is that a good manuscript should light her desk on fire – that’s the response she wants to have, and she wants our audience to be blown away too. We’re hugely supportive of women poets (our list is split pretty much 50/50) and we also publish a lot of new voices, from Wales and elsewhere.
How are you different from other independent publishers?
Rosie: We love our fellow indies, and whilst we face a lot of the same struggles (finance, time management, staffing, the list goes on) we are striving to be really engaged with all the opportunities made available by digital advancement. We’re active on social media, we have a busy and interesting blog, we sell direct (with 20% discount) from our website, and we engage with a ton of creatives and literary types online. We’re producing more video content and putting ourselves out there, because we believe engaging with people like this is one of the best ways to expand our authors’ readership. We’re always learning – and that’s a good thing!
What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
Rosie: We’ve been on some really prestigious prize lists over the years – last year, Caroline Smith’s heartbreakingly topical collection, The Immigration Handbook, was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Prize, and Kim Moore’s The Art of Falling was on the shortlist for the Forward Prize. Jonathan Edwards’ My Family and Other Superheroes won the Costa Poetry Award in 2014, and a Seren book also took home this award back in 2006 – Jon Haynes’ Letter to Patience beat Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle.
Something else we’re immensely proud of is the Cornerstone/Seren Poetry Festival – we put on a programme of events in February this year for the inaugural festival, and were delighted (and a little stunned) at the brilliant reception we received. We’re looking to revive the festival for 2019 – you can find out more at cardiffpoetryfestival.com.
What’s the best thing you’ve found from the unsolicited pile?
Rosie: I’ll let Amy cut in here: ‘In retrospect, that would have to be Paul Henry’s very first collection, Time Pieces, which we published back in 1991. Paul has a distinctive voice, arising from his background as a singer-songwriter and also his childhood with musicians in Aberystwyth. This voice was ‘born’ in his very first book, and he’s gone on to publish eight more with us – including The Glass Aisle which came out earlier this year. His work is precise, musical, moving, with a revolving cast of characters reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.’
How important is the physical book design for you?
Rosie: Book shopping these days is definitely a multi-sensory experience – we’re fully aware that customers don’t simply assess a book’s content but also how attractive the cover art is, the shade and weight of the paper we’ve used, the font, the layout, and even the texture and feel of a book. These are all things we consider early on, and we make different decisions depending on the type of book. For Christopher Meredith’s new collection of short fiction, Brief Lives, we produced a beautiful hardcover with a silky soft dustjacket, featuring delicately embossed text and crisp interior pages. For our poetry collections, as standard we use thicker, sturdier paper in a creamy shade – not too white – to show off the poems better. I’ve probably gone into a little too much detail there (do I sound like Patrick Bateman?) but my point is, design is hugely important.
Could you describe your editing process? And how long does it take start to finish?
Rosie: The whole process of publication, from accepting a manuscript to receiving the printed books, takes over a year in most cases – and the editing process goes on for most of that time. First the editors read and re-read the text, going through several drafts of changes and amendments with the author. Once the text is decided upon and a final draft approved, it goes to a proof-reader, who helps us iron out any inconsistencies. The final proof is given to the author for approval, and once everyone is happy with the text, it is ready to print and we all give off a sigh of relief.
What’s your submissions policy?
Rosie: We are always happy to receive poetry submissions, which we accept in hard copy form, sent to editor Amy Wack at our office address. We ask that poets send approximately 50 pages of poems, along with a cover letter and details of previous publications. More details of how to submit can be found on our website.
What are some basic mistakes people make when submitting to you?
Rosie: The biggest mistake is not reading our submission guidelines – for instance, trying to submit multiple manuscripts at once, or sending in just a few pages of poems, as opposed to a full manuscript. Another problem we sometimes have is submissions that come through with little or no additional information, and no SAE for us to return the manuscript with. We want to know about you – where you’ve been published previously, which poets have inspired and influenced your style, and the ideas you have for bringing your book to life – how it will look, who it will appeal to and how we’ll reach the market. These contextual things form an important part of your submission and shouldn’t be neglected.
Where do you look for new writers?
Rosie: We enjoy reading poetry magazines and often find new writers in the smaller ones – if a poem really strikes a chord we’ll often reach out and ask the author to send us some more. We find other poets through reading their pamphlets, or seeing them perform at events and festivals.
What advice would you give to poets today trying to get published?
Rosie: Put yourself out there and don’t be discouraged by rejection letters – everyone gets them. Be open to constructive feedback and be persistent. It is incredible to watch poets evolve and progress in their work – sometimes we will turn someone down, only to publish them later down the line.
What is your approach to marketing and promotion?
Rosie: We have a multi-pronged approach to marketing – we still do all the traditional things like sending out review copies and press releases, but we also spend a lot of time forging relationships with bloggers and online literary types. We also love authors who engage in promotion themselves – being active on Twitter may sound like a trivial thing, but we’ve seen it open up incredible opportunities for our authors, such as festival appearances and collaborative events.
What would help independent publishers? Do you think the state or any other institution should do more?
Rosie: The grants we receive are essential for us – but we are very aware that they have remained static in Wales for over a decade. We’d like to see continued investment in literature by the government and government-funded bodies (ideally in line with inflation!) We’d also like to see much more support for independent bookshops, who really champion indie publishers like ourselves in a way that Waterstones, WH Smith and devious online marketplaces (who I’m sure I don’t even need to name) never will.
Do you work full-time as a publisher?
Rosie: Yes – ‘working 9 ’til 5’ along with my rescue dog, Mojo.
Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?
Rosie: Our main distributors in Wales are the Welsh Books Council, who sell direct from their website and deliver to bookshops throughout the country. In England and the rest of the UK we are distributed by NBN International and Inpress. You’ll find our books in independent bookshops and also Waterstones, who are usually happy to order copies in if they don’t have them to hand. All our books are also available to buy direct – we offer 20% discount on all orders placed on our website when you create a free account.
Do you have any staff? If so, how many?
Rosie: There are five full-time staff members at Seren – Mick Felton, Publisher and Non-Fiction Editor; Amy Wack, Poetry Editor; Jamie Hill, Designer; Simon Hicks, Sales Manager; and myself – Marketing and Communications Officer.
What other indie publishers do you like?
Rosie: We are firm friends with our fellow Welsh indie publishers – the innovative Parthian Books, Honno Press (the longest-standing independent women’s press), Graffeg (who publish photography books of extraordinary quality), Gomer Press (publishing an impressive 36 titles a year), and the small and passionate Cinnamon Press. We are also in awe of The Emma Press, whose books always seem to be both beautifully produced and brimming with intelligence. Persephone Books are also outstanding – they are constantly gifting us with old and brilliant books that would likely be lost to us otherwise.
How optimistic are you about the future of independent publishing? Are you satisfied with your own solutions to the problems it currently faces?
Rosie: I think there’s been a real surge in public interest lately when it comes to the handmade, the small scale. We see an incredible amount of support from the public – our main challenge has and continues to be how we reach more of them, as securing coverage in the media and space in bookshops gets harder all the time. What I am optimistic about though, is that there will always be people who deeply value our books, and who seek out the varied and exciting things that only independent publishers can produce.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own independent publishing business today?
Rosie: Engage with and try to understand your audience to the best of your ability – they will make or break you. Find out what they want, what they’re missing, and how you can help. Communicate with them in every way you can: email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, phone and in person. The stronger your connection with the readers themselves, the better. And on a more practical note, research and apply for all the funding available – there are a surprising number of channels you can seek support from.
Tell me something about being an independent publisher that most people don’t know.
Rosie: While it’s sometimes assumed that larger publishers have all the real expertise, I’d argue that what they really have is capital. Independent publishers on the other hand face far more challenges and have to survive in spite of them. We are resourceful, innovative, and completely relentless. There’s no off button for us – everyone I know who works in publishing is passionate about it 24/7. We attend literary events, support local authors (even if they’re not our own), and have a real community attitude with the rest of the industry.
Seren is Wales’ leading independent literary publisher, specialising in English-language writing from Wales. With a list spanning poetry, fiction and non-fiction, many Seren books are shortlisted for – and win – major literary prizes across the UK and America. Seren are international in authorship and readership, though their roots remain in Wales, where they prove that writers from a small country with an intricate culture have a worldwide relevance.