The final interview in the series with small publishers is with Lyn Reeves from Pardalote Press. There will be future interviews with online publishers, but for now, let’s see what Lyn has to say about the current state of poetry publishing and distribution in Australia.
As a small press publisher, what do you see are the major challenges for the publication and distribution of poetry in 21st century?
Recently I attended the Publishers’ Market run by Australian Poetry Centre at Glenfern. An informal forum, ‘Is Poetry Worth Publishing’ identified marketing and distribution as the main problems faced by small press publishers. Another area we discussed was the difficulty of getting our books reviewed in major newspapers and journals. However, we didn’t come up with any real answers.
Other major challenges are lack of resources – time, staff and money. Most poetry presses are run by poets, simply for the love of doing it. These poets have to find time for their own writing, and the tension of balancing both pursuits is not easy to resolve.
It’s not inexpensive to produce books, and if sales aren’t returning the outlay and bringing in enough to keep the press afloat, it will fold. Print runs are usually small, which increases the cost per unit. Booksellers and distributors take up to 70% of the RRP; the royalty to the author is another 10%. This doesn’t leave much for the publisher once printing and design costs are met. Direct marketing is the most efficient way to sell, and to avoid the books languishing in bookshops, becoming shop-soiled and unsaleable. Pardalote Press has been fortunate in receiving a number of grants, donations and sponsorships to produce its books and enable it to keep going, but it isn’t a profit-making venture.
The most challenging area for Pardalote, as for many other small presses, is promotion. I run the press alone, facilitating all aspects of proofreading, design and printing. These are the things I enjoy and can do well, but marketing is not one of my skills. Though I’ve tried a range of approaches to getting the word out – website, media releases and review copies, launches, emails, mail-outs, distributors, advertising – I’ve found that the most successful way to sell is through the authors themselves. When authors are active in giving workshops and readings and promoting their books in other ways, they usually manage to sell a good number of their books. Hopefully SPUNC (Small Press Underground Networking Community) will help address some of the difficulties in promoting to a wider audience than small presses can afford to reach on their own.
Why is 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?
It’s a reflection of the fact that poetry isn’t a money-earner and the corporate publishing houses are interested in the bottom line. Poetry doesn’t have a high profile in our society. There are the well-known Australian names like Les Murray and Dorothy Porter but the main audience for poetry is other poets. Poetry is considered an esoteric and fringe activity by mainstream culture. The general public would rather buy books on sport or gardening or biographies of celebrities or, when it comes to literature, books by writers they’ve heard of. Even when some boutique bookshops stock poetry they rarely take more than a few copies, and these are usually hidden at the back of the shop somewhere out of sight.
‘Reader Education’ can help overcome some of this resistance, and there’s often talk about how to do this, but it does need effort, funding and coordination to be effective. I’ve found that when, as a poet, I’ve been involved in taking readings to new audiences outside the literary community, people are generally very positive about poetry.
Small presses have arisen in response to the decline in interest by the corporate publishers, to meet the need for poets’ voices to be heard and read. I doubt if any of them actually make money out publishing, but that’s not the point of it, though it would be nice.
My own experience with using a national distributor wasn’t successful, so I’ve set up a shopping cart on my website. I still rely on the poets to let people know their work is available, and to personally sell and promote their books. Pardalote also hosts books by a number of other Tasmanian poets on its site.
Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel? What is the future of poetry publishing and distribution?
That does seem like a pretty bleak picture but people will go on writing and reading poetry, so there will always be the need to share their words abroad.
I don’t think of it as being inside a dark tunnel. I think you have to accept your limitations as a small press, the appeal of poetry to a large market, and work within those parameters. It’s more like being in a field adjacent to the bigger marketplace, but that field is full of the light of many voices, the joy of creativity, both in the writing of poems and the making and sharing of books. The rewards are in the doing. It would be nice to reach bigger audiences; as communicators we all want that. So we go on trying different approaches. And we do need to break even so that we can keep on producing the books.
Electronic delivery of poetry will play a greater role in publishing and distribution. There are more and more journals going online. Though it’s been slow to catch on, the e-book seems to be gaining more acceptance. The problem seems to be how to pay for the product, but in digital format it’s less expensive to produce. The internet will certainly play a role in making poetry more available, but the printed book won’t be ousted altogether. There’s something about the intimacy of poetry that harmonises with the tactile pleasure of a lovingly made book. We spend so much time in front of screens, it’s good to relax and get comfortable with a book. There’s less distraction and for me it’s a more focussed way to engage with the writing.
What is on the horizon for Pardalote?
Pardalote Press has been publishing poetry for a little over eight years now, beginning with a chapbook by Eric Beach, Red Heart, My Country. Initially I set out only to produce chapbooks, something affordable that could be sold at readings, but soon the lure of ‘the book’, beautifully designed and presented, took hold and I’ve continued to strive for a high standard in production values, as well as content, in the fourteen titles that make up the Pardalote list to date.
The most recent collection is Postcards from the Asylum by Karen Knight. The manuscript won the Alec Bolton Award in 2007 and is a powerful book. Reviews to date have been consistently stunning.
At the moment I’m editing a new collection of translations by Ian Johnston of ancient Chinese poetry, a sequel to Singing of Scented Grass, which has been my most successful book so far. The poems in Waiting for the Owl are taken from an earlier period, mostly from the Han Dynasty. That should be available some time later this year.
Because I work alone I can only do one manuscript a year, though there have been times when I’ve done two or three. I’d like to do more. I’ve had to send back some wonderful manuscripts by very fine poets that I would have loved to publish, and sometimes had to disappoint people I’ve had a tentative arrangement with, because life events made it necessary for me to cut back on how much publishing I could do. I try not to plan too far ahead. There’s another collection under way that may come out before or after the Chinese poems. But I’m also working on finalising a manuscript of my own that a publisher has offered to take up, and I’m doing some postgraduate study. It’s important to find time for my own poetry this year. At the moment I can’t accept any new submissions.
As well as producing these collections I need to empty my cupboards by selling more of the books that remain in unopened boxes, to make more room and bring in some funds to help with making more books. I wish for a marketing person, committed to poetry and willing to work for virtually no financial reward. Although I use a distributor in Tasmania, poetry really needs passionate representation that distributors don’t give it.
I often think it would be good to work with a small team of people with a mix of skills. That way we could get more poetry books out there, and there’s no shortage of worthwhile manuscripts to choose from. I’m also interested in the idea of e-books, especially for those titles that are out of print. Learning how to do that will be a whole new journey.
Lyn Reeves is a poet, editor, managing director of Pardalote Press and an associate editor of the literary journal, Famous Reporter. She has collaborated with painters, print-makers, musicians, photographers, workers and scientists for various poetry events. Awards include grants from Arts Tasmania and the Australia Council, and residencies at Varuna, St. Helens, and Darwin. Lyn has been a featured reader at many festivals, including the Queensland Poetry Festival, Sydney Writers’ Festival, Word Storm, The Tasmanian Poetry Festivals, and at other venues in Tasmania and interstate. A collection of her haiku, Walking the Tideline, appeared in December 2001. Her poetry collection Speaking with Ghosts was published by Ginninderra Press in 2002. More recently, she has published two chapbooks, Beads (Picaro Press, 2007) and the ink brushed distance (Walleah Press, 2008). She is one of four poets whose work appears in the award-winning anthology Seasoned with Honey (Walleah Press, 2008).
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