On the Forward Prize shortlists, The Bookseller noted that ‘Independent publishers including CB editions, Doire Press and Smokestack Press have all won nominations, alongside established poetry publishers and imprints such as Faber, Picador and Jonathan Cape.’
Well, I know what they mean, but the adjectives usually used to distinguish one kind of publisher from another are rarely helpful. Faber is independent – and keeps on telling us, as if independent is an especially virtuous thing to be. I’m not sure it is; it doesn’t automatically follow that they publish better books than, say, Jonathan Cape or Harvill Secker, who are both part of Random House. And if Picador (founded 1972) is established, what does this make, say, Peter Owen (founded 1951)?
Compared to Picador, Peter Owen is small. Compared to CBe, Peter Owen is big, or at least bigger. When does a ‘small press’ cease to be small? And how next might it be described (‘medium-sized’)? Enitharmon? Five Leaves? Carcanet? Bloodaxe? Salt? Faber and Cape are generally reckoned to be big poetry publishers, even though they publish fewer poetry books each year than many publishers generally reckoned to be small. So number of titles published per year is not the determining factor: it’s more about the clout (or marketing muscle) behind them.
Given that 50+ poetry publishers will be showing and selling their books at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in September, ranging from the likes of Faber and Picador to the likes of Cultured Llama and Worple, we could use this occasion to gather statistics (titles per year, backlist, sales figures) and translate these into some form of league table. This, I think, is the kind of thing the Arts Council might spend money on, and it is deeply boring. The writing: this I am interested in, from whoever, and this only. I just get mildly annoyed whenever I read in a newspaper or online the adjectives small, independent, alternative, established (oh, the list goes on: innovative, cutting-edge, experimental) attached to a publisher as if they mean something precise. They don’t. And the more they are used imprecisely, to suggest rather than accurately describe, the more they are drained of all meaning.
Oh look, there’s a small press on a shortlist – this is where we are now at. In the way that, a decade or so ago, and often still occurs: Oh look, there’s a woman / black person / very old or very young or not-Oxbridge-educated person on a shortlist. This is a news story? There’s a time lag between what is actually happening and how it is reported, the ways of reporting it, there always is. They don't have even the vocabulary.