There’s a distinct possibility you haven’t heard of Valley Press. Sometimes I like to check the listings at www.poetrylibrary.org.uk/publishers to see if we’ve made it yet – at time of writing, no, by the way – and I rarely stumble upon any mention of my young, plucky enterprise in respected arenas of poetry discussion; so really, there’s no reason why you should have. That’s what this article is for; though there are some secondary motivations, which I shall get to in due course. First: a bit of history.
Last week I turned twenty-four, but my interest in publishing nonetheless extends at least eighteen years into the past. I remember, as a six-year-old, filling an exercise book with a story about a butterfly and a spider who were sent a spaceship through the post (the rest writes itself), then proceeding to carefully add a cover, title page and contents. If I want to be charming, this is where I usually stop this story – but six-year-old Jamie, bearing a perverse fascination with the paraphernalia of publishing, also added a dedication, fictional write-ups for ‘other books by this author’, and on the back cover, a blurb, ISBN and barcode. I can’t explain this behaviour, now or then, but it’s clear there was only one career I was ever going to successfully pursue.
So it was that, many years later, I graduated with a first-class English Literature degree, and felt certain there’d be no doubt of my securing an entry-level position in the respected publishing house of my choice. After all, I had dabbled in publishing throughout university, putting out volumes of poetry by myself (well why not!) and a couple of local poets who were, in my opinion, criminally under-appreciated (still are, but I’m working on it). My CV laboriously provided the minute details of this operation, which made a total of £200 profit between 2008 and 2010; perhaps unsurprisingly, this track record generated not a single interview within the publishing world in eight months of solid application. As the months wore on, my search became ever more desperate, and the job centre became a place of persecution and unrest; having walked casually from one job to the next whilst a student, suddenly all doors (even at my local branch of W H Smiths) were closed.
(Side-note: I notice, with some small satisfaction, that this article is appearing in the same series as at least one respected publishing company who turned me down for a job interview back in those days – but as I say, I would have turned me down too.)
So it was out of a sense of desperation that Valley Press, in its current form, sprang to life in January 2011. The initial remit of the business (named after a particular road in Scarborough, my university town) was to make enough money to cover my now-absent income from the unemployment bureau. I managed to achieve this after just a few months, partly thanks to the Prince’s Trust, whose aptly named ‘will it work’ grant enabled the first print run of my burgeoning career. Valley Press would be a poetry publisher, since I love poetry above all things (in an honest and uncomplicated manner); though it would occasionally wander into other genres as a way of hedging one’s bets. It would promote its books through elaborate web-based schemes, and as many events as I could physically drag myself to. And I would give it all my time and energy for at least one year; just to see what would happen.
Sixteen months and thirteen books later, this desperate career move has proved to be the best thing I could possibly have done – I’m living the dream; a wholly independent existence, full of poetry, within arm’s reach of my beloved Scarborough seafront. VP has now sold more than 3,500 individual books. It was ‘Highly Commended’ in the 2012 Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards; a surprising development, in which a business model built almost entirely on people paying for poetry was judged to be one of the top thirty graduate businesses in the UK. By banking executives, no less!
In retrospect, my partial success was guaranteed from the start – it’s a long walk from Scarborough to Leeds, the location of the nearest professional poetry publishing operation, so when I started I immediately filled a sizable vacuum in the North/East Yorkshire poetry scene. It’s not so much a question of being a big fish in a small pond; it’s more about being the only fish in the pond. Plus, although the UK has no shortage of poetry publishers, I suspect there aren’t that many run as full-time commercial businesses, as I decided to run Valley Press – it was an ‘all or nothing’ moment – and I suspect it is a very different experience, for author and publisher, working under those conditions. When I describe myself as a ‘hungry young publisher’, I do not always mean it metaphorically.
Since the Prince’s Trust kindly kicked things off, VP has neither received nor applied for funding of any kind; though in my leaner weeks, I have occasionally sat looking at the Arts Council ‘apply for funding’ page, dreaming of shiny new computers and professional-standard software. I’m not entirely sure why I have not then gone on to apply for such, but it will be either:
a) misplaced stubbornness – one of my defining characteristics, b) a desire to remain totally independent, in the most broad sense, c) a healthy suspicion of funding, brought about from too many conversations with ill-favoured artists, d) a feeling that being unfunded will in some way keep me honest, or e) an interest in keeping VP unfunded as an experiment, just to see if it is at all possible to run a poetry operation in that manner. Oh, and f) a sense that they wouldn’t actually want to give me money; I am after all entirely unqualified, teaching myself about publishing through trial and error, not exactly a cultural taxpayer’s dream project.
This brings me onto my reasons for writing the article, as teased in the first paragraph. We’ve covered my desire to let you know about VP, and there have been hints about the second reason – to feed my truly monstrous ego; a ravenous beast which can only be placated briefly by appearing on websites like this. Thirdly, I wanted to put out a call for help, information or tips – as I say, I’ve taught myself how to run a publishing house, and there is a lot of stuff I’ll never learn unless more experienced heads write to me and tell me; things I don’t even know I don’t know, if you follow me. If you’re reading this as a poetry publishing professional, I’d love to hear from you; and to be honest, I’d quite like to follow you around for a few days and see how you work. In fact, I’d like to hear from you whoever you are; if you’re someone who reads this page, you’re almost certainly ‘my kind of person’. You can get in touch via the Valley Press contact page, at www.valleypressuk.com/contact.
It became apparent at the outset that the Poetry Book Society would be an essential help in my publishing mission, a chance to play on a level playing field with the big-time organisations – all books look the same in manuscript form (more or less), and it gives me great satisfaction to think my future collections are being judged alongside this country’s finest poetic output, on a quarterly basis. So thanks to them, for that, and for publishing this article; long may your work continue. Talking of the future: Valley Press is currently open to submissions (see contact address above), actively seeking new collections and pamphlets for 2013; the catch is, I’ve decided to only read submissions during four months of the year (January, July, August and December), so you must send in a ‘pitch’, then your work, and then be patient – which probably isn’t that unusual. Me and my wonderful volunteer team are looking for exciting work with a commercial edge; not poetry to sit in dusty, scholarly corners (leave that to the team themselves!), but poetry to excite a crowd, on paper and in the air.
I look forward to hearing from you, hopefully, and please keep an eye out for Valley Press in the months and years to come – perhaps even in those ‘respected arenas of poetry discussion’. See you there!
Jamie McGarry was born in Norwich, in April 1988, and grew up in North Wales and Yorkshire. Since 2006 he has been based in Scarborough, earning a degree in English Literature and founding small publishing concern Valley Press, which became a full-time job in January 2011. Early VP publications included several works by Jamie, most recently The Dead Snail Diaries, which was described by John Hegley as being ‘not slow to appeal.’