I guess there are poets out there who dream of landing a contract with Major Publishing House (even though most release hardly any poetry from new writers – but poet-with-dream’s material is, of course, so unique and original, that these major imprints just won’t be able to say no).
They see themselves as the new Ted Hughes/Philip Larkin/Carol Ann Duffy/Simon Armitage (no offence meant to any of these excellent poets, by the way), their books studied in schools by cramming 16-year-olds, and being sold by the hatload in all the major bookstores, who (naturally) place their books in the most prominent shelves.
My albeit limited experience of releasing a chapbook with a tiny organisation has taught me the exact opposite. HappenStance, who are publishing my chapbook on 1st December, give the kind of personal attention to detail that a more major publishing house wouldn’t even think about giving to a book of poems.
The editing process has been instructive, the way we sifted through many of my poems to find a group that sat well together as a collection. It’s meant that a few of my better ones haven’t made the cut, but there is a coherence to the book, and I’m happy with the selection. Helena Nelson, the editor at HappenStance made some useful suggestions on some of the poems, although I always had the final say. But in most cases she was spot on.
They also have an active marketing system, which includes a launch, a presence at various poetry gatherings and on the Internet, an IBSN number, and an attempt to get the books into venues which will stock them e.g. the Scottish Poetry Library sales section. OK, the books won’t be in Waterstones, but who goes into Waterstones ready to pick up and buy a poetry pamphlet from someone they’ve never heard of anyway?
I sent them some poems through the post after I attended the launch of the Press and was impressed at what they were doing. I was amazed to get an acceptance. The deal was a one-off payment (edit: i.e. HappenStance made me a payment - thanks for pointing out the previous ambiguity in this sentence, Shug), but HappenStance would bear all costs. They would also take any royalties. This seemed like a very good deal to me, as they were bearing all the financial risks, and I only stood to gain. However, I do hope I sell a good number of chapbooks, partly because of my own ego (I would like people to read my work) and partly because I think a serious, small imprint like this is worth supporting (and I know Helena Nelson would laugh at the word “serious”! But there is a seriousness of purpose about the enterprise. Also I don’t want her to be left bankrupt because of my chapbook).
HappenStance do what they do because they care about poetry and are ready to invest time, energy and money in creating a product that they believe in – not because it’s commercial, but because they like it, and I’m sure the same is true of many chapbook imprints across the world. From a poet’s point of view, I suspect I will shift more copies of my chapbook with HappenStance than I would do if I’d brought it out on Faber (not that Faber were knocking on my door, you understand), where it would sit unmarketed, uncared for, and unread, on the shelves of major bookshops, squashed between thicker volumes of other poets, most of whom are lucky to sell a few hundred copies themselves.