The publishing industry has undergone many changes over the last few years, many of which can be attributed to the disruptions brought about by digital technologies. Alongside the rise of self-/ indie- publishing we are also seeing new types of publisher emerge, publishers who are turning traditional models and methods on their head and finding new ways of doing things. In our ‘New Publisher’ series we interview some of them about their approaches and what they hope to achieve by doing things differently.
We speak to Tom Chivers, Director of Penned in the Margins
1. Could you tell us a little about Penned in The Margins, and how your work differs from that of more traditional publishers?
Penned in the Margins creates publications and performances for people who are not afraid to take risks. Our uniqueness lies in the combination of publishing and live event production. We commission touring work that spans spoken word, theatre and multimedia, and this sits alongside our publishing programme. Sometimes the two have a direct link – for instance, our current show The Shipwrecked House by Claire Trevien is a one-woman theatre piece that transforms her poetry collection for the stage. We are always looking for opportunities to invent new and different forms for language and literature. Although this approach sets us aside from many existing publishers and is obviously set in the context of new developments in technology and performance, I do not see it as especially radical. In fact, I hope that our company stands for some of the best things about ‘traditional’ publishing, namely quality editing. We edit all our books extremely closely, and take pride in the close and sustained relationships we build up with our authors.
2. What led you to set up Penned in The Margins?
I set up Penned in the Margins in 2004 as a series of poetry readings in a converted railway arch in south London. I had just graduated, was working for an arts consultancy and making my first forays in London’s poetry scene. Two years later, I decided to quit my job to see if I could run the company professionally. I felt that there was an opportunity for someone like me to make an impact, to bring together different genres and art forms into something that audiences would love. It was all sketched out on the back of an envelope – a ‘live literature agency’ that would combine books, events, touring and consultancy projects. Beyond that, the company has never had a formalised plan or structure. But eight years later and, give or take, I am still doing what I set out to do.
3. What do you see as the main opportunities and challenges for writers today?
I think we all know the challenges – shrinking shelf-space, shrinking margins, and big publishers taking fewer risks. For many authors, these are poor conditions in which to thrive. But on the other hand, there are great opportunities brought about by technological change: we, as individual writers, can build a readership, develop communities and disseminate work with much greater ease than ever before; and a whole new generation of publishers – small, agile, savvy – is springing up to forge ahead in uncertain times. There are now so many more ways of being ‘a writer’. For instance, as well as publishing my poems in books and pamphlets, I also make audio and perambulatory work. It all stems from the same impulse, but by working across different art forms and media I can find different audiences.
4. What advice would you offer to writers and poets weighing up their publishing options?
Before you do anything, ask yourself the difficult questions. Why are you writing? What do you want from it? Who will read your work, and why? How could you best disseminate your writing? There are so many ways to be a writer nowadays, the traditional route (agent then publisher) may not necessarily be the answer. When you do come to submitting to publishers, do your research properly. There’s nothing more annoying than a covering letter that spells your name wrong, or a manuscript that is so widely divergent from your list or stated aims as a publisher that its author has clearly never read any of your books.
5. What’s next for your company? Are there any exciting developments that you can share with us?
We have just been selected as an Arts Council NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) for 2015-18, which is both a great honour and an opportunity to build a stronger and more sustainable company for the future. In particular we want to raise the quality and number of our performances and new commissions across all art forms and media. For instance in 2015-16 we are producing a major new site-responsive piece called Fair Field, which is an updating of the medieval epic Piers Plowman for the twenty first century. It will exist across different locations and platforms, taking in perambulatory, audio, literary, installation, digital and theatrical forms as the shifting narrative suggests.
Other interviews in our ‘New Publisher Series’:
Director, Penned in the Margins