The Poetry Business publishes books, pamphlets, audio and now ebooks under the Smith/Doorstop imprint. It also produces The North magazine and provides writing development (through workshops, masterclasses, readings, writing days, residential courses and a celebrated Writing School for published poets (see website for more details)). We have been running our Book & Pamphlet competition since 1986, and have found some of our most successful poets that way, including Michael Laskey, Michael McCarthy, Allison McVety, Jane Routh and Catherine Smith. Everything we do informs everything we do, though some people know us only for one or other aspect. This short essay is about Smith/Doorstop and has been written to mark the publisher's 25th anniversary.
The Smith in the name is Roo Smith, our first printer. And I knew even in my twenties that a box of verse was more likely to become a doorstop than an income. With the help of the Arts Council we turned over time into a real publisher, with reps, spreadsheets and a towering slush pile, but even so Smith/Doorstop has stayed small, bringing out relatively few titles a year. This is partly because we are so picky and partly because we work closely with our poets (for months, sometimes years) before a book is ready. At which point the important first stop is in fact the PBS.
A book has to get noticed to make its way in the world - a world of reviews, festivals and who knows even bookshops. Smith/Doorstop has had more than its fair share of awards and reviews, it has to be said, though like every publisher we feel our books deserve more attention - and we are keen to get it, not because of sales (which almost no poet can live on, even for a month) but to help raise author profile. For a poet a collection can be a calling card or open doors (and keep them open) in terms of readings, workshops, residencies, competition-judging etc. But above all of course publishing is making public, and what the PBS pre-eminently does is help create what even the most reclusive writer needs, a readership.
How we started and where we are now
The first Smith/Doorstop was a double-pamphlet in 1986 by Simon Armitage and Clare Chapman, both members of a writing workshop I ran at Huddersfield Polytechnic (where I was a research assistant). Having access to Roo and the Poly print room, it was inevitable that more titles would follow. Mrs Thatcher wanted to pretend I was an entrepreneur, and so gave me £40 a week to set up The Poetry Business on the Enterprise Allowance. Soon my heroes Ian McMillan and Martyn Wiley had a joint-pamphlet, with Ian's half about the Miners' Strike, Tall in the Saddle (where the policeman on horseback ‘is not tall').
I will fast-forward now to the present day, not that I want to belittle the best years of my life, or to discount the brilliant times Janet Fisher and I had working with so many excellent poets. But it is amazing to me that 25 years later, among other recent titles are a pamphlet by Simon Armitage and just this month one by Ian McMillan; while this year a former student of Ian's, Paul Bentley, was a winner in our competition, judged by Simon Armitage - with a tour-de-force sequence about the Miners' Strike ....
Janet retired in 2007, at which time we moved offices from a Victorian arcade in Huddersfield to Bank Street Arts in Sheffield. Now the Poetry Business is busier than ever in its new incarnation, with the Bloodaxe poet Ann Sansom as co-director. There are five of us, all part-time (or paid part-time), three on the ‘proper job' side - business manager, admin and PR/Marketing. We're lucky too in having the services of a freelance wizard called Keith (design and typesetting) and friends who help with such as events and proof-reading; also we have a great board and a very supportive lead officer at the Arts Council. Ann and I make ‘a living' mostly as freelance writers and tutors.
A snapshot of what we are publishing now: seven titles in autumn 2011 (plus The North), Ian McMillan as you know and a pamphlet also by Maitreyabandhu, a winner in the 2010/11 competition but who went on retreat for four months before we could edit him. Then five very different books: truly outstanding new collections by Carole Bromley and Jonathan Davidson; Yvonne Green's version of the Russian Semyon Lipkin (a PBS Recommended Translation); a remarkable book of poems and photos about (Tristram) Shandy Hall by Paul Munden; and another ‘theme' book, the glittering Night Orders by Jean McNeil, writer-in-residence with the Arctic survey.
How to be published by us, what we are looking for
The North magazine can be a proving ground for potential Smith/Doorstop poets (send up to six poems plus sae), and it goes without saying we have met poets on courses or in workshops that we've later gone on to publish.
The most obvious way of getting our attention is without doubt our Book & Pamphlet competition (currently judged by Carol Ann Duffy, closing date end November). Pamphlets in fact are still what we most like publishing - the ideal size to be both more than the sum of their parts and for every poem to hit home. Also there's an element of risk-taking and something rather fugitive about a pamphlet, and it is possible to work with a poet towards a pamphlet. Go to our website for our very varied list, read some of our poets, subscribe to the magazine, come to a writing day. If you've already published a book, consider applying for our Writing School. If in doubt, just write some very, very good poems and send them to us.
The Poetry Business is an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation.
Peter Sansom has published Writing Poems (Bloodaxe) and five collections with Carcanet, including a recent Selected Poems. He has been writer in residence with M&S, company poet with the Prudential, and Fellow in Poetry at both Leeds and Manchester Universities. With Ann Sansom he is a director of The Poetry Business and co-editor of The North magazine and Smith/Doorstop Books.