This week, as part of my mentoring service, I spent a day researching the poetry pamphlet publishing market, to find suitable publishers for my client to submit her brilliant pamphlet to. I’ve not been in a position to submit a pamphlet anywhere for a few years, so it was interesting to see which small presses were going strong, who the new voices were and which presses had fallen at the wayside.
I noticed quite a few things about the pamphlet publishers out there, some of which pleased me, some of which made me angry. Firstly: a massive round of applause for those small, independent pamphlet and chapbook presses that are working hard for the sheer love of poetry, supporting writers and getting poetry into the world; because there is F all profit in it, and often they don’t even break even. This is a labour of love, and whilst depressing because the arts continue to be marginalised and poetry more so than ever, it is incredibly heart warming to know that there are still those that value poetry enough that they will do it for love.
Pamphlets are viewed in different ways – they’re a precursor to a full collection, they may be a way of marketing a writer so that people are able to get a taste of their work, and often they are a little piece of art in themselves. There are several small presses which make what they are producing into an art form of its own. I have always thought of pamphlets are closer to visual art forms than perhaps full collections are, they tend to hold a theme together well, which means they can be quite narrative, without being overwhelming. The small scale of them allows for a the reader’s concentration to be held and this makes them more flexible, which means they can be more experimental. The work that Guillimot Press are doing with small collections is a brilliant example, they are aesthetically pleasing and very tactile productions, often with surprising turns and beautiful illustrations. There are also presses that are using traditional letterpress printers to create something that is, again, tactile, pleasing to the touch as well as the ear and the eye. There are many small publishers working on a shoe string and doing their best. Which is brilliant.
When I source contacts, agents, publishers or anything career based for my mentee clients, I always do so in a way that is tailored to that client. This time around my client is a woman and she has a beautiful, delicate pamphlet about her father. I’m a great believer in finding the right publisher for the right poetry, apart from the necessity of a smooth working relationship, if the publisher produces full collections as well as pamphlets you’re likely to stay with them, as a writer, if you’re happy. Publishing a book with someone should be a good, positive, life affirming experience. Yes there might be difficult decisions to be made on editing, or structure etc, but it should still be one of life’s achievements. I want my clients, my mentees to be well represented as people and as writers by their publishers, so I was really disappointed to find that of all the pamphlet publishers I researched, less than 5% had any women in the editorial teams at all. To a certain extent, this is forgivable, though disappointing, because small presses have small teams, often just one person at the helm, so with the best will in the world, one person can’t be more than one thing at any one time. However, I was seeing this on teams of sometimes five or six people. The really bad thing, though, and the thing that made me cross, was that a large proportion of the pamphlet publishers I researched had very few women writers on their books. Less than 8% women representation. (quick maths so only a rough figure – I’m considering doing a small study to get a more accurate count) And further more, very few people of colour. That’s a startling lack of diversity in the small press pamphlet publishing poetry world.
Why is this? Well, my opinion is that it is in part because, as I’ve said, the arts are squeezed virtually to death and poetry is a niche market at the best of times. This means that less and less people are going into pamphlet publishing, which probably means that the same people have been running the same presses for a number of years, with no change to the dynamics. You only have to do a quick google search to pull up the massive amount of research which tells us that as editorial and publishing is concerned, despite there being as many, if not more, women writers than men, there are far far more male editors and publishers than women. Where there were mostly or all men editorial groups, there was little gender diversity.
Having said all that, there are so many new online magazines out on the market run by women and men, and a lot of online magazine producers are publishing small pamphlets and small anthologies and this is good, of course. I imagine that this is going to be the future of printing. I certainly know of one well respected magazine that has recently announced it was no longer producing hard copy lit mags, which provoked a mixed response. There were quite a few people saying it was a good thing as it made the whole thing less elite, but a lot of people were saying that buying a physical book or a physical magazine is part of the pleasure, the tactile nature of poetry and books is important, poetry isn’t just entertainment, it’s an art. And I do sometimes wonder if we are losing the appreciation of that by switching to digital. But then, it was ever thus and everything changes, digital opens up the poetry world and makes it more accessible, and having access to art is the most important thing, isn’t it?.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s a real shame that quite a lot of the small publishers who are working in the niche of poetry pamphlet publishing are missing out on such a huge amount of talent because they don’t embrace diversity, but not stepping out of their comfort zones and searching out that diversity. Without diversity then the pamphlets are not representational, and the poetry pamphlet publishing ‘industry’ becomes another area where old white men are dominant, and therefore we lose out on the voices of other experiences outside of that realm. And eventually, these micro publishers become obsolete. And with them goes the art that is the small collection, the physical manifestation of art and poetry combined.
Or maybe I’m just not looking in the right places?
Catch you on the flip side