Category Archives: Publishing diary

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

Diary of an amateur poetry-publisher, part three

DOUBTISTRunning out of images to accompany these posts with.

I’m also about three months late, but being as nobody will read this I won’t deck my halls too savagely about it.

The gist of this third post was supposed to be about navigating the treacherous tides of ISBN procurement. But that was really ridiculously simple! Honestly, this whole publishing business really is a sham – they’ll let anyone in.

All you need to do is print off a couple of forms from Nielsen’s UK ISBN agency and be willing to part with a lot of money. I bought a hundred of the buggers, just in case publishing becomes a habit. (Like with many things, it’s more cost-effective to buy in bulk.)

As far as printing went, it’s sort of a similar affair. By this stage you should have got your design (and therefore measurements, dimensions, etc.) down, so all you have to do is send them your interior and exterior (probably in PDF form, definitely if you use the same printers I used, or anyone like them), and hand over a lot of cash you probably won’t see again. Oh, and you’ll need to generate your barcode – which they’ll do for a small fee, or you can do yourself for free here. Scots publishers Cargo were kind enough to point me in the direction of that site.

Obviously there’s a bit of guesswork in stating when your intended publishing date is if you haven’t printed yet (you have to provide the British Library with a copy within a month of publication) but my printers only took a week and a bit after receiving the final payment.

And then I received this.

It really was a wonderful feeling! Not quite up there with that of the child you can also see in that picture being born, but a sort of watered down metaphorical version with its own unique joys.

Packaging and sending them was fun too, and it was nice to hear bits and pieces from people who received them. I didn’t make so many (or sell so many) that the process was ever likely to be anything but fun, and so it proved.

The question of ISBNs is a thorny one if you’re self-publishing. I suppose technically you can be published without one, but it doesn’t feel quite the same; and certainly won’t be quite the same if you actually plan on selling any in bulk. Getting them in shops is much easier with an ISBN, I’m told; not that I’ve done that yet.

That may as well be the end really, as I’m not sure this particular book will get much further. I’ve sold about 50 (most by Kickstarter pre-order), swapped about 5 with other artists for books or records, and given away about 20 to numerous people I felt I owed favours to. This last group weren’t particularly numerous but I managed to get hold of most of their addresses one way or another.

If I write another one of these it’ll be in a few months’ time (maybe even the new year, as I’m busy having another baby soon and I’m really busy most nights watching bad TV or being drunk on a sofa). The subject will be one or more of the following:

  1. Getting the book in shops.
  2. Getting the book reviewed.
  3. Promoting the book by live performances.

So, until then, I remain

A S H Velky

PS 129 books left to buy. Get yours here.

Diary of an amateur poetry-publisher, part two

doubtistThe Kickstarter project has gone well. A month in, under 24 hours to go, and we’re comfortably above the funding threshold, so even if a couple of people have last-minute doubts and pull out we should be fine.

I’ll probably use the surplus to fund a single colour page within the book – a needless extravagance that ought to prevent the awkward prospect of profit raising its ugly head, and should therefore befit the project, I think.

On Saturday night at 11:59pm (if I’m still awake) I’ll take a moment to appreciate the modest achievement of having written a bunch of poems, edited them together and – one way or another – having convinced a few people (some of whom I’ve never met; a few of whom I’ve never even heard of) that those poems are worth paying for.

So what next? Well, I’ll be emailing the forty-odd funders via Kickstarter who have made the publication possible, letting them know the next steps. Which are essentially:

  1. Buy ISBNs.
  2. Finalize the last few design decisions with Zef
  3. Print and publish the book.
  4. Post the book to people who have paid for it, along with any other “rewards” I promised.

That sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?

It’s all the extra (optional) stuff like trying to get press coverage – online or print – that ought to provide distraction, entertainment, and blog-fodder in coming months. Obviously there’s nothing newsworthy about the book, and nobody knows or cares who I am, so getting anybody to review it will probably prove impossible; nevertheless, one can but try.

As far as practical advice for would-be publishers – which is sort of supposed to be the point of this blog – I can’t really say why my Kickstarter project has succeeded. I assume they don’t all succeed, and I know that the majority of my pledges have come from friends and family – so perhaps you need, erm, some friends, some family, and some way of alerting the aforementioned to your project’s existence?

Certainly the target of £600 was pretty modest – even when compared with other poetry projects I’ve seen on the platform. It doesn’t cover the entirety of the capital needed to make the book happen. (I already have about £500 in the bank from my savings.) But I arrived at the figure rather roughly based on the number of books I wanted to print (currently planned as 200), guessing that I could realistically shift about a quarter of that in a year without any press coverage or sales initiatives (like live readings, events, tours, that sort of thing). Just by spamming people on Facebook and Twitter about the project’s existence. I might try subtler or more creative means of promotion at a later stage. Especially if I have 150 copies taking up space in my study come 2015…

The videos might have helped. They might even have hindered! Who knows? But I’ve enjoyed recording them so far, and forcing myself to learn the poems by heart for the recordings. I’m definitely going to continue with them until I’ve reached the 33rd poem and the end of the collection. I’ve reached another one of those difficult poems though, which is ten stanzas long and has almost no recognizable rhythm or rhyme scheme to help me memorize it. Argh, etc.

I imagine if I’d bothered to establish myself as a live performer that would have done just as well for me as – probably better than – the YouTube videos. But circumstances (like me living in the middle of nowhere, being lazy, and having relatively little free time – especially in the evenings) have dictated that alternative methods were preferred; so thank goodness for the internet, and my shed.

I won’t rule out live performances in future, but I’d need to put in some serious practice. I haven’t done such a thing since I rather reluctantly played the role of Second Officer in a 6th-form production of Twelfth Night.

Back to the poetry-publishing. It’ll take a few weeks for the Kickstarter funds to reach my account, so by halfway through May I should be ready to complete the process. This will be the difficult part, as it will involve admin.

The next blog should have some insights into dealing with printers and ISBN distributors and whatever other avenues one must traverse on the road to taking up a bit of space in the British Library’s landfill site in Swindon.

Onward to glory, and immortality,

A S H Velky.

Diary of an amateur poetry-publisher, part one

Doubtists Books logoNote the hyphen.

A lot of people don’t like hyphens, because they don’t understand them. Or because they’re graphic designers. Fitting into neither category, I like them.

This diary is something I’ve been planning to do since January: to record my progress in setting up a small publishing company and (with some luck) publishing our first volume of poetry.

A ridiculous thing to be doing in 2013, you might say; but one has to have a hobby. And I’m recording it for posterity because I looked for such a diary online – to help me on my way – and found no such thing readily available. My copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (a few years outdated, granted) is even less use than the internet, so I’ve been making it up as I go along so far.

How hard can it be, eh?

This is what I’ve done so far:

  1. Read poems and written poems intermittently since childhood.
  2. Wrote a bunch of poems. Wrote some more. Selected twenty-odd, categorising them thematically, and edited them into a collection.
  3. Bought a bunch of poetry books from small publishers and big – inasmuch as any poetry publishers are “big”. Read them and studied the design, print quality, etc. Found most were rubbish, but even the good ones generally had terrible covers and felt cheaply produced.
  4. Decided on a place to print them. Imprint Digital, based in my undergraduate-university town, Exeter. I’ve seen their printing because my wife had a small collection of my old poems printed there for me one Christmas, and the quality (partly thanks to her own impressive design and layout) was way above what you get from pretty much every poetry publisher I’d seen, give or take Faber & Faber. Take Bloodaxe.
  5. Gradually saved up a few hundred pounds by putting away £50 a month when I could afford it, over a period of a couple of years.
  6. Had some writer friends look over the poems and proofread them. Wrote some more and re-edited, rearranged, and got my brother to design and typeset the lot, and design a company logo based on a half-baked idea I had.
  7. Looked on the internet and failed to find a decent step-by-step guide. These FAQs were okay, but fail to helpfully cater to the would-be publisher of poetry who must by definition accept that however business-minded it is, it might have to accept that its publishing company is officially a hobby until it can turn a profit and consequently pupate (or whatever) into a company proper – or a proper company, if you prefer your adjectives before your nouns. Also, it’s really boring reading FAQs. I wanted a blog.
  8. Recorded a few videos of me reading poems on my webcam and found these went down a bit better than the text-only versions I’d been posting on my blog. Despaired for people’s attention spans.
  9. Wrote a few more poems. Got my writer friends to proofread a second time and finalized the running-order of the collection. Felt I finally had it down.
  10. Started a workflow thing on Trello. Found it vaguely useful, if only because pieces of paper get tea on them, and sometimes get stolen by my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Thought it would undoubtedly be much more useful if I wasn’t the only one starting this publishing company. And if the other people starting it with me lived elsewhere.
  11. Bought an awesome brass seal with my company logo on it. Realized even if I had saved enough money to buy ISBNs and print the books, I probably didn’t have enough now. Started looking around for black jiffy bags anyway, because if you’re dealing in the physical, packaging matters.
  12. Panicked about how little work my wife and I were getting following our first (successful) half a year of freelancing. Realized I wouldn’t be able to save any more money toward my publishing company any time soon.
  13. Despaired, briefly.
  14. Considered doing everything on the cheap, briefly.
  15. Bought an album on vinyl via Kickstarter from The Indelicates and thought, Hang on! I could use this website to raise funds for my own business/hobby-related needs! 
  16. Realized I had no existing fan-base to draw upon, but thought, Sod it – if I fail to raise the funds I won’t lose anything, and by definition (having failed) not many people will have witnessed said failure, and I can always channel the despair/rage into writing some poems about how nobody cares about poetry, which sounds both artistically worthwhile and hugely lucrative.
  17. Went for it.

 

And that’s all so far.

All the technical stuff about profit-and-loss and getting my book into shops (if I ever bother trying) still remains a long way away. I rekindled the video performances of my poems too – partly as a means to advertise the Kickstarter project, but also to help me learn the poems, in case I ever want to “perform” them to an audience. And for fun, of course.

Now I’m sitting back and waiting to see if by some minor miracle I can raise the money to publish and print by summer – hopefully in time for my thirtieth birthday, or thereabouts. It was always an ambition of mine to have something published by now, and although I did have one poem in a collection once, they printed the title in Comic Sans so I still feel that doesn’t count.

That’s all for now. Assuming I actually make some progress – and regardless of the success or failure of the Kickstarter project – I’ll try and make these diary entries on a monthly basis from now until I publish.

Adios,

A S H Velky.