10 Apr 2015

HappenStance Poetry

HappenStance Press poetry publisher
People! Your poetry is in the post.
The happening of HappenStance Press must be one of the happiest happenstands to have happened in Scottish publishing in recent memory, and it was with a most happy stance in mind that I decided to write to the press's originator, Helena Nelson, in order to ask her a few questions about envelopes, poetry and other relevant matters.

As it happened she was delighted to speak to me, but before I tell you what she said, let me introduce you to the press.

HappenStance have been publishing steadily now for ten years, and during those thankless times whole poetry empires have risen and collapsed, generally under the weight of what I must assume are their originator's illusions concerning what poetry publishing involves.  

It's an erratic business. It is generally frowned upon.  The poets are grateful, some of the time, but the public pays little heed.  Reviews are rare.  Sales are minimal.  And yet a success of it can be made using all one's tenacity, humour and good will.
HappenStance have very much gleefully furrowed their own plow however, and have  released many first collections, including works from James C. Wilson, James Wood, Kate Scott, Andrew Philip, Richie McCaffrey, Eleanor Livingstone, Lorna Dowell and ... oh! there are too many to mention.

Too many!  In fact I counted a few short of 100 poets and collections published by this small press which appears to be funded out of thin air.

Think of it! New poetry published with care, with attention and in true small press fashion, funding itself from pamphlet and chapbook sales.  Nothing short of magical.  

It is possible too that HappenStance is providing a valuable social service, being the first and sometimes the only press willing to edit, collect and publish these many writers.

Helena Nelson who has run the press from the start, has among other things maintained and edited Sphinx magazine - one of the few places in Scotland at least, where you could get yourself a serious review, if you were a published poet.

And Helena has been celebrated and published as a poet herself, but today she is speaking to you as a publisher, and has allowed readers of Scottish Books to take a peek behind the scenes.


These envelopes are two different spinning sides of the poetry publishing coin.  The neat, trim and organised envelopes to the subscribers, stamped, dated and primped, ready for the mail.

And the submissions pile. Still fresh, yes, but stacked haphazard, with no intrinsic method, each application styled by a single poet, and crumpled and tossed by the mail.



Helena, I asked. As nobody writes poetry for profit, what could the motives of poets and their publishers possibly be?

There are types of profit that are not monetary. At HappenStance we're pitching to posterity. However, though there is some truth in what I said, I think you should have a second question, which goes: "As nobody publishes poetry for profit, what could the motives of poets and their publishers possibly be?"

I could suggest a dozen motives. For poets, maybe the best motive (though there are many) is this:

-- poetry is a communication: how else does it get readers?

For publishers:

-- it's a chance to influence the story of poetry in our time, or at least to play a part
-- you get to work with some fabulous people
-- it is a marvellous learning experience
-- it can be terrifying, infuriating, awe-inspiring and migraine-inducing but never ever boring

New for 2015 from Happenstance Press

Scheduled for 2015 are pamphlets by Stephanie Green, Peter Jarvis, Jo Field, Rosie Miles, Vishvantara, Helen Evans and Paula Jennings.

As well as these HappenStance have scheduled full length collections from Stephen Payne and J.O. Morgan.

Some links to some of these writers:

But before any of those appear, there will be Chapter Nine of The HappenStance Story.

The HappenStance Story is an ongoing series created by Helena Nelson, in an effort to both mark and record her work, and to allow readers a peep at the process.

HappenStance Cakes

Being a nosy sort of person, I asked Helena about sales, and the relative speeds at which various collections disappeared from her shelves.

Certain pamphlets have sold fast. The more recent ones to which this applies are Niall Campbell's After the Creel Fleet, Richie McCaffery's Spinning Plates, Tom Vaughan's Envoy, Fiona Moore's The Only Reason for Time and Chrissy Williams' Flying into the Bear

There's no secret to this. Some writers have either an extensive network of friends and acquaintances or they're 'visible' and active in what I call PoetryWorld: online, on paper, doing readings and events. 

If you want to sell a publication, people have to have heard of you and know it exists. It helps if they also like you and at least one of your poems.

Nosing further, and considering even more unreasonable queries, I asked Helena what tipped the scales and made her start publishing?

Helena Nelson HappenStance
Helena Nelson at HappenStance
I started because James Robertson at Kettillonia Press published my first pamphlet, and that's what made me realise it was possible for ordinary people to do such things. 

And the more I thought about it, the more I thought I'd like to try something similar. 

For me, it's a way of being part of the story of literature, and a way to influence (in a small way) how that story goes.


Money for Poetry

Hearing James Robertson mentioned, and casting my mind back to when Kettillonia were publishing new Scottish poets at a fearsome rate of knots, I remembered hearing James Robertson say at a talk that he made sure and paid the Kettillonia writers for their work.

It got me back to thinking about the financial viability of poetry and how helpful the shops and distribution networks are in Scotland, and I asked Helena for her thoughts.

She told me this:

James did always pay poets something (I was one of them).  He may have upped it latterly, but you have to remember he doesn't publish many authors in a year. This year I published over a dozen. 

When I first started, I copied James and paid the poets £50.00. I don't pay them any more.  It doesn't add up. 

Instead I give the poets 20 free copies, and additional copies at half the cover price. When James Robertson started Kettillonia, he was able to sell pamphlets in Waterstones. Changed days. They won't handle books now, let alone pamphlets, with rare exceptions (Candlestick Press).

Now, unless poets are very good at selling their own work and so buy a good number from the publisher (at reduced cost, obviously)  it is hard for a publisher to cover costs. 

If poets sell a reasonable number of their own pamphlets at full price, those poets can make a few bob. However, lots of them give loads away or sell them on at cut price. 

Hamish at Mariscat pays poets royalties. I don't do that either. Not worth the hassle.

So there is no point distributing pamphlets to bookshops. Pamphlets don't sell well in shops, unless it's a local author. They sell at readings, and by post, and to friends, and online.

I don't think distribution is cost-effective for pamphlets. However, I can't prove that since I don't use a distributor.

The small publisher distribution network (UK) is Inpress. I don't know whether anyone has ever evaluated how effective it is, especially with regard to poetry.

Whether anyone has considered a Scottish distribution network, I don't know, though there is a Scottish distributor: Scottish Book Source, which was set up to contend with these issues. 

I don't think anyone is getting rich at Scottish Book Source. And setting up a small publisher distribution network would entails someone's time and money. Whose? Who earns enough (if anything) form poetry to pay someone to perform this function?

Poetry doesn't sell in quantity. If you could get it to sell, distribution arrangements would start to be profitable and therefore they would happen. But if the profit is tiny or non-existent there's no point in splitting it.  So you either need there to be less poetry in print, so it is rarer and therefore more desirable, or you need lots of it to sell in quantity. 

Neither of these two things is going to happen, in my view, though the prize and competition culture does its best to 'sell' the idea that there is a market. There ARE loads of people interested in reading and writing poetry, but they don't translate into loads of buyers.

My subscribers are crucial to me in terms of sales. Without that market I could not do what I'm doing. 

But keeping the subscriber group interested and engaged is a monumental task. Eventually that too will collapse. 

I am not being very encouraging, am I? However, I think about these issues at great length, and I find it very interesting. I really don't want to print collections of poetry for which there's little or no demand. I want to sell poetry that people want to buy.


What I have taken from this, other a pleasing sense of wonder at what can be achieved, is this sentiment Helena expressed above: That publishing was "a chance to influence the story of poetry in our time, or at least to play a part."

This is a great notion and in the work of the first ten years, which has seen one hundred authors published, as well as many issues of Sphinx, we have seen more than the story of the poetry of our time, but an inspiration also.

The subscriber method is also one to watch, and is one of the most promising funding methods left for non-state supported publishing. It's not only a great guarantee of good quality, but it also offers the small press in question some kind of hope for the future.  

And you have to dig that final sentiment, that reality-ground pessimism that could only emerge from long experience: 

Keeping the subscriber group interested and engaged is a monumental task. Eventually that too will collapse.