This is part of a series of interviews taking place with small press publishers. This interview series will be partially published online and partially in print, as a part of a nonfiction book to demystify publishing, published in January 2020 and written by Isabelle Kenyon. The following is an interview with Stuart Bartholomew, managing editor.
Voted Most Innovative Press at Saboteur Awards 2019
‘…the always exciting Verve Poetry press’ – Andrew McMillan
Verve Poetry Press is a new press focusing intently on meeting a local need in Birmingham - a need for the vibrant poetry scene here in Brum to find a way to present itself to the poetry world via publication. Co-founded by Stuart Bartholomew and Amerah Saleh, it is publishing poets from all corners of the city - poets that represent the city’s varied and energetic qualities and will communicate its many poetic stories.
Added to this is a colourful pamphlet series featuring poets who have previously performed at our sister festival such as Luke Kennard, Katrina Naomi and Claire Trevien - and a poetry show series which captures the magic of longer poetry performance pieces by poets such as Polarbear and Matt Abbott.
Like the festival, we will strive to think about poetry in inclusive ways and embrace the multiplicity of approaches towards this glorious art.
How many people are in your team, both paid and voluntary, and how do you divide your roles?
As it stands at Verve Press, although I have a co-founder (Amerah Saleh) and also Direct Verve Poetry Festival) it is just me at the press. I am working towards applying for funding for our next publishing period, and hopefully that will enable me to generate some opportunities for internships going forwards. Interestingly, when people offer to help, it usually means they are interested in editing or copy-editing. I think partially this is because of how people outside of publishing understand what other roles there might be and what other things need doing. The things I am most in need of at Verve Press are people who can help with Social Media marketing, Mailing list work, our blog, website population, building relationships with our growing group of indie bookshops stockists (one of our core booktrade strategies), generating reading opportunities for our poets in shops and at festival. Funnily, these don’t seem to be the kind of jobs that people who approach me feel like they’d like to do.
What genre of books primarily do you publish and how many a year on average?
As the name Verve Poetry Press suggests we are a poetry publisher, and this is our main focus. We publish debut collections by young poets with a hard (but not sole) focus on Birmingham and environs. We have a pamphlet series which focuses on helping published poets to bridge the long gaps that can appear between collections and focuses on our growing list of Verve Festival alumni. We also have a series of books that are designed help provide book merchandise for performance poetry artists who are touring. Although we do publish some I am getting less and less enamored with anthologies outside of my favourite book each year – the Annual Verve Poetry Festival Competition Anthology. We have published one non-fiction title, largely because it was written by poets and contains some poetry, and would consider other titles like this on poetry, creativity and political subjects. I am dead set against publishing fiction of any kind, but would find it hard to resist an amazing prose poetry novella by a poet I love. We are only in our second year, so don’t have an average but this year will end up with us having published sixteen titles.
When did your press open for business and what was your first year like?
We published out first book in February 2018 and embarked on a massive learning curve that I don’t think has stopped eighteen months later. My twenty five years as a bookseller has made me feel fairly confident about my relationships with and understanding of booksellers and book distribution etc. And running the festival has put me a really good place to understand the power of social media in gaining us attention. The festival has really helped the press to be quickly accepted. I think it helped me to convince Inpress Books to take us on, and several notable authors (Luke Kennard, Matt Abbott and Polarbear last year, Katrina Naomi and Claire Trevien this year) to publish with us. The learning for me has been all around the poets and the books. I have been playing with font size and spacing and made improvements with each book I’ve published. But the biggest struggle other than the workload (since I also still work four days a week at my bookshop) has been managing the expectations of poets in terms of the reach I can deliver for their books and the amount that a book can but also can’t change their lives and circumstances. Being a tiny press talking big, I have to focus on the titles that I think will do best and sometimes can’t spend the time and resources people expect on all the books we publish.
What are the most rewarding things about running a small press?
I think it’s the joy I am able to bring, to people who are being published, but also audiences when our poets really hit home. I’ve always loved books, hence the 25 years in bookselling, so it is a dream come true to be creating books that I am really proud of, often for poets who couldn’t get published elsewhere.
What do you take into consideration when considering manuscripts and how do you compile your season of publishing (if this is curated in any way?)
Verve Poetry Press has a very broad remit based on the values of the festival. We are interested in publishing good quality poetry from right across the poetry spectrum and value diversity in approach and audience as much as anything. As a result, I don’t open submissions but rather curate a list based on people I notice or discover or hear about who I approach for manuscripts that I already know I will love. Every so often someone sends me something and I’ve heard of them and see what they have to offer, and occasionally this winds up with a publications. But mostly it is the other way round. The reason I like to have heard of people before I see their manuscript is that I need my poets to be energetic around their poetry careers and their attempts to reach an audience. At the size we are, we are too small to sell enough poetry if it is only up to us. I tend to like my poets to sell approx. 33% of the books I print if they can as a minimum. That helps us to make sure we make sufficient sales. I approach authors on social media generally if I don’t have their email. They must wonder sometimes how I’ve heard of them!
What does a typical book marketing plan look like for you?
All my plans are very sketchy and again it depends on the hopes I have for the book. Our marketing plans are normally a mixture of launch events and social media pushes. Also six months before publication, Inpress sell the titles in to the booktrade, which gives me an idea of the interest in the market as well as a sense of what kind of landing the book might make. I will then make a booktrade facing plan about which of the stores who stock our titles are likely to interest which stores.
How do you continue to build your brand within a busy market?
I think every title we publish develops our brand further, and makes our eclectic approach to publishing make slightly more sense. It some senses, the brand needs to stay elastic enough to deliver the life and fun and breadth of poetry that I am keen to publish. It is a balance between having a brand at all, and making sense to the people who buy our books.
What advice would you give someone interested in starting their own press?
Know the customers you are aiming for. Know how many of your books you want to sell through which channels (trade, direct supply, via authors) and have strategies to deliver that. Understand what you are trying to do and be. Make sure to have fun along the way.