Coincidentally we met in the office of my publisher, The Poetry Business. I’ll miss Inpress. I’ll still knock around with publishers, but will lose the hard edge insight of where they meet the market place. The place you realise just how committed they are, operating in a world of margins constantly squeezed by distributors, by bookshops, by online pirates like Amazon. A world in which they are one of the few producers distributing to retailers that don’t have to buy your product, just take them at your expense and send you back anything they don’t sell. A world in which you sometimes find yourself thinking it would be cheaper to give books away rather than try and sell them.
It is often said that the biggest subsidy to the arts comes from artists and arts workers themselves, but few even in the arts sector understand to what extent this applies to publishers. It is insane really, the figures never add up. I am thinking of farmers, how you grow things or milk herds with the supermarkets and driving you down to a price at which it would it would be cheaper to give the crops/pour the milk away, to hand out books on railway stations.
All indie publishers subsidise the process of bringing readers to writers with their time, their own money and often at the outset their living rooms, kitchens, landings and garages. None have the local authority support enjoyed by theatres, orchestras, opera companies and galleries. None have the UK cultural funding insurance policy - having a building it would be embarrassing to leave empty.
But they till rich ground.
Most writers start their careers with publications in indie sector magazines and pamphlets or online journals. Many established writers return to experiment and play, Simon Armitage and Ian McMillan are regular Poetry Business pamphleteers.
More importantly, in a small country centralisation is disastrous, and England’s commercial publishing industry is centred in London and run by a small group of agents and publishers who, except for a few notable exceptions, like things that are like other things by people who will appeal to mainstream media, especially those already famous for doing something else entirely.
If you are outside the mainstream, if the community you belong to is small, regional, unfashionable and you want to read your writers, if you want to read writers experimenting, if you want to read writers who are out of or have yet to be in fashion, if you want to read poetry, short stories or novels in translation by any other writers than the big international names, then you rely on the indie publishers that Inpress represents and those we don’t like Comma in Manchester, Parthian in Swansea, or Wrecking Ball in Hull.
Indie publishing is often compared to the indie music industry, but one of my biggest frustrations over the time I have been involved with Inpress is a failure to learn a lesson not from music but from organic farming.
Lots of people I know buy locally sourced food, often delivered in weekly boxes. They do this for a whole range of reasons, a reaction against the chain stores, for their health, a way of expressing their political and local identity, a sense of contributing to local ecologies. Exactly the same kind of reasons that might influence their choice of book buying, if they had the information to let it. The problem is the narrow canon reviewed and promoted in broadsheets and on the radio, and their browsing being limited by bookshops which, like supermarkets, appear to offer overwhelming choice but in fact offer produce from a very narrow range of suppliers, mostly bought centrally.
Few of these readers know of their local producers of writing and books. I wonder how many of the hundreds of people who turn up for Simon or Ian’s readings know about The Poetry Business and the rest of their stable. I wonder how many of the readers of an amazing array of literature on the train from my place to Leeds, know they are passing one the HQ of Peepal Tree Press, a tiny outfit, publishing the biggest range of caribbean literature in the world.
My next project is with The Greedy Pig, The Writing Squad and Leeds Indie Food Festival, commissioning poets to write a poems to go with a menu of cheeses dishes. We are also going to create a little literary something to be handed out with Swillington Farm Pig’s Head sandwiches. Swillington Farm deliver meat boxes. Maybe instead of trying to persuade Inpress and the publishers to learn the lessons of organic farmers and other great indie to your door initiatives like Stack Magazines I’ll get a chance to try some small scale experiments.