The world of small publishing press’ continues to evolve graciously, and with the small responsibility of preserving, as well as constantly re-defining the literary universe, it is clear to see why. We sat down with Tom Chivers, Director and Creator of London-based literature organisation Penned in the Margins who have released over 50 books of poetry and fiction as well as producing innovative new live literature productions.
1. What originally inspired you to set up a publishing press?
I published my first book – an anthology of new writers with the zeitgeisty titled Generation Txt (yeah that hasn’t aged at all has it?) – back in 2006. It was a great little project that garnered national media coverage, and resulted in a fifteen-date tour of England. Seven poets in a minibus. We were remarkably well-behaved.
I kind of segued into publishing with some serious intent over the succeeding few years. I now publish up to ten books a year, with a focus on poetry and experimental/unusual fiction. At the time I felt that there was a real gap in poetry publishing. Frankly, a lot of the stuff I was into reading fell way outside the mainstream, and there was a particular problem around publishing new and/or younger poets. I’ve always been interested in experimental and performance writing, and felt I could add something as a publisher that others weren’t doing at the time.
2. How important would you say the smaller publishers are to the publishing industry?
It’s often the smaller publishers who are more able and willing to take risks and give unknown voices their first opportunity. Of course, some larger publishers do this too, but increasingly it feels like they’re skimming the ‘best’ writers off the top but not willing to be as involved in the messy business of literary talent-scouting as they used to.
Small is not always beautiful, though. I think there are problems with an ‘industry’ that aestheticises scale rather than thinking about what the challenges are in terms of skills, practices, etc. I have no ambition to remain small for the sake of it. I’ll just try to be the most appropriate size and shape that will enable the work to happen and flourish.
3. How is Penned in the Margins funded, and how does that affect the decisions you make as a publisher?
We’ve spent about ten years living on project grants for our live performance work, with the publishing as a commercial venture, always turning a small profit. It’s not a good living, but it’s taught me to economise. This year we joined the Arts Council’s National Portfolio which basically means that we are receiving a regular grant for three years. It’s really liberating knowing that we will definitely be around till 2018, and being able to plan ahead properly. The Arts Council funding contributes to our core costs (including my colleague James, who works part-time on sales and marketing); for anything on top of that, including our live performance programme, I have to raise additional funds from elsewhere.
4. How would you personally distinguish Penned in the Margins’ approach to publishing?
I don’t think there is a company quite like Penned in the Margins. Half of our business is publishing books, but the other half is producing live work – international touring theatre shows, spoken word, literary salons, site-specific performances, and lots more. It’s an unusual business model, but one which I hope generates a lot of energy and ideas. It also means that we work with an awful lot of writers who also perform, so we’re known for developing a particular brand of multi-artform, multi-disciplinary literary artist.
5. Is there a particular style of poet/artist you look for, if so what is it, and why?
There really isn’t one style that appeals to me. If you look at the diversity of artists we work with you’ll find people like Hannah Silva who work with language-as-material in a really powerful, uncompromising, complex way; and you’ll also find poets like Ross Sutherland or Luke Wright who come from more of a stand-up poetry background. Ultimately I like unique language that does something different, that surprises and startles; and I like good stories and ideas. A lot of our more recent books of poetry are drawn together by a coherent idea or narrative, so I guess you could say that I’m attracted by the possibility of reading across a series of poems, thinking about their accumulative impact.
6. What is your most successful release since you began publishing? And how do you define success at Penned in the Margins?
There are a number of different ways of measuring success. You can look at awards, or book sales, or reviews, or feedback from readers. From a basic sales point of view, our most successful two books are the anthology Adventures in Form and the poet Luke Wright’s debut collection Mondeo Man. The best-reviewed book was last year’s incredible collection Speculatrix by Chris McCabe, though it’s not sold as many copies as I would have hoped. I’m really pleased that our first full-length novel, Midland by Honor Gavin, was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize this year. That was a big success for us, as it’s new territory…
7. What sort of relationship do you have with poets/artists before, and during the publishing process?
I’m very rigorous in maintaining a strong editorial process here, when a lot of other publishers across fiction and poetry are cutting back their editorial commitment. So it’s a long-term thing. I like, if possible, to sit down a number of times with the author to go through their manuscripts, and we also communicate a great deal using email and Skype. We only publish ten books (maximum) per year, which means that we’re able to devote significant time to each relationship. My colleague James will also sit down with authors and work out a promotional strategy for the book, so I hope we have all bases covered. We’re a small-scale operation so we have to pick and choose our battles, of course!
8. What is the medium that you favour the most? And how do you take advantage of the constantly growing range of mediums?
We’re a pretty traditional publisher when you look at it. I mean, I’m sitting here in my office in the East End of London surrounded by boxes and boxes of books. I love making objects that exist in the world, whose edges curl if you don’t store them properly, whose covers fade if you leave them in the sun. There’s something magical about that.
But I am also fascinated by technology, and we’re actively exploring lots of different routes, including porting our entire backlist to e-book format. But for me it’s always got to be the right format for the work. So if an author approaches us and we love their idea, but don’t think it should be a paperback book, then I am quite happy to suggest, say, a podcast series, or an App, or a site-specific performance. In the face of the so-called demise of traditional publishing, I think writers have so many exciting opportunities to find new formats and models for writing and distributing their work. Companies like mine, born of the digital age, need to find out how to continue to be useful.
9. Finally, how can an unpublished writer get in touch?
We have very clear guidelines for new writers on our website. I also recommend that people take a look at our books beforehand so they have a clear understanding of the kind of work we’re into.