Hercules Editions is a London-based publisher of books that combine poetry and art and archival material. It emerged from a one-off creative collaboration between poet Tamar Yoseloff and designer Vici MacDonald and evolved into a small independent press.
We spoke with Tamar about how Hercules Editions came into being, her novel approach to publishing, and how she’s working to get poetry out of the ‘ghetto’.
Hercules Editions evolved out of a personal creative collaboration between you and Vici can you tell us a bit about that first project and the journey to becoming a publisher?
Vici and I are good friends, and so I know she is never without her camera. She has always photographed things that interest her, mainly shop fronts, ghost signs, urban detritus – things that interest me as well. One day I asked her if she would ever consider showing her photographs, and she was dismissive. She didn’t think anyone would be interested, the photos were just part of her personal archive as a graphic designer. I volunteered to write some poems to accompany them, just to see where it might go. I sifted through hundreds of photos, and selected ones that spoke to me in some way. I started to write these odd, sometimes quite irreverent sonnets to match the images, and we ended up with a set of 14 poems and 14 photos. I suggested we might think about making them into a book, which we decided to call Formerly (to suggest the fleeting nature the sites in the photographs, but also as a nod to the formal nature of the poems). But when we started looking for a publisher, we discovered the project fell between two stools – most poetry publishers were put off by the perceived expense of having to reproduce photographs, and publishers of photographic books weren’t that keen on the poetry! In the end, we had one publisher who might have been willing to take it on, but the project was so personal for us, and because Vici is a terrific designer, she had a very specific vision for the book. So we decided to publish it ourselves.
Once we decided we would self-publish, we had to come up with a name for our “press”. We both live in Lambeth, and Vici is right around the corner from the plaque that marks the site of William Blake’s house in Hercules Road. So we decided on Hercules Editions. Since Blake’s project was to combine poetry and image, we thought he was an appropriate guiding spirit, but it was also a bit of a joke, as Hercules Editions sounds so grandiose, and it was just the two of us making this funny little book!
We never expected to have the success we did. The book triggered two exhibitions of the photos and poems – one at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden, one at the Saison Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall – and it was shortlisted for the 2012 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. It’s now in it’s second printing.
After the success of Formerly, we felt we had located a niche, and so we decided to continue the press, with a view to publishing more books that would combine poetry and visual imagery.
What do you think sets you apart from other publishers?
Vici and I come to the project with very separate and specific skills. Vici has worked as magazine editor and art director, and she has an innate visual sense of how a book should look. For the first project, we were using her photographs, but she has worked with subsequent authors to generate imagery to compliment the poetry – not simply as illustration but as an integral part of the whole piece. I have been in the literary world for many years, so I know a lot of poets, and there were some great writers I was keen to work with. Also, both of us have had some experience in the art world, and we were interested in considering the books more as art objects, so each edition is limited to 300, and signed and numbered. We are obsessed with the materiality of the book – we want it to be a nice thing to own – but to be affordable as well as beautiful. We don’t want the books to stand alone either, and so we are programming events in venues that might not be immediately associated with poetry, such as Parasol Unit, the Black Cultural Archives and the Cinema Museum, as a way of broadening audience.
You receive some Arts Council funding but you also crowdfund on indiegogo for each book, why have you taken that route, and what has it enabled you to do?
The Arts Council encourage their clients to explore multiple ways of funding their projects, and so we considered crowdsourcing as a way of securing extra income. In this tough financial climate, many publishers are going the same route – it makes sense. The revenue we make from crowdsourcing is often earmarked for the sorts of things our ACE funding wouldn’t necessary cover, like launch events. We also find that the campaign creates a buzz around the book, it allows us to offer something more substantial to our readers, so that they feel they are more like patrons, and have an active role in each project.
Crowdfunding isn’t easy money by any means, can you give us your top tips for running a successful crowdfunding campaign for a book project?
We want to be realistic in our reach. We are not asking for huge sums, so people don’t feel burdened by a request for money, especially in these times of austerity. For each book, we offer quite specific perks. We are taking our model from the old days of fine arts subscription presses: for £20, patrons can have their names listed in the book; for £35, they are sent an additional signed poem not in the regular edition; and for £50, they are invited to an event in the presence of the author. For our last book, Ormonde by Hannah Lowe, we arranged tea with the author, and she brought along a number of original documents and photographs which formed the research for her book (which is about her father’s immigration to the UK from Jamaica). For our current publication, Silents, which presents poems inspired by early cinema, we will be arranging a screening of a film selected and introduced by Claire Crowther, the author. These events give our most generous patrons the opportunity to meet our authors, and for us to personally acknowledge their very generous and valuable support.
What do you think are the main challenges facing writers – and poets in particular – today?
The challenge is always how to sell books, how to get the material out to a wider audience. The Internet and social media are extremely valuable tools, and extend the reach of public events. I still feel that public events are the most exciting way of promoting poetry – there is nothing as exhilarating as seeing a great poet read his or her work live – but we also want to be able to broaden our scope to those outside of London. Poetry is always going to be a minority activity, so it is important to bring it into other spheres.
What next for Hercules?
As Vici and I are very much part-time, the press will always have a relatively modest output. We are still taking things on a project by project basis, but we are thinking about doing some larger-scale events in the future, perhaps a weekend-long arts festival, where we would invite visual artists, filmmakers, sound artists and musicians to participate. In the meantime, we are looking forward to the launch of Claire Crowther’s book Silents at the Cinema Museum (a wonderful hidden gem in London) on 21st May.
You can find out more about Hercules Editions, and buy the books mentioned in this interview, on their website.
Hercules Editions is launching their new book, Silents by Claire Crowther, at the at the Cinema Museum, London on Thursday 21st May. All are welcome, but reservation is essential – details here.
Tamar Yoseloff’s most recent poetry collections are The City with Horns (Salt, 2011) and Formerly, a chapbook incorporating photographs by Vici MacDonald (Hercules Editions, 2012) shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award. She is also the author of two collaborative editions with the artist Linda Karshan and a book with the artist David Harker. A Formula for Night: New and Selected Poems is due from Seren in 2015.
She is a London-based freelance tutor in creative writing, and runs site-specific writing courses for galleries such as the Hayward and the Royal Academy.