Interview by Nina Murray
We “met” virtually because you kindly chose a poem of mine to be included in An Outbreak of Peace, the Arachne Press anthology on the centennial of the Armistice. The more I learn about what you do with Arachne Press, which you founded and operate single-handedly, the more in awe I am of what you have accomplished with it. Let’s talk first about your practice of publishing anthologies—what led you to make this choice?
When I first set up Arachne Press, it was quite lonely, and I wanted people to talk to and get excited with over what the press was publishing, and the fastest way of doing that was to publish anthologies, initially in collaboration with Liars’ League, but also of new work. The new work is to talent scout, find authors whose work I love, and with whom I want to work.
What do you find particularly rewarding/challenging about publishing anthologies?
I love the process of matching up stories and poems, how different writers’ voices complement and challenge each other, the excitement of a submission that hits exactly the right note, the unexpected take on a theme that adds a new flavour to what I thought we’d get. The challenges are the predictable responses, the way no matter what the theme, someone (usually dozens of them) will send me death stories, or dementia stories. People who will NOT read the brief.
Let’s talk book marketing. I’m seeing publishers of all sizes and shapes calling for authors to describe how they will use their social media platforms in promoting their books. While I am firmly in favor of authors actively marketing themselves, this raises the issue of what value the publisher is adding if the bulk of the work is on the author—this sometimes can feel like a publisher is abnegating before they even read the book.
Marketing generally, the more people involved the better. Authors and publishers reach different markets. Particularly on social media, what an author has to say has more clout than a ‘corporate’ message however sincere or personal. It’s a cold hard fact that the days of a writer lurking in their attic immune to the outside world are long gone. I’m told consistently by publicists that the culture of now is more interested in the writer than what they have written, and a ‘feature’ about what else the writer does is more likely to be taken up and read than anything about their writing. Depressing, but there it is.
As a one-woman organisation, with a book out at least every two months, there is a limit to how much I can do for each individual book in terms of marketing, so I do rely on the writers keeping the word going. I’m as inventive as I know how, but anyone expecting a poster campaign on the London Underground is going to be very disappointed, that would blow my entire annual budget for everything never mind marketing. And to be honest, if a writer isn’t interested in promoting their work why on earth would I be?
So what is the role of the publisher? A beautiful cover, a well chosen printer, a thorough, challenging edit, perfect typesetting and design, approaching dozens of reviewers, organising a launch party (baking a cake, if you are me—NM: Stay tuned, everyone!), setting up events, approaching festivals and organising trade sales. If you have the skills and want to do all that by yourself, go ahead. Incidentally we work with a lot of writers with disabilities or caring responsibilities which makes it hard for them to get involved in things like tours, but that doesn’t stop me publishing them: I hire actors, same as I do for authors who are geographically remote. Another benefit of anthologies is that there’s usually enough eager people to cover for those who can’t join in the promotion opportunities I find.
How has Arachne’s marketing changed in, say, the last five years? Have you noticed any changes in what is effective?
For our most recent anthology, Story Cities, we set up Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts for the book itself. Old hat really, but I’ve not had time or patience to do it before. This was partly because design was so important to this book, and because my fellow editors were willing to post stuff so I didn’t have to put so much time into it. It remains to be seen what the impact of that is. It’s very hard to know what actually has an impact on sales without sophisticated analysis—the info on trade sales is too vague to be able to say any one thing caused a blip in the sales figures.
Over the years I’ve honed my list of review options, so that I have a short list of ‘send automatically’, another of ‘specific target market’, and a longer list of ‘enquire first’. We don’t get more reviews that way but I waste fewer books trying. The list is entirely different from the first ever one! Not one survived the analysis of effectiveness. We used to do a lot of events with libraries but it’s almost impossible now, they don’t have the resources.
You have been a published author and a publisher for quite a while now. What are the most significant changes you have seen in the industry? Is there anything you really wish would change that’s staying the same? What would you like to see next?
The demise of the net book agreement made publishing a very volatile place. It’s nigh on impossible to make a profit unless you get lucky with a best seller.
When I was first published the internet was only just getting going, publishing seems not to have caught up with the rest of the world, beyond a nod at ebooks and audiobooks. I love audio books but doing them properly is staggeringly expensive, and the route to market is almost a monopoly. There are some completely archaic practices embedded in the process of getting books from publisher to bookshop that are insane. No other businesses run like this. It is bizarre and frustrating. Brexit is going to make life difficult – just the potential disruption to supplies of paper into the UK could make printing uneconomical, before we begin on the complexity of overseas sales when all the international treaties on tax cease to exist. Bet you weren’t expecting that answer!
One last question on poetry and marketing: What do you think about folks putting their work (I’m thinking mostly poetry) on Instagram?
Some people do it well, but should think about whether they are preventing their work from being published by making it public for free; some of it is mediocre and makes me wince. I don’t bother with it mostly, unless it’s from someone I know/ know of already, I’ve once or twice been deeply moved by it, but not often. I don’t think it’s a particularly effective marketing tool.
Let’s talk about editing. I’ve been talking to Ness about Mamiaith, which is lovely collection. She credits you with pulling it together and prompting her in the first place to send you a body of work. Given that being cultivated and cherished like that is just about every poet’s dream, tell me about the genesis of that book? How did you choose Ness? What made you want to put out a collection?
Ness contributed a poem to one of our Solstice Shorts festivals a couple of years back, and we subsequently published it in the anthology Shortest Day, Longest Night.
Then she volunteered to be the North Wales organiser for Solstice Shorts Dusk, and we spent a lot of time talking on the phone over that, and I published a couple more poems in anthologies, Dusk, Noon and An Outbreak of Peace. Sometime in amongst that I put out a call to people we’d already published, for collections, or for those who didn’t feel like that had sufficient material for a collection to send me a batch of poems or stories for a ‘short, fat’ anthology series where we’d have a number of works from a small number of writers (Five by Five and Vindication came out of that). Ness sent me some poems for that call, intending them for the anthology, and I loved them and asked for more. Then we had the ‘why aren’t these in Welsh,’ conversation, which led to a really deep conversation about language and exclusion which got me properly fired up. What I want from every poet I publish is that they have something real to say, not just ‘look at the pretty flowers’, and a passion for language. In Ness I found both in shedloads, and multiple languages. Ness has to say and she says them magnificently and in a way you can get a handle on.
And I’m not scared of languages I don’t understand. I already had a Welsh dictionary on my shelf! I’m not adept in anything but English but I learned British Sign Language for the beauty of it, and I taught myself Provencal so that I could read original documents for some research, so I was up for a bilingual anthology. I think Ness’s poetry is special and deserves a vast and international audience.
You mention you put out a book every two months. That is fantastic, but must be a ton of work. What efficiencies have you found to allow you to move so quickly? What is your timeline from a call for submissions to launch? Would you like your speed of releases to be higher/lower?
It’s a constant battle. I nearly wept when, at the end of January, I had an email from my sales team, Inpress, asking for my Christmas titles. My email reply was a little intemperate! When I first started publishing the lead-in was a minimum of six months, it is now nearer twelve, and this is purely based on what the big boys of bookselling dictate —they plan so far ahead that I have to have marketing material ready and, of course, have worked out the price of the book, and got at least a draft cover, months before the book exists—but if I don’t know the page count, I can’t get a price and it gets very ‘for want of a horseshoe nail’. So sometimes the size of the book is decided first and I have to edit to fit. For a typical call out I allow three months to get material in, three months for decisions contracts and edits, and three months for production (typeset, proof, minor adjustments, cover); but when we hit our 5th anniversary I decided a five-year plan would be an idea, and planned much further in advance. The writers who are about to be published (about to be! November, but going through the production process now) have found that very annoying and more than one queried whether I was quoting them the right year in the contract. So a longer run in is better for my sanity but not so good for theirs. Our fastest ever book to print was Solstice Shorts: I typeset the whole shortlist then took out the ones that didn’t make it so that we could announce the winners and send the collection to the printers on the same day, with stern warnings to the printers that if they didn’t turn it round in three weeks I’d never speak to them again. They got it back two days early.
The original plan was around four books a year, but cashflow dictates that a book in action allows me to pay for the next one, at least in theory, and it really depends on whether there is an opportunity to be taken up – for example I wouldn’t normally do a book for release in June because I’m rehearsing for an Opera then, and Story Cities was originally planned for September (I think), but there was a link which meant we could get an event as part of the Greenwich book festival so I brought it forward. A book every two months is JUST about doable, I’d love to do more but until cloning or a sugar mama or something happens, it’s not possible.
Would you please consider sharing a cake recipe? I have seen pictures of your cakes — I wish I were less geographically remote!
Ok, Solstice Cake – this is my invention, and copyright!
It is also full of everything that anyone might conceivably be allergic to or intolerant of and comes with a health warning.
The chocolate half of this is a cake my mum used to make, and is from a very ancient cookbook. My version has notes written on it saying FOLLOW the recipe, don’t be tempted to think it will be better if you beat the egg white separately. And takes at least 40 mins if not cooked in layers (which I never do, so 40 mins it is)
Grease and flour 2x 7inch deep tins
Heat your oven to 400F/ gas 6
For the Night/Winter segment
2 ½ oz Self Raising Flour and 1/2 oz cocoa sieved together
2 large eggs
1 oz ground almonds
1 tablespoon brandy
For the Summer/Day segment
2 ½ oz Self Raising Flour
2 large eggs
1 oz ground almonds
Finely shredded rind of an orange plus 1 tablespoon orange juice
1 oz preserved ginger chopped very fine (retain the syrup for later)
Cream butter and sugar until fluffy; fold in the flour/cocoa or just flour alternating with lightly beaten eggs.
Add almonds and brandy, or almonds and orange and ginger
Bake in middle of oven for 40 mins, or until done. Iit always takes longer than you think reasonable.
6oz icing sugar
4oz 70% dark chocolate (or darker)
1 tablespoon brandy
Cream butter and all but 1 oz of icing sugar together.
Melt 4 oz of the chocolate in microwave – a couple of minutes on lowest setting.
Mix in the chocolate and the brandy.
When the cake is cool, cut both layers in half so that you have 4 semicircles. You may need to also shave the tops to make them flat – cook’s perks, you get to eat these bits.
Cover the cake in a THIN layer of the ginger syrup. Then stick one orange and one chocolate half together with the chocolate filling to make a whole circle.
Then completely cover with the chocolate filling.
Stick the other orange and chocolate halves together with the chocolate filling and place on top of the first halves, at 90 degrees, so that you end up with one quarter of the cake all chocolate, one quarter all orange, and two half-and-half.
Cover the sides with the remaining filling.
melt 2oz chocolate and mix into 1oz icing sugar.
Add boiling water until you have a consistency that is smooth and will just about pour.
Pour over the cake and get it as smooth as you can.
Leave the cake to one side somewhere cool for at least a couple of hours so that the chocolate sets.
Decorate according to ability, or be sensible and leave it plain. You can see my efforts on facebook.
Enjoy the game of chance when you cut it. You can’t know whether you will get day or night, winter or summer, dusk or spring…
About the interviewer: Nina Murray is a Ukrainian-born American poet and translator. Her debut collection of poetry, Minimize Considered, was published by Finishing Line Press. Her newest collection is Alcestis in the Underworld, published by Circling Rivers press.