Jumping the Poetic Hurdle (part 3) – an interview with Ralph Wessman

As part of the ongoing discussion about the publication and distribution of poetry in Australia, this lost shark has fired off a few questions to some of our country’s fine independent publishers to get their view on the future of poetry publication and distribution and to see what they are up to in 2009.

First up in this series is an interview with Ralph Wessman from Walleah Press. So, let’s hear from Ralph…


As a small, independent publisher, what do you see are the major challenges for the publication and distribution of poetry in the 21st century?

Speaking personally – about poetry distribution – I’ve never been a good marketer of the titles I publish, though it’s an area I intend to improve on. Not sure if having joined SPUNC – the Small Press Underground Networking Community (SPUNC), self-described as a representative body for small and independent Australian publishers – will help much in this regard, from what I can gather SPUNC doesn’t see itself being involved in the distribution side of poetry; I listened in to a Melbourne forum in October – ‘Trends in Poetry Publishing in Australia Today: Is poetry worth publishing?’ – which was part of the Festival Franco-Anglais de Poesie. Heard Antoni Jach and Susan Hawthorn (both involved with independent publishing, both members of SPUNC) suggesting SPUNC’s role as an organisation would remain that of a representative body acting to promote the views of small press participants and not as a distributor. Nevertheless, I’m hopeful SPUNC will prove a source of marketing ideas or strategies.

I get the impression that distribution is problematic not just for poetry publishers but for journals as well. (As publisher of famous reporter, I’m interested in journals). At the festival just mentioned, I spoke to the editors of a couple of Melbourne-based journals (Etchings, Harvest) about their distribution methods, both said that at this stage they were committed to doing it themselves. Etchings’ editors had journeyed across to Adelaide and up to Melbourne in an effort to flog their magazine (one comment was ‘We found Sydney very different, unlike Melbourne where there are chains such as Readings … in Sydney it’s more commonly the independents.’) with Harvest also doing the rounds locally, for the moment at least.

As for challenges to poetry publication, it seems in a state of flux at the moment. The Oz Council are in the process of making (as yet unknown) changes to its support mechanisms. I think increased web publication is the way of the future, but the print medium feels good in the hand, seems pretty safe at the moment. I think if I had an inclination to make another investment in time and energy into publishing another journal, (which I don’t), I’d go the way of a web journal; it doesn’t surprise me so many do, and with good results.

Why is it that poetry, an art that arguably best reflects the speed at which we absorb ideas, information and imagery, is being neglected by corporate publishing houses and distributors throughout Australia?

Because they’re businesses? Back when Penguin made its decision to cut its poetry list in Australia, it seemed to crystallise the notion that an investment in poetry – in poetry’s worth – didn’t extend beyond the profit margin. Well, maybe I’m being tough on them. Some people argue if poetry made itself ‘more accessible’ it might just capture the public imagination and thus the interest of the publishing houses. But it’s argued elsewhere – and just as persuasively – that poetry isn’t a commodity as such and would do well to forget marketing and concentrate on its raison d’etre.

Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel? What is the future of poetry publishing and distribution?

A hard one. I’m a small player on the scene, take things on a day to day basis, I’m not sure if I have an eye for the bigger picture – though speaking of the immediate future: there’ve been a few instances of publishers sending their books to printers overseas – to Hong Kong, for instance – because they can get a better price, but I’ve heard of a couple of occasions where that’s been knocked on the head because of the recent savaging of the dollar.

What is on the horizon for Walleah Press?

Well, I’m pleased to have come to grips with the software publishing package, Indesign. For two or three of the collections I’ve published the typesetting has cost $800 or $900 (and I’m sure they were bargain basement prices) but I’ve since learnt to manage that side of things myself. Not ‘professionally’, but at least comfortably; insofar as the economics – what I can afford! – of publishing is concerned. Having that skill is wonderful; (empowering! don’t laugh). I’d hope that I can continue on with my magazine, I enjoy that even though the last few weeks of putting it together (June and December) drive me crazy; as to a lesser extent does my mailout cos that usually takes me a month. I’m not quite ready for a more concerted effort at publishing poetry, at this stage; perhaps within another eighteen months, two years.

About Ralph Wessman:

Ralph Wessman frets over typefaces and paper stocks, publishes books of literary merit – poetry collections primarily – and since 1987, the literary journal ‘famous reporter’.

Find out more at:




Filed under poetry & publishing

10 responses to “Jumping the Poetic Hurdle (part 3) – an interview with Ralph Wessman

  1. Publishing poetry has been a difficult topic for some time no matter where the discussion takes place. Many people are pointing towards e-books as a possible remedy since there are no real printing cost involved but it is still to be determined whether the public in general is willing to grasp the technology.
    Amazon.com did report strong sales figures this year which indicates people are buying books but there hasn’t been a poetry collection break into the Top 100 much less the Top 10 there.
    I do have a new book that listed on Amazon in late November and have 3 books that will be listed on Sony’s web site as e-books probably early next month. It will be interesting to see how these do; I haven’t released a new book in print for 6 years now.

  2. gnunn

    And sadly, I cannot see a poetry collection cracking the top 100 seller list in the near future. Sure hope your e-books go well Ed. As you say, the technology is still so new it is hard to tell whether it will be totally embraced by the general public, although it would seem that they are starting to take off (e.g. Penguin and several other major publishers are investing in the e-book). Poetry seems like it would translate well to the e-book format as well… please keep us posted as to how you get on.

  3. My new book Whispers, Tears, Prayers, and Hope has gotten some good reviews on Amazon. It is actually in contention for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in Verse, will know about these in the next couple of months. I am hoping this will help increase interest in the book itself and maybe open a few door for others hoping to get thier poetry published. Several poems in this book have helped people. There is a letter on the back cover I received from a man in Jordan. (I was 1 of 10 poets chosen to represent the US at a poetry festival held in Amman in 2005)
    “A friend of mine here at university of Amman shared with me your poetry i was PLO i was going to be terrorist by stopping me you have saved many i am returning to my people now in desert to allow sand and wind to wash away my shame my friend has shown several all he risk to do so many will never know he met you year ago you saved him he saved me now”
    There is a poem at the book titled “Ink in the Storm” after which people can read around 20 pages of comments people have left on my poetry site. (I have saved over 200 pages of these.)
    Many people have forgotten why we need poetry in our lives, what it truly can accomplish. Hopefully this book will help them remember.
    I signed the contract with Sony almost a year ago, finally making progress getting the first 3 books listed. Of course there is a growing interest in Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reader.
    It will be interesting to see which of these, if either, takes the lead in market share.

  4. gnunn

    I certainly wish you all the best with your books Ed and more importantly, I hope they reach wide and far.

  5. I think UK based Salt has some great philosophies when it comes to publishing poetry.
    The more I have informed myself over the years the more bleak the scene here in Australia seems.
    Again, I have to say I love publishing online for the immediate gratification that comes from reading responses and receiving emails. The accessibility and potential breadth is really exciting.
    I have gained a great readership through the massively flawed but well traversed http://www.poetryblogrankings.com.
    Again, also, mostly other poets.
    However it would be just grand to find a way to convert subscribers into income 🙂
    Good interview Graham.. I am really enjoying your musings & proddings on this topic. Thanks for it!

  6. ooh.. I made a smiley 🙂
    sorry.. terribly simple girl to amuse 😀

  7. gnunn

    Hi Amanda. It certainly would be grand to find the secret of converting subscribers/readers into a buying audience. Now that would be a secret worth selling. Glad you are enjoying the discussion and thank you for your contributions. I must check out that poetry blog rankings site. Thanks for the tip!


  8. yes, poetryblogrankings is a curious beast. There are well over five thousand ‘blogging’ (great term) poets on there. It has served me well.

  9. Michael Brennan in his article on “Unreading Kinsella..” (Fairly Obsessive) quotes Robert Adamson~
    “is the joy of being
    a modern poet, to skip time
    and space

    looking for the perfect
    some poet”

    ~makes me grin 😀

  10. gnunn

    Great quote Amanda. Robert Adamson is certainly one of my favourite Australian poets. It is really interesting what he touches on here; the fact that the perfect reader is in fact a poet. Made me think about what you said in an earlier discussion… that 95% of the population are poets. You are probably not far off the mark, so yes, the challenge remains, turning readership/audience into a buying market for poetry. Have signed up to poetryblogrankings but am yet to really explore its potential. Thanks again for your amazing contributions!


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