Going to book fairs as I do, it’s inevitable that poets approach me for advice on how to find a publisher for their work. It takes a lot of courage to ask to be published, and I recognise that – it’s how I got started – so I’m happy to try to explain how I work in choosing an author to publish in the Calder Wood Press family. My two major constraints are time and money – a common theme. I overdid it recently by publishing 8 titles per year in 2009 and 2010, and I’m trying to be sensible about not taking on more books than I can promote and sell. (I’m still catching up). I’m not subsidised: never tried and never will. Au contraire, my pension subsidises my publishing output, so why should I take a punt on a new author? Every publisher is different, but here are my reasons:
Above all else, I have to like your poetry. It has to be well-written, demonstrating the author’s writing skills. It has to be original, a fresh voice, saying something new or in a new way. It mustn’t be clichéd. It must say something to me personally. And I have to like what’s being said.
You have to have a track record of publication in recognised magazines. It’s very hard to sell a book by someone who is completely unknown to potential buyers (my fingers have been burned a couple of times). If they know your name from seeing it in a magazine, it becomes much easier. That’s the way poets of my generation got their first books published, and the merry-go-round of submitting, being rejected, and submitting again elsewhere hones your self-critical skills, if nothing else.
I have to have heard you read in public, and to know that you are a good reader. The way the poetry publishing world is these days, each poet is part of the publisher’s sales and promotion team. In my case, since CWP is a one-person organisation, it’s crucial that the poets are enthusiastic about building and sustaining audiences for their work, and a major part of sales happen at readings. Besides which, readings are enjoyable for authors and audience alike.
I have to like you. Putting a book together builds a relationship between author and publisher. The way I work with authors involves continuing co-operation and agreement, from the selection of material, editing text, sequencing content, typography, page layout, book and cover design. If I sense that an author and I are going to have difficulties over these things, there’ll be no book. (I’ll be 70 next year, and life is too short.) The relationship doesn’t stop when the book is printed; it continues through the launch, reviews, readings and so on. Even after the edition is sold out, the authors and I maintain our friendships. These relationships are rooted in trust, respect and affection, and I value them highly. I’ve said it’s a family, and that’s what it still feels like. If it didn’t I’d stop doing it.