Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Just One More One More Book

It pains me to see that Salt are on the trail again for reader support. This time around I caught the campaign in passing at first, which is interesting in itself: perhaps a certain degree of fatigue in passing email references, like "Salt are in trouble again", but with no link to the campaign or explanation for what was up. It's the third time now and it's kind of depressing to see that things haven't got better for them, for all the hard work, innovation in poetry publishing and exciting, diverse lists of authors. And the worry is that people are going to get tired of repeated bail outs.

There's an interesting post over at Alan Baker's blog, Litterbug. He makes a nice comparison to micro-breweries, 'beer publishing'. Specialist ends of industries can survive on the small scale with dedicated readerships and recessions don't really affect them. Neither do profits, of course. But that's not really what Salt's about.

The mission behind Salt that's always interested me is, loosely phrased, (and might be reading too much between the lines on my part) that there are more audiences out there for poetry than can be assumed: poetry readerships are multitudes. (I could phrase it better, but I'm going for the soundbite.) Salt have a fantastically experimental backlist, as Alan points out in his post. But they also have mainstream poets like Tobias Hill and Jane Holland. I have Silliman, Monk, Kennard, Abi Curtis, Tobias Hill, Holland and Montejo kicking about on my shelves. The list is diverse and that's something to be celebrated. I don't expect to buy every book Shearsman or Faber put out, or that they should exist to satisfy only my tastes (even if I pine for the lack of flavour in certain publishers' lists from time to time) and the same goes for Salt.

And it saddens me to think that this audiences-principle doesn't seem to be holding. Is the problem, like Alan suggests, that Salt is spread too thin? That they've adopted a corporate model which doesn't hold weight? Is the 'long tail' a failure in the long term?

As with any business, the option is open to vary the model for different audiences. What Alan describes - public subsidies, viability of sales - is what Salt are falling back on. They're relying on a core demographic to buy books regularly; to some extent they are operating on a subscription model. Call it the 'Just One Book' campaign, or call it 'Buy three books a year', or call it 'Arts Council funding', it amounts to the same thing in any case: a fixed, core operational funding stream from a given source that permits survival, within certain goalposts. The most irritating aspect of this is how it restricts editorial freedom, forces certain choices down lines that might not be fruitful, in a wider aesthetic picture ('This poetry deserves to be in print' goes out the window when you're relying on an unpredictable commercial funding stream). And that in turn leads to brand damage - witness how far Faber have moved from the Eliotian dream.

But brand loyalty is what the subscription model relies on, in contrast. Do we save Salt because of the brilliant personalities driving it? Or because the poetry's shit-hot? The poetry has to be there too, right? And the poetry is there, for me, just glancing at the new and forthcoming on their homepage: the John James companion, the new Rachel Blau DuPlessis Drafts, and stuff I've not heard of that looks exciting, like Lisa Dart's The Linguistics of Light (revamped metaphysics in short, clear lyrics, with references to Greece that tickle my mental g-spot).

What's missing here is a proper subscription model: why not turn the 'Just One Book' campaign into a full on, 'Save us by picking x books from our catalogue for £x a year' service? I'm thinking here of an article I read, some time ago (which I think I've confused with this one by Blake Morrison on editing - a great article in any case) which mentioned in passing a Swedish publishing collective with something like 30,000 annual subscribers. Is that viable in the UK? It should be, especially when publishing in English, with overseas reach.

But it just doesn't seem to happen. Salt already have the Poetry Bank and the Story Bank, but I get the feeling that they are nowhere near as successful as the Just One Book campaigns have been.

The danger of appealing to that multitude of readers who want to buy when & what they want to buy, is that they'll think they'll not get the books they want from a subscription, or they'll want to spend their pennies on presses other than Salt. At the same time, you may well be thinking, 'I want to help save Salt!' which is great. But instead of buying just one book, why not chip in for a subscription to one of their Banks instead? (This is assuming, given the pages are still live, that the subscription is still available, of course. I've not seen it promoted for a while, but I'd thoroughly endorse a change to the system even after I've bought one - e.g. 5 softbacks instead of 4 hardbacks, or somesuch.)

Or maybe you're just thinking: 'Why has he used so many colons and semis in this blog?' Your prerogative, ultimately, but it would be a sad lacuna in modern poetry publishing if Salt did fold, especially if that was due to your punctuative fixation. And Chris H-E's recent fb status is that they've only £1000 left in the bank. That's a sad place to be for a publisher that managed to hit £124k turnover a year, through selling poetry (OK, and other stuff, but their core is still the unsellable, 'the opposite of money', as David Morley calls it). Don't let it be said that Salt didn't prove there was a bigger market out there than we could have imagined. It just hasn't been consistent enough to keep them safe.



Matt Merritt said...

Hear, hear, George. And I can recommend the John James Companion - really excellent.

Jane Holland said...

The Poetry and Fiction clubs are both dead now. Not as successful, I imagine, as you suggest.

Their money issues are being resolved though, as far as I'm aware. And one way they're doing that long-term is by moving into commercial fiction - crime and romance.

There's a long history, of course, of poetry lists being underwritten by commercial fiction. Nothing for people to get their knickers in a twist over, though naturally some folk will always make a fuss, regardless of what is done, and moan dramatically about a loss of purity or whatever.


So let's hope better times lie ahead for Salt and poetry in general. We're still in a recession, remember, and a new book of poetry is not exactly the first thing people reach for when they can't pay the mortgage.

But if you buy a book DIRECT from Salt between now and the end of August, you get a raffle ticket to win their next 20 books. Plug, plug.


Alan Baker said...

Your point about the Swedish publishing collective is interesting, and provides an alternative model that could operate on the same scale as Salt. Why are good things like this always in Sweden?

Of course, another possibility is that Salt - or another publisher - stops pretending that publishing poetry is financially viable (or that it's in any way a normal commercial transaction) and asks poets to pay for publication. This would provide a level of financial support. It would also, in effect, create a writers' cooperative, in which each author had a stake (and therefore a responsibility for promoting the press, and helping run it). You could still have an (elected?) editorial team that ensured standards of quality.

I can pre-empt your first response: why has he used so many parentheses in this comment?

Chris Hamilton-Emery said...

This is a very perceptive piece, George.

Everything I'm about to say below needs some context, and that context is that Salt is a business that provides people with a living, it's not a hobby press. (That's not to knock hobby presses either.) It's there to employ people and pay salaries. It's how four of us earn our livings.

So, I'll add a few glosses, I'm not quite sure about spread too thin, part of the experiment was that scale was important. I still think this is true. In fact, the changes we're seeing now with the digital revolution point to an even greater scale than we ever considered ten years ago. But at the very least it's basic maths. Work out the realistic sales from a new title and divide that into the businesses total costs (ratcheting up production costs as a variable). We've known for years that if we only published poetry, we'd need to publish around 80 books a year. Though that's split across three continents. I still think size matters, but I'm no longer convinced that the poetry market (collectively) is large enough, or robust enough, to sustain our business. So as Jane points out, we're diversifying into a general trade publisher.

But let's say that the long tail really does matter. Size matters — if the context is that you'll live off the sales.

The other thing we've kind of settled on is that despite the size of the UK poetry market (a multi-million pound sector) Salt is still a specialist press and you're only likely to discover our books if you have a specific passion for poetry and really know about it, or want to. There's a much larger, casual and precarious market for non-specialist poetry titles, like general anthologies and lighter works. We're considering broadening out into this market. In fact we are going to enter this market.

As we've stated many times, there is clearly more than one specialist market. There are perhaps half a dozen quite distinct markets, and that's just in the UK. The defining thing there is, perhaps, how these markets are reached. They're communities in a way. Often with quite distinct prejudices or passions (depending on where you're standing); they are united by a set of beliefs. We've seen massive changes in our core markets over the years. All markets ebb and flow, of course, and as a business we have to follow the readers. Needless to say, we commission what we hope are truly the finest examples of writing in each area we move into. It's always been about the writing.

We've closed the book clubs, we can't scale them up enough to make sense of them — they became a distraction for us and we had to ask ourselves, "Is this what we want to do for a living?" As I've said, we're reducing our dependence on poetry and short stories and moving into other genres. If you like, the next stages of our business plan are about balancing the various elements of the list and closing the bits that don't work, that no one wants to read. Poetry is currently 60% of our business, I'd like to see it somewhere around 20%.

Most poetry sells poorly in the UK because so few are trying to sell it. Lots of presses enjoy the editorial assertion of list building, but they don't always like the commercial aspects of hand selling it to readers. Ultimately, and it sounds utterly stupid saying this, but publishing is all about sales, and rather than look to a subsidy model (which is perfectly legitimate for businesses to do) I think we'd rather change what we're selling and give readers what they want, or meet them half way — presses do have a curatorial responsibility, they have trajectories and needless to say, they provide choices. People do, of course, want poetry; but in the recession, I'm not convinced they want enough of it for us to remain so heavily dependent on it. All change, please.

Chris Hamilton-Emery said...

Everyone at Salt found this fascinating.

A few glosses. Salt is a business designed to employ people and pay salaries. It's not a hobby press (I use that term in the best sense).

The maths has been fundamentally very simple. If you need to turnover say £170K a year, how many books do you need to sell to achieve that. Then look at average sales per title and work out how many books you need to publish. Then establish how many markets you'll need to be in to gain the appropriate market share. Then find the best books ...

Salt grows at 40% per annum, but the recession hit hard. Turnover last year was £165K (possibly a little higher), not quite enough to break even. This year, sales dropped over 60% on frontlist titles. That caused the cash dilemma. We never seem to build more than two to three months cash reserves, once bad sales eat in, you're in trouble very rapidly.

There's a lot we've learned about poetry publishing in a decade at the coal face. It can be profitable, and it can be sustainable, but you need other income streams to drive up revenues and balance the business. So we're diversifying and becoming a general trade publisher.

People buy books, but where poetry is concerned there's a strong residual interest in imprints, and that's meaningful only insofar as the imprint represents the desires of a given community (manifest in actual writers and their works). The more poetry markets you can operate in the better. There's so much to relate here, but a comment isn't the right place. Thanks for such a terrific assessment of a fascinating part of publishing.

The Editors said...

Thanks all for the replies, apologies for the slow response, been out of the country.

Alan/Chris: I think one of the things I find exciting about Salt is that they're trying to (and have generally succeeded in) make poetry publishing financially viable. They're supporting several staff, a family, and let's face it, the poets already know poetry isn't financially viable, it's a vocation.

There's great creativity in how Salt have gone about that, from the book clubs to online magazines like Horizon and Salt, as well as the recent Salt Cellars. These take tremendous amounts of energy.

But the core work, PR, getting the poetry, the new publishing streams like kids lit and romance, out on the radio, in the Bookseller and so on, these are done to a very high, competitive standard. Sure there's an innate problem in shifting units and I'm somewhat pleased to hear that from Chris's perspective this is due to resistance in retail outlets, rather than their own inabiilty to promote (which dogs most small presses, my own projects included).

And the web reaction is consistently along the lines of what, say, Nicholas Liu says, over in Singapore:
"Do consider buying some of their stuff–not out of charity, but because they put out damn good books (most notably poetry, of astonishingly catholic variety, but not only that) and are worth keeping around. For people, especially those living outside the US or UK, whose local stores don’t carry many or any Salt books, I recommend the Book Depository, which ships quickly and for free and carries tonnes (all? I’m not sure) of their titles. Much better than Amazon."

There's an audience, an international audience, which Salt is reaching. With enough spread, even to Sweden perhaps, there's sustainability for web-based projects.

Thanks for all the insight into the financial side of things Chris - it's interesting to hear that the problem lies with regular sales. I have a problem with regular purchasing - money's up and down when you're freelancing and core salary doesn't stretch far beyond mortgage and bills.

But I've a bit saved from summer and a few titles in mind, so I'm going to get over and buy a few of those gems I've seen glinting in Salt's treasure chest...