Let’s welcome a special guest, today, the third in an occasional series of interviews with the folk who run small poetry presses: Sarah Miles.
I need to declare an interest. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for all those selfless souls who run themselves ragged to put published poetry in your hands, but I owe a special debt to today’s guest, who has published several of my poems in her Press’ anthologies, and very handsome they are, too.
What I do is to send out a kind of open-ended prompt sheet, and invite these lovely folk to respond. Their generosity is wonderful. Sarah miles continues the tradition. OK. Ready? Sitting comfortably? Here we go:
If you could kick off by describing what you’ve done so far, that would be nice. A story is always a nice beginning. Then tackle the following questions. If it’s OK, I’ll then create the illusion of a dialogue, as though we’re both sitting in a room, with cake and coffee. That sort of illusion.
There seem to be hundreds of small poetry presses about, and I imagine they struggle to make a living, competing as they do for what is essentially a niche market; something led you think: there’s room for another. What was the trigger that persuaded you to set up your own publishing venture?
From what I’ve experienced, there is much more camaraderie between small presses, than competition. Basically, we are all in the same boat: struggling to break even, desperately trying to get great poetry ‘out there’ and scrabbling around to fund ourselves — big bookshops won’t take our books unless we go down channels where we make about 5p a book and Amazon also takes a fair cut (plus many of us don’t agree with their ethics, and we’re a moral bunch, us publishers!). So, most of us rely on selling through our websites and this summer, I am going to try to set up a new independent website to facilitate buying from indie presses…watch this space!
My inspiration to set up Paper Swans was The Emma Press. I love their quality of books and the poetry within and, one day, voiced to a friend of mine (designer of our logo, Helen Braid), that I would so love to do the same thing and the thought of editing, publishing and producing beautiful books was something that had been a pipe-dream for a long time. She simply replied, ‘Well, why don’t you?’ The seed was planted and, in a way, I suppose she gave me the ‘permission (confidence)’ I couldn’t quite give myself and I’ll always thank her for it. I had a little bit of money set aside and gave myself a two-book deadline. If it crashed — well, I had tried. But it didn’t and, I’m happy to say, Paper Swans is going from strength to strength.
You chose to feature themed anthologies that called for submissions. Did you have any particular criteria for you choice of theme, or were you blessed by happy accidents? You’ve attracted a lot of submissions from well-established and otherwise successful poets. What do you put that down to?
The first theme (The Darker Side of Love) was a personal choice. I think a lot of poetry is therapeutic and there’s nothing like a bad love affair to get the poetry flowing! Most people have experienced love gone wrong and I wanted to counteract all the glitter–clad romantic nonsense and publish a pamphlet for Valentine’s Day that possibly a lot more people could identify with. I also had the good fortune to have been tweeting with Maggie Sawkins, who had recently won The Ted Hughes Award, and she submitted poems from that to our very first anthology! I will always be grateful for, what has always seemed, a huge leg-up when we really needed it. She gave us credence and put faith in us from the start.
Our second theme, Schooldays, was trying to tap into an experience that most people have enjoyed or endured. Again, I wanted to produce a book that a lot of people could identify with and get something from when they read it. From there, our anthologies have always kept that ideal of tying in with the broader experience, of both the writer and the reader. We have always kept our submissions fairly unspecific too, to allow the poet to write freely, for example, The Chronicles of Eve is about women and that covers a very wide range of interpretations and perspectives.
Our most recent full anthology, Best of British, was conceived pre-Brexit and wanting to give people the chance to break away with what we were being told to think and allow them to say what Britain really means to them: it’s quirks, it’s places, it’s truth. It’s a wonderful journey through people’s memories and tales of Britain, from its back-alleys to its lochs to the longing of an expat for peanut butter.
Of all the lovely small poetry press publications, which are the ones that you particularly like yourself, and why?
As aforementioned, I still adore The Emma Press; I think the quality and individuality of her books sets them apart. Mother’s Milk Books are also beautiful; I particularly liked the poetry duets pamphlets they produced. And, I have to mention Paekakariki Press who use letterpress printing which makes their books unique and beautiful. Great name, too!
Tell us something about your design choices. Did you consciously decide you wanted a house style? Did you have any models that you wanted to borrow from?
I kind of fell into a house style for the anthologies. The first two books were produced using a template I had set up and a lot of people kept telling me how much they liked it, so I kept it! As for our covers, again, the first two were similar, but I didn’t want to be restricted on cover design and I was thrilled to have Sophia Platts-Palmer design the cover for The Chronicles of Eve. She was fresh from art school and had sent me some ideas. Her work is so unusual and intriguing — I have the cover art for Eve up on my wall!
Tell us something about the snags you encounter…how about how you set about the business of marketing, about getting the brand out there. It may be that it’s something you feel a bit at sea with. How do you get folk to review the stuff, for instance? How do you feel about the business of competitions for small publishers…stuff like the Michael Marks, for instance? Riff on this topic as you feel appropriate
Definitely the hardest part about being a small press and surviving is sales and marketing. There is no money in poetry (alas) and most presses simply aim to break even, which is a real shame as the books produced are, in my opinion, far more beautiful and interesting than the ones you’ll find on the shelves of Waterstone’s. As I said earlier, large book shops aren’t interested in stocking us and, even if they do, by the time they and their supplier have taken a cut, we would end up making very little, or even a loss. So, it’s a no win situation a lot of the time. Awards like Michael Marks and Saboteur are a great way to gain some recognition and, perhaps, spur people on to go buy a book, but they are few and far between. We rely heavily on social media and trying to get our name known through word-of-mouth and poetry websites like yours. It constantly amazes me that poets seem to be so modest — often on something like Facebook, I will plug a book that a poet is published in and they will ‘like’ but not share! To all writers — please share any posts like this! Not just so we might sell a few more copies, but in doing that, more people are reading your work.
It’s funny, I have had many conversations with other poetry friends or those who work in music and there seems to be such a juxtaposition between the arts and marketing. Somehow, driving sales feels ‘wrong’ or tainting the work somehow. It doesn’t, of course, and without funding, many wonderful projects would never see the light of day, but it often doesn’t sit right with publishers and artists alike. For me, I feel that if I don’t keep pinging things on social media etc. then I am doing my writers an injustice. It’s my job to get their work to as many readers as possible. It’s also the reason I accept previously published work (apart from the pamphlet prize). It seems a shame to give a wonderful poem only one airing; much better to give it the exposure it deserves!
What next? More in the pipeline?
Yes, lots! We have recently published our first young poets anthology, with poetry from 16-18 year olds and we will shortly be announcing the winner of this year’s poetry pamphlet prize — last year’s winner, Glass by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough, won The Saboteur Award this year for best pamphlet, so that has prompted even more people to enter. Our judge, Jill Munro, has had a very tough job!
We currently have submissions open for an anthology of flash fiction and for a new project of pocket poetry, which will be ongoing. We aim to produce small, but beautiful books on various themes. All details are on our website. https://paperswans.co.uk/category/blog/
Further to that, we are once again, planning an online publication for National Poetry Day later in the year and will also be at The Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in London this September, if anyone wants to come and say hello.
Well…..you can’t say fairer than that, can you? Sarah Miles, it’s been a pleasure to have you as our guest today. Good luck to Paper Swans Press and all who sail with her. May you go from strength to strength.
And now, some advance notice. I see that I’ve posted eleven cobweb strands this July. I normally plan to do four or five a month. So I’m having a two week break to catch my breath, and hopefully do a bit of research, and come up with fresh ideas and topics, and line up a whole load of new guests. I can promise you that I’m definitely returning with a particular guest who I’ve been hoping to feature for a very long time, and I’m really really looking forward to it. See you all then. I hope the sun shines on all of you xx