The sad fate of a self-published poetry book sent to a broadsheet for review

unluckybookI have a confession to make. Last week I bought a second-hand copy of my own poetry book off Amazon for £5.00, plus P&P.

Yeah, I know. That’s pretty low, even for a self-publishing poet.

But it was all up in my grill on Amazon, competing unfairly with the almost 50% of the stock I still own and have up for sale, which is priced at a much less tempting £10 (plus P&P). And it said the condition was “like new”. Like new??? How had this come to be?

Worse was yet to come: “immaculate condition. No sign of previous ownership, or of having been read.”

Now, bear in mind I’ve only got rid of about 100 of these. I estimate about 65 were actually genuinely legitimately sold; 25 were given to people I either respect or admire or otherwise wanted to read it for some reason when I had a stamp and a jiffy bag to hand; and about 10 were sent marked “for review” with the aggressive accompanying press release that so irked the two chaps who actually found the time and inclination to write about it.

If you can call that a plot, I felt it had thickened to Marmite consistency by this point. So let’s backtrack a bit.

I don’t work much these days because of how successful I am with the poetry. Besides, when I’m not doing poetry I’m a stay-at-home dad. But I don’t stay at home much either; so maybe that should be “drive-around dad”. Life wasn’t always like this: before I was a drive-around dad I was a copywriter. And before I was a copywriter I was, admittedly pretty briefly, a music-journalist.

Being a music journalist is what a lot of very narrow-minded British kids dream about being when they’re a teenager. I didn’t because I thought the world was going to end in the year 2000. But regardless of that, it’s not a dream job. Especially not nowadays. It’s actually a pretty difficult, poorly paid, and thankless job.

One morning in 2008(ish) I was sat at my large, messy desk in the corner below the leaky roof in the office of Playlouder.com (RIP), just off the top of Brick Lane, working my way through the mountain of jiffy-bags that was at that point still being delivered daily to my desk, usually addressed to “The Editor”, sometimes to “Reviews Editor” (as if we had more than one editor! Lol!) or even, occasionally, “Alexander Narkiewicz”, which was my name then, if you spelled it correctly.

Being the two-day-a-week editor of (and sole salaried writer for) a once-pretty-good website with a dwindling readership, I was nothing if not conscientious. When my brother used to work for the site for double my pro-rata salary in the early days of the dot-com boom he’d roll in at about midday (about a few hours before his coeditor checked in) then begin to get drunk a few hours later and bugger off to a party that may or may not have some musical element he could later write about. Not so Narkiewicz Jr: I got in at about 8:30am, unwrapped and listened to as many CDs as I could, paused briefly for a desk lunch and plodded on till about 6pm, churning out news stories, transcribing interviews, and rushing out a couple of reviews under various aliases, before heading to some awful dive bar where I’d often have to pay to see a band I didn’t know if I’d like because I felt sorry for a particularly woeful-sounding PR person who’d phoned up earlier. Usually alone. Often with no money for drinks.

But that morning, among the landfill indie, new rave and dubstep-crossover that made up the majority of the audio matter at that time and in that place, I found a package addressed to Sophie Heawood. Now, I wasn’t Sophie Heawood and neither were any of my made-up reviewers. (They were Emily Dover, Jamie Janakov and Alexander Velky, believe it or not). In fact, I suspected Sophie Heawood was a real person (a real journalist, even) who I had once met, and who had freelanced or possibly worked full-time for PlayLouder.com back when it was a camel-case brand and before it had the extensive tech makeover and drastic drop in funding that conspired to drive away the majority of its already thinning readership.

But she wasn’t there then, so I decided to employ the rule of “finders keepers”. You can only imagine my shock, and indeed horror, when I opened the packet to find a book instead of a CD. A book, made out of paper, full of poems by Simon Armitage. It was called “The Not Dead”.

Other than this, the package was not dissimilar to those I was used to opening; it was, for example, accompanied by an A4 typed letter full of hyperbole and conjecture. It had a tone at once lofty and pleading, and bore an uneasy familiarity which might feasibly have been earned from previous acquaintance between the sender and the recipient, but which I suspected from the many such letters I read daily, was probably presumed and ill-judged.

I wasn’t really horrified, or even shocked. I was pretty pleased. Of course I wasn’t supposed to review poetry books for Playlouder. But I liked poetry books so much that I had (at that time) begun writing one. It hadn’t occurred to me to read one, at least not for a while, so I greeted this new opportunity with gusto, taking a proper lunch hour and reading the whole book in the grotty park off Rhoda Street. I had some misgivings about Simon Armitage (a GCSE-anthology favourite of mine, who I was happy to be reintroduced to) writing “war poetry” about wars he hadn’t fought in. Nevertheless I enjoyed reading them, and was pleased I didn’t have to write about them, because it wasn’t my job. I did wonder momentarily what such a job might be like; but I headed back to the office aware that I had to try and find a way to put into words just how wonderfully messed-up the new Cadaverous Condition remixes album “Destroying the Night Sky” was. I’d written off to CC main-man Wolfgang Weiss to request he sent a review copy, which apparently wasn’t something he normally did. But he’d been kind enough to put one in the post from Austria. I had to try and do it justice somehow, while all the other tight-trousered dudes and dudettes were presumably busy copy-and-pasting bits of Elbow press releases into their own adjective-rich celebration of “The Seldom Seen Kid” on whatever poorly-paid/unpaid blog or zine they’d landed some pixel space at.

Zoom out. Fade.

Music maybe? Maybe not.

Sound of pages turning? I don’t know.

Five years later and I’m at a post office in Crundale, Pembrokeshire, leaving poor Corinne with a mountain of black jiffy bags with custom-made wax seals to process. I think I’m off on a holiday or something, and she kindly tells me to check in next week for the receipts. I’m still buzzing after my Kickstarter success, having rinsed close friends and family for about £600 so I can print and publish my first poetry book. The review copies are in there too. All ten of them. I’m only sending to people who’ve replied to emails and said that they might (might) be able to write something about the book. I’ve got no publishing record, no one to vouch for me, and I’ve no proof beyond my own hunch that what I’ve written is worth anyone else’s reading time. And I’ve only printed about 200, so I can’t afford to get cocky fighting for print (or even screen) space with the big name publishers like Picador, Bloodaxe and Faber & Faber in, for example the TLS. But I do make an exception for The Guardian. Because I actually read The Guardian. I used to even buy it, back when I lived in London. And if anyone’s going to review a self-published poetry book about art (and they probably won’t, will they?) It’s going to be them. Plus my good wife (posing as my press person, while simultaneously by virtue of said posing, actually becoming it) has found out the name of the actual person who deals with poetry at the Guardian: at this time it’s apparently someone called Nicholas Wroe.

Months go by. The sales trickle in, then stop. It’s cool. I’m still just happy I did it. A couple of people I know are kind enough to say nice things about the book. Bill Fucking Drummond emails and says thanks for sending it, and that he read it. He even uses the word “enjoy”. I’m so pleased by that that I don’t even mind (well, not much) when the first review comes in and it’s a lengthy, withering, academic piece about how my book is basically shit. It’s fine. The piece is well-written. The guy’s clearly put some effort in and knows a thing or two. I don’t mind that he didn’t like it, or that he took a line from the press release and ran with it, thus trying and condemning the whole book as though it were an attempt to reconcile “page” and “stage” poetry, when actually I made it quite clear, Simon, that it was an attempt to reconcile “art” and “commerce”. Simon.

A year goes by. The New Welsh review have promised me a review too. They post something on their site about how their next edition will include reviews of “some promising new Welsh talent”. Sweet, I think. That might be me. The review eventually arrives. It isn’t me. Their reviewer hates it. Actually hates it, as opposed to just thinks it failed at doing the thing he thinks I thought it was meant to do. There are a couple of funny lines, but mainly the review is a slightly rushed academic take-down of my press release, plus a few quotes from the second worst poem in the book, which, taken completely out of context, I’m actually still pretty happy with. Never mind. He didn’t like it. He probably wouldn’t have liked it even if I hadn’t filled the press release with perceived disses of his beloved poetry scene. But I did, so he hates it. Never mind.

Another year goes by. I’ve now given up on reviews coming in, and largely given up on sales. I made my money back and about £150 profit, which I soon spent on wine and camera accessories for filming videos of poems so I don’t have to confront my crippling fear of doing open-mic. If I ever sell any of the remaining 100, I’ll waste no time in buying more wine.

Oh but wait! My brother (who designed and typeset the book) is midway through compiling his new CV and notices there’s a £5 copy on Amazon undercutting me by a whopping 50%! I see it’s being sold by Jabberwock Books in Lincolnshire. (No Y. Why?) All the people I sent it to who live near Lincolnshire rush through my mind: my wife’s old teacher from sixth form who said he liked one of the poems in it. He lives there I think. My wife’s parents! They only live in the next county. Maybe they drove over the border and handed it in at the first second-hand book shop they could find? Ah: Brittle Star. Brittle Star magazine. I sent them a copy and they never reviewed it. Probably not literary enough for them. They didn’t want to bash it just for the sake. Or maybe they never found the time? No damage. I genuinely don’t care who it was. I don’t care so hard.

But my curiosity is the quintessential suicidal cat.

I wrote a number between 1 and 100 on every inside copy of every book I sent out. (“Unmarked”? Jabberwock books? Did you even look inside it???)

I can’t not know. So I buy my own book, which I already own 101 copies of (including my own copy) on Amazon, for £5 plus P&P.

It arrives. I hold my breath. I hope it wasn’t Bill Drummond. I really hope it wasn’t Bill Drummond.

It’s number 57.

It’s the copy I sent to Nicholas Wroe at the Guardian. The Guardian. You’re kidding?!

Maybe he hated the press release. Maybe he hated the first poem. Maybe he (like many other editors of much smaller websites/papers) has a blanket avoidance policy for self-published work? (Recent reading suggests New Welsh Review only committed to a review out of confusion regarding the true nature of either Doubtist Books or their own editorial guidelines.)

Either way, almost two years after it was first proudly packed into a black jiffy bag and sent to the poetry editor at The Guardian, marked “for review”, my book found its way to a second hand bookshop in Lincolnshire. (Books bought and sold.) Presumably with many others that were unread, unloved, and indeed unhated by The Guardian. But valued, for some paltry, paltry sum, nonetheless.

And that, friends, is the sad fate of a self-published poetry book sent to a broadsheet for review.

Yours,

A writer; no longer a reviewer – of music, wine, or even books,

A Velky

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