This is an edited transcript with headings inserted for ease of reading and navigation. The video of the interview can be accessed by clicking the above image.
Lindsay: Well, welcome everybody and it’s a great pleasure to introduce Nell Nelson here today from Happenstance Press. Nell’s a local publisher but also a poet and performer in her own right. She also… reviews for a wide range of journals, from Ambit through to Mslexia and Magma and all sorts of other magazines. And she has her own weekly blog… and [the author] of one of the most useful book on How (Not ) To Get Your Poetry Published… I wonder if you could just tell us, first off, maybe, how you got into publishing? What drew you into it?
Helena: I can, but can I read a poem first? [Reads “How to Piss Off Your Prospective Poetry Publisher”.]
Lindsay: It’s almost a synopsis of How (Not) To Get Published, really, isn’t it? It gives us a good overview of… some of the “nots”, the primary ones that you’re seeing so frequently…. [You are]… presumably a poet first, and then something happened that made you think, “Ah, I’d like to get into publishing as well”. How did that happen?
Helena: … the first publication I had was a pamphlet and it was done by… James Robertson who some of you may know as a novelist and James also has a little publishing imprint called Kettillonia…. I sent him some poems and we met and he published them in a little pamphlet and it suddenly occurred to me that people who publish things were not weird people in London that you would never know. They weren’t people that worked for Macmillan and were rich. You could do it and just be an ordinary person. James was a novelist but doing these wee things on the side… I didn’t know how to do it, really… I did have to find out. I wrote to people and James sent me a copy of how he prepared the manuscript of two of his pamphlets, and told me where he sent them. That’s where I sent my first two; I copied what he did and from then on copied various other people. I’m still copying people now. That’s how you learn, I think.
Lindsay: What’s the process for you as a one-person publisher? How much of what we see here as the final version happens in a house in Glenrothes?
Helena: Well, it is a balancing act. Some titles make a bit of money and some titles lose money. And publishing pamphlets is cheap. The printing of it is cheap… It’s selling them that’s hard…. I started doing first pamphlets for people…. Some of what I do is first pamphlets and some is not…. I don’t do first books for people but I do do some books… of established poets that I had met….But I do publish debuts every year, ie. the first thing a person has ever published.
Lindsay: So do you invite submissions or do you go to people? How does that work?
Reading Windows and Submissions
Helena: I have reading windows in July and December… [poets] send them in, stapled together…. What you hope is that people will read the guidelines on the website… [In] the olden days you went and read it in The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook…. [But now] the website guidelines for most publishers will be the most up-to-date and the most useful. You hope that people will have read them before they send anything in…. During my reading windows, [poets would send] up to eight poems unless I’ve already communicated with them before, in which case they get slightly different advice.…
Lindsay: So, people have sent in their poems, you like a few of them. Then what happens? You say, ”Oh, yes, that’s great” and then they come out a month later?
Helena: No. I have a tick and smiley system. Supposing you sent me eight poems and they’re eight poems about your dog… if I like them I put a tick on the bottom. If I like them so much I would really like to publish this poem if I could, I put a little smiley on the bottom. Apart from the ticks and smileys, I write various comments, like “Have you thought of cutting the first line?” or, “I really like this bit” with a box round it “but the rest doesn’t work for me”. Or, sometimes I write on poems, “This doesn’t work for me” – because it is a personal response…. The smileys are the ones I could publish – I would publish if I could, bearing in mind that I’m only publishing between six and ten pamphlets a year. And I really want to do six, not ten…. In the next reading window, you would send me those ones back again with another eight. The aim is that over a period of time I’ll get enough smileys that I felt I couldn’t not publish the poems. But it doesn’t mean that I would publish that person’s poems. Even if they had eight smileys, it doesn’t mean that. They need about twenty smileys before we’re “cooking with gas”, as they say. In between, because people quite often bat things to and fro with me, some of them [end up being published]… by somebody else, which is a good outcome. Some of them win one of the competitions, which is an excellent outcome.
The Business of Poetry
Lindsay: Happenstance has won the Michael Marks Pamphlet Competition Award in 2010… and you, yourself have won the Jerwood Aldeburgh yourself… How important are these prizes? Did interest in Happenstance go up when you won the pamphlet competition? Did it make a difference?
Helena: … I don’t think [winning] made a huge difference but I suppose it ups the “respect ratchet” a little bit. People think, “Oh, it must be alright.” Although, it’s not true…. I think we’re very competition and award oriented. It’s a mixed blessing. Prizes can work against people as well as for people… It’s such a huge thing to produce a book or a pamphlet of poems, when you think of the process that you go through to do that as well as you possibly can, [if when] at the end of it, your friend… wins the prize and you do not, it can make you feel like your work is somehow less because it didn’t win something. But actually, [only] a very tiny number of books per year win things…. and a huge number of them are published. Many of those that are published are marvellous books and they still don’t win something, so I think it kind of blurs the true picture.
Lindsay: How do you go about selling pamphlets when you’re up against mainstream poets and publishers who’re finding difficulty in selling?
Helena: Do you know how few books sell of poems? I mean, it’s really, really small….how does anybody make a go of this? It is really difficult selling… The pamphlets don’t sell in bookshops at all, except very occasionally if it’s a poet with a local bookshop, and they live in a village or something…. I don’t sell them through bookshops. I do sell them through my own shop webshop [and through subscription]. I have about… 390 people at the moment who are officially Happenstance subscribers. Basically, they pay £10 a year and they get a pamphlet every year that tells the story of the press and what’s been going on, and a bit of the back story about the publications, and they get discount. They get the pamphlets at 25% less than everybody else, and they get some free gifts periodically. Odd bits and pieces of things. Those people, because I mailshot them four times a year, buy things but they don’t all buy things. Most of them buy at least one pamphlet a year. Some of them buy every single thing. So I think they must be following, collecting. They’re hugely important to me. Without that, I probably couldn’t cover the costs. But it means that when I publish a new title, I’m normally sure I’m going to sell at least 50 copies through those things. And the author’s likely to sell at least another 50. That’s a hundred copies. That’s the worst scenario. I can sell a lot more than that of some of them.
To theme or not to theme
Lindsay: That’s interesting. It’s one of the things you have had a blog in the past about –to theme or not to theme [poetry collections]. You didn’t really come down particularly one way or the other, I don’t think, in that. You don’t have a particular preference for whether there’s an integrity to a pamphlet or not?
Helena: All that you want is really good poems. If they’re good poems, they don’t need to be themed. If the poems are a bit ropey in places – some are strong and some are a bit slight – a theme will make the slighter ones work in relation to the others much better… With a pamphlet, because it’s short, somebody can read it all the way through. There is a kind of integrity to the group which will support some strong and some… slight. Sometimes you read a poem and there isn’t very much to it but you really like it and you know it would never win a competition but you still like it. So that can work very well in a pamphlet..
Lindsay: How many would you publish of pamphlets at Happenstance?
Helena: Probably about three hundred. Sometimes a bit less than that. But I use a lithographic publisher and for the pamphlets most publishers are printing on demand, which makes the numbers easier.
Lindsay: Presumably you started out pre- the big boom in social media. Has social media helped sales or has it put more pressure on you to have to blog and do other things like that?
Helena: It can help sales. You have to be a bit careful because it can also work the other way. I think the impact of social networking on publishing and books is extremely interesting and we’re really only at the beginning of working out how it can… help. But it doesn’t help in a way that’s easy to quantify…. Sometimes I do a blog entry specifically with the aim of selling something … and I really want to see if I can get people to buy it. I don’t do this very often but I have done it. And again, it doesn’t work. I‘ll maybe get four or five people will buy it as a result of that. But in the long-term it’s different so measuring it precisely is very uncertain. But what you can’t tell is the number of people that actually see something go past them. You see the name go past. You see the tweet go past. You see a name go past and after you’ve seen that name fly past you four or five times in different networking context, something goes ping and you think, “Maybe I should have a look at that”. And you do have a look at it and then you buy it. It may work like that because I do get sales that I don’t understand. And I think, “Why has this woman bought this?” I think it’s cumulative.
Lindsay: So there’s something about that effect, cumulatively? … Would recommend getting into festivals and doing readings and so on as a mechanism for selling pamphlets as well as online?
Helena: The trouble is that getting to festivals isn’t straightforward. It isn’t particularly easy just suddenly to turn into a person who gets invited to read because people only invite you to read if you’ve published a successful publication…. And you don’t get to read at a festival just by contacting the Festival Director and saying, “Please can I come and read?” It’s exactly like making a proposal to a publisher. Why would they want to have you? What experience can you bring to it? What have you published? What evidence have we got that you’re a good performer or a good reader? So that is competitive as well. Although I think there are more opportunities to build towards doing that than there used to be in terms of small events and open mic events and so on. Some people also are just better at selling their own work than others. I can think of poets who always have their books in their bags…. Here is my book. Would you like a copy? Publishers say don’t give your work away but actually I think it’s really nice to give work away [or swap]….
Lindsay: I have other questions here for Nell but I think at this point I’ll maybe just open it up to all of you because you may have some burning questions.
Gail: Can I ask a question about visibility as a poetry publisher? You talked about Facebook and social media, and also festivals and getting invited to festivals…. Could you perhaps describe a little bit the local terrain or the regional terrain of the kinds of networks that actually might kind of make the press much more visible, or poets much more visible in that way? Are local events quite helpful in that sense? Is there a network one can kind of think about in the larger term? …
Helena: Everything connects. Sometimes there’s a lot of fuss about literary events. On National Poetry Day you suddenly get the impression that there’s hundreds and thousands of people all over Britain queuing up to go to poetry events and they’re all desperately doing it. But actually the numbers of people involved – enthusiastic about poetry –are quite small…. Very quickly if you start going to local events, you [start to] meet people who know people who know people who know people. And you just go to stuff. You just talk to people. You read a book of poems by somebody that you like and you write to them; they write back and that’s the beginning of your network. And people do write back…. [Poets are] terribly touched when they get letters and they do write back. It’s by taking an interest in other people that people take an interest in you; it’s very mutually supportive, I think. So does that answer the question?
Gail: I was just wondering, for example, StAnza we all know about because it’s been here for such a long time and has such an international presence in Fife and St. Andrews. I just wondered whether there were other similar events on a much smaller scale that one could think about, if one were thinking about poetry, particularly.
Helena: When did Platform start?
Lindsay: Two years ago? One and a half years …. This is our second year.
Helena: Lindsay started the Fife-based event called Platform which is in a Stationmaster’s house in Ladybank. It’s as remote as it gets really, isn’t it? It’s not in a town or a city. It’s in effectively a village, although you can get the train.
Lindsay: You can get off at the platform.
Helena: … and go back on the train. The Fife Writes group has been doing events in Fife as well. I know there are several events that happen in Dundee too. All sorts of stuff happens all the time. There will be events that I don’t even know about, I hope – where there are little groups, people meeting together, reading stuff together and talking about it. StAnza: you think it’s so well-established and it’s been around so long but it’s not that long.
Andy: Fifteen years or so.
Helena: … It’s got bigger as it’s gone. To begin with it was a tiny little event that used to run, if I remember rightly, every two years locally in St. Andrews. People from the University went to things and it was all a bit amateurish but charming. Then it sort of got bigger and bigger. But festivals also don’t necessarily last forever because as it gets bigger, it’s heavily dependent on funding. Major finding. Otherwise they can’t do it at all. Things that depend on funding are always at risk.
Andy: Sally Evans’ Callander event is kind of in the middle ground, isn’t it?
Helena: Well, Sally’s is not funded at all.
Andy: No, she pays for the whole thing basically out of her shop takings.
Helena: Sally Evans is the editor of Poetry Scotland and she and her husband Ian, run a second-hand bookshop in Callander. They have what they call the Callander weekend in September every year. They just invite people to come and they have readings in the bookshop and in the garden at the back of the bookshop, and sometimes in the Hall opposite it. It has a loyal following. People just go…. It’s bizarre and eccentric and remarkable. It’s something to which everyone should go because it will be remembered. At some point it will have chapters in books where people are remembering the cultural life of Scotland in the early twenty-first century and they will say, “And then there were the Callander weekends”. And really, there are people when you go there that just are remarkable even to look at, never mind when you hear them reading from their poems. It’s extremely entertaining. It’s a wonderful, eclectic mix run in an enormously generous way. Sally is just very welcoming to anybody who is interested in poetry. You’re welcome to go and it’s great. It doesn’t cost you anything. Although it does if you pay to stay in Callander which some people do because it’s so nice.
Sending poetry to Happenstance
Lindsay: There are quite a few people here who maybe haven’t yet published poetry but who are sort of setting out on writing their own poetry. What’s the route for them? They’re not probably at the point of sending off to Happenstance open window.
Helena: But they can because I don’t just read with a view to publishing the work. I read just to give some feedback to people.
Lindsay: That’s a great opportunity.
Helena: You don’t have to send stuff in order to say, “Please will you publish it”. You can just send it to say, “Could you give me a response” and I think that’s a nice thing.
Lindsay: That is.
Andy: That’s rare, actually. Sometimes you just get back a “No” or a “Yes” or no feedback at all but you do a great job with that.
Lindsay: It’s a fantastic opportunity for everybody to take up.
Helena: There are exceptions. What I would say is, that if you’re thinking of, if in the long term, you think that you’re writing and that you might want to have writing published, one of the things that you should do is every time you meet a writer… [to] ask them their story…. because it’s different in every case. Sometimes it’s not what you would expect. You start to build up in your head a sense of the different ways that people actually get these opportunities. You can create opportunities for yourself if you’re aware of the kind of opportunities that exist. Sometimes there are things that just wouldn’t occur to you. The poetry normal route is through the magazines. You send poems to magazines, magazines print them and you go upmarket through the magazines… from the magazines that are easy to get into to the ones that actually pay you money and which are like entering a competition in themselves. When you’ve printed enough of them in prestigious places, then publishers might be interested. That’s the kind of established route. But it’s the established route… If there is a publisher that you have in mind, who you would like your work to be published by, let’s say it’s Faber & Faber and it’s poetry, and you want Matthew Hollis to publish your first book of poems… (assuming they make it there) and think “Aha! Here’s Leonard Smith. I’m going to enjoy reading these.” Or, “About time!” The key is that the person knows who you are before they read the work. There’s lots of ways that they could know who you are before you read the work. But in order to find out what those ways are, ask people. Because it’s different for different people. It is unlikely that when your poems arrive on Matthew Hollis’s desk and he looks at them and thinks, “Leonard Smith, ugh”. Jane Bloggs. Ishi Doshi Kanji. Whatever. They’re just names. They’re just names. They see so many of them. They need to know your name. And they need to know your name and have a warm, fuzzy feeling when they see it.
Lindsay: Okay. Any other questions?
Gail: It’s to follow up on Lindsay’s question about editing. Could you say a little bit about the editing processes as the poems come in to you. How much do you intervene in them? It’s always a juggling act in editing, about preserving personal voice and actually making it kind of hit an audience much more.
Helena: Editing is different with different publishers and some publishers don’t edit at all. They publish. The work has to be in finished shape, effectively, apart from the odd little tweak here and there… But I’m very hands-on . I do make lots and lots of suggestions about poems and what I do is send back the suggestions and sometimes I just say this works perfectly – don’t change anything. But sometimes I say, “You’ve got three stanzas and I think only the third one works. But I think it would work as a poem in its own right. What do you think?” But I send back the comments and then let them either work with them or ignore them. Essentially what you want is for poets to develop enough confidence that they know whether you’ve made a useful comment or one that really is not going to help them with a particular poem. But I do make quite detailed comments to people. You can work with and for some people and not others. I think that that’s partly an accident of chance. That some people you’re in sympathy with the way that they’re writing. The kind of feedback that you give, they look at it and they think – some people think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Because you have actually made a comment that is in sympathy with the way that they work. But other people, you can make a comment and they think, “Phhllll..who does she think she is?”
The process that I do where I get people to send poems in the reading windows and send some feedback is partly to establish on both sides whether I’m a good person to work with for that poet. All the emphasis these days is on how do you get your work published? When you get it published, you’ve struck gold. But actually it isn’t like that. You need it to be published by somebody you can work with and to have the process work for you in a way that’s positive. Because hopefully, you don’t just publish one book – you go on to do more stuff. You need to learn and have a good and fruitful experience and it isn’t always so. Some people do get work published that they later regret having had published. Or in the way that they’ve had it published. So I won’t leak any more than that on film.
Creative Writing courses
Lindsay: Any more questions? Maybe a controversial one but interesting to hear.. What’s your feeling about academic courses in Creative Writing? Are they a headache because there’s just more and more writers being churned out across Scotland and Britain and across the world generally then sending stuff in to Happenstance? Is it now just everybody’s doing it and there’s too much out there as you say, you’re benefitting from having limited time to write your own poems and here we all are, devoting our 24 hours a day to being committed undergraduates and postgraduates in Creative Writing?
Helena: I think that some of the MAs and MLitts and degrees in Creative Writing are a fabulous opportunity for people and that they do some wonderful things. I do get a lot of submissions from people who’ve just finished a course and I am very aware that on the course they haven’t done any work on how to approach a publisher because they’ve done it really wrong. So even if the course has been a very good experience for them, their approach is rubbish….If they’d approached it in a different way and said, I’ve read the guidelines on your website. I’ve just finished my MLitt with Distinction in Cardiff or wherever it is, and I haven’t really got started with approaching magazines but I wondered if you would give me some feedback on eight of the poems I did for my final portfolio, that would be okay. I would just give them feedback. But sending a set of poems with no background, as an invitation to me to publish them, no I wouldn’t publish these. But also, it’s created the wrong mindset for me when I start to read. I don’t know whether that helps or not. I don’t feel antagonistic towards people doing university qualifications in Creative Writing…. I think some great stuff can come through doing it and I think it’s a fabulous opportunity for people to do it. But I don’t think that the courses themselves necessarily prepare people for the right way to make publishing approaches and I think that more of them should do that.
Sue: You’re suggesting that as people go through their MLitt they should be submitting at the same time?
Helena: I think as people do MLitts, they should be sending poems to magazines not thinking, “I haven’t got enough emotional space to do that at the same time as preparing the poems for my tutor.” Yes, because otherwise it’s a whole year in which you haven’t done any of that stuff and you might never have done it. You should just start. Just start. And if they get bounced back, it doesn’t matter. You start your rejection slip collection. It’s a worthy collection.
Lindsay: Well, I think on that positive and uplifting note for all of us as students at Dundee University, many thanks to Nell for coming along today and giving us such an insight into publishing and poetry writing and her life as both poet and publisher… We’re very grateful that you gave us your time and we look forward to the re-print of How (Not)To Get Published. Because we’ve got the poem there which kind of encapsulates it but I think it’s just given us a bit of a thirst for the rest of that little publication…. Nell Nelson, thanks very much indeed.
Helena: Thank you.