Nicholas Murray runs the Welsh-based Rack Press with his wife Sue. Established in 2005 and based in Wales, Rack Press is a small outfit beginning to make quite a mark with their distinctive elegantly produced pamphlets. This year, Rack Press poet, Róisín Tierney won the 2012 Michael Marks Award for the year’s best poetry pamphlet, Dream Endings and Rack Press was also shortlisted for the 2012 Michael Marks Publisher's Award. In April, Christopher Reid’s Rack pamphlet, Airs and Ditties of No Man's Land was short-listed for the prestigious Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Rack is publishing well-known names as well as discovering new voices in the midst of our present publishing revolution. Although there has always been a history of writer-publishers, there seem to be an increase in their numbers recently. Nicholas’s poetry publisher is the novelist William Palmer and Nicholas Murray is not only a poet and novelist, he is the distinguished author of a several literary biographies, most notably on the lives of Kafka and Matthew Arnold.
Is there a revolution happening in small publishing?
I certainly think there is something very momentous going on in British publishing at the moment (as any published author will tell you!) but describing it exactly and interpreting the runes is very difficult, because the revolution is still happening. The economic impact on publishers’ revenues of bookselling giants like Amazon who are driving down the prices (great for consumers but not so good for producers, as with Tesco and the farmers) means that there is less in the pot to spend on writers, especially writers who are not best-sellers. And there are no prizes for guessing where poetry fits along this spectrum! In that context small publishers, who have always existed, are finding themselves the focus of much more attention. I think this is because they can do what the big publishers can’t or won’t do: take creative risks. Suddenly we are seeing small publishers doing very interesting and innovative things, attracting big writers as well as small in the process, and I am convinced this is only the start. Innovation and excitement is increasingly going to come from the small and independent presses as the big ones concentrate merely on chasing after putative best-sellers.
What is the Poetry Book Fair, is it part of this revolution?
The Poetry Book Fair was the brainchild of Charles Boyle who runs CB Editions, one of the most quirkily original of the new small presses. A poet himself, he set up CB I think because he wanted to do something different in this increasingly risk-averse, homogeneous publishing climate and the Fair was a brilliant idea to help small presses announce their wares and meet each other and their readers. This year is only the second year but it is surging forward. Charles combines shrewd practical wisdom (have a look at the folding book stand he designed and built himself!) with uncompromising literary taste, the perfect combination for a good publisher.
No one will argue that small presses are not a Good Thing but can they compete?
That is the tough question. The key issue is how they can get their stuff out to readers when they don’t have the sales and marketing power of the big publishers. Technology allows you to produce pamphlets like ours quite easily, on the kitchen table as it were, but the real challenge is distribution. Booksellers need to be more receptive to small press publications and readers need to reward themselves by going out and discovering writing they didn’t know existed. Don’t wait for Mariella Frostrup or The Guardian to tell you what to read. We all need to be a bit more adventurous. The great resource of small presses is their skill at exploiting themselves, donating time and energy to their enterprises often for no visible financial reward. They are doing it for love and with luck this generally shows.
Can the social media like Facebook and Twitter help?
Rack Press tweets and posts of course but apart from a general consciousness-raising effect there is no perceptible impact on sales. For small publishers the role of social media has been wildly overestimated. The online community generally deals in stuff that’s free, accessible via a link or a clicked mouse. Poetry books and pamphlets with a price tag belong to another world. Online or e-publishing is fine but you lose one of the great strengths of small poetry publishing: beautiful design, nice paper, an attractive object to handle.
Why do you do it?
That is your hardest question! I think because I wanted to have a go at something that had always attracted me. And it’s nice meeting and working with poets and feeling that you are helping to spread good poetry around. And, yes, a couple of the pamphlets were by me and why not?
How do you balance publishing and writing?
Well, that isn’t easy and I would publish a lot more if I had the time and money to do it. So often I find myself turning away really good work because I don’t have the capacity to take it on. But I have to remember that I am first and foremost a writer and I must devote myself to that and keep the publishing under strict control, dealing with business only at certain times of day etc.
Could this be just another form of complacency – writers publishing their friends?
Undoubtedly this is a risk which I hope we have avoided by publishing lots of new and unknown poets that I never even met until I started editing their manuscripts. I think the solution is always to publish excellent work and not stuff from people’s bottom drawers that should have remained there. But it’s also a pleasure to publish people you like and whose work means a lot to you personally. The personal element in small publishing is not to be underestimated.
What do you envisage for the future in general, but also for Rack Press in particular?
For Rack Press I see a steady future. If we had more financial resources I would publish more and probably start publishing short fiction and creative non-fiction. It would be nice to expand in that way but I can’t at present see a way of doing that. In general I think small and independent presses will play a much bigger role in giving readers quality. They did this with poetry publishing in the past when many of the big publishers (Secker, OUP etc.) gave up on it and I think they will do it increasingly with literary fiction. Their role and importance can only grow in a corporate publishing era of playing safe and dull.
Nicholas Murray's website: www.nicholasmurray.co.uk
Nicholas Murray's Blog: www.bibliophilicblogger.blogspot.com
Rack Press Blog: www.rackpress.blogspot.co.uk