STARTING A MICRO-PRESS by Randolph Healy
(Poetry Ireland News, September/October 2003)
Given that it can take eighteen months to be rejected by an established poetry press, one might consider starting a press of one's own. Some may baulk at this, wondering at the difference between such an enterprise and a vanity press. For starters, a micro-press is far less expensive.
This form of publishing gives one a great deal of choice when it comes to methods of production. The text can be set up using any standard word-processing program. When I started Wild Honey Press in 1997, I opened a Microsoft Word file, landscape A4, each page having two columns. Tearing a sheet of paper into 6 parts, I folded these and made a little booklet of 24 pages. Writing the title, acknowledgement page, contents, and titles of poems by hand I was thus able to work out the pagination and decide what went in each of the landscaped columns. Another method is to print these out and physically glue them down in order to decide on a layout. Nowadays, there are so many relatively inexpensive home publishing programs one can let the computer do the work. Once this is achieved, master pages can be printed out and brought to a photocopy shop. At this point, the question of quantity arises. Originally, I would make about a dozen books at a time. Now, I make sixty to start with and then to order. Chapbooks tend to be more fragile than standard trade editions and, having five children, I try to minimise security issues. Hand-crayoned holograph editions are not as valuable as you might think. (Many micro-publishers have discovered that having gone to immense lengths to find bookshops willing to stock poetry, they receive their books back after two or three years unsold and extremely soiled). Over a couple of years, a chapbook may sell anything from twenty to two hundred copies.
To get back to production, it is worth using the highest quality paper you can afford when printing master copies. Using a premium Deskjet paper will result in sharply defined text. Cheaper papers allow the ink to spread slightly, giving a smudged quality. Photocopying can correct this slightly, but all the same ...On the other hand one might decide to print all of the chapbooks using a DeskJet This is not as expensive as you might think insofar as poetry uses a lot less ink than prose. (For the same reason, it's hard to recoup the initial capital outlay of buying a laser printer, especially a colour one.) It also allows one to choose heavier paper than can be used in photocopiers. While eschewing a laser printer, I did buy a duplex deskjet which automatically prints doubled-sided sheets, a big saving in time. I had been printing twenty copies of one side then manually putting the sheets back in to print the other side. This required more supervision than I liked as printers like to play little games like drawing in two sheets instead of one. One humid summer, I had to feed each sheet individually as the paper was expanding with moisture before my very eyes. Not recommended, not even as occupational therapy.
For covers I like to use 250 gsm card, usually white, 'natural' or blue Stratakolour from Arjo Wiggins. This has an attractive mottled pattern on which images will print with surprising clarity. (Go to www.wildhoneypress.com and click on the books gallery to see examples.) Quite a few micro-publishers have the cover printed commercially, which allows for a varnished cover. I like to have a colour illustration for the cover and make every effort to obtain permission for the use of the image. Many artists are happy to give such permission and either waive the fee or ask for something nominal. This generosity surprised me in the beginning, though perhaps it shouldn't have. No matter how well-known or established the artist or poet, my requests for image or text were well-received, no matter that if Faber and Faber might be pictured as the Rolls Royce of poetry publishing, then Wild Honey is a single roller skate with a wheel missing.
Since staples rust over time, I decided on a sewn binding from the start. My wife, Louise Mac Mahon, showed me a simple and reliable method. (A pdf describing it in detail can be downloaded from www.wildhoneypress.com). Embroidery silk is strong and looks well. The choice of colour gives one yet another design element to play with. Using a bodkin to punch the holes in advance allows one to sew in excess of 30 sheets (120 pages). I then place twenty or so chapbooks between two plywood boards and clamp them with a pair of large G-clamps overnight. This, obviously, flattens them and makes them easier to hold and read. Trimming with a craft knife and steel rule allows one to vary the size from strict A5, the design then fitting the poetry rather than being a hardcopy Procrustes' bed. (A self-healing cutting mat will save your desk.)
ISBN's can be obtained from the UK International Standard Book Numbering Agency, Woolmead House West, Bear Lane, Farnham, Surrey, GU9 7LG, England. They will initially send one, and then offer to sell a log book containing another ninety-nine. In fact, this latter is unnecessary as all ISBN's follow a simple formula and one can calculate them easily using a spreadsheet. (Drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like assistance with this). Some libraries and bookshops will not make orders with publishers who don't use ISBN's.
Publishers in the UK and Ireland have a legal obligation to deposit published material in a number of Irish and British libraries. Information regarding this can be found here.
Distribution can be as unambitious as one would wish. Initially, it may be rewarding enough to simply bring the chapbooks to readings. I remember Chris Daybell, in the late seventies, walking up and down Grafton Street selling his work. Another practice of his was to stand up on the last bus to Howth, or wherever, and give an impromptu reading. There are all sorts of poetry discussion lists online where one can announce new publications. A web page is very useful, particularly if one has some kind of credit card processing facility. (Initially, I tried to set this up with a local bank, but found that they required me to donate at least two limbs per annum. So I presently use an online service which I've found trustworthy and reliable). Since few bookshops stock a comprehensive range of contemporary poetry, one may experience difficulties in finding takers. There is also the problem mentioned previously. However, I've found that after three years or so, a small number of bookshops began to place orders, in which case they have been happy to respond to pro-forma invoices.
After having published thirty-five or so chapbooks, I've begun to experiment with publishing trade editions, Mairéad Byrne's marvellous Nelson & the Huruburu Bird being the first. Untitled and Other Poems (Geoffrey Squires) and Livelihood (Maurice Scully) are presently in the pipeline.
There is a tremendous amount of excellent poetry out there just waiting for a publisher. In an environment where a heavyweight like Oxford has simply pulled their entire poetry list, which apparently was at least breaking even, there is every reason to believe that a micro-press can make a contribution. You too can break even! Who knows, in no time you could be publishing your heroes.