This is Not a Poetry Review: Self-publishing 101

By | 1 February 2016

Any way you can

Speaking of titles, my last case-study has one that won’t quit: The Two Rivers of Granada Descend from the Snow to the Wheat by Juan Garrido-Salgado. A Chilean exile living in Adelaide since the 1990s, he has published in both countries and has 207 works (reviews, books, journal publications, translations) listed on his AustLit database page. Interestingly, despite having more recent publications on the list, this particular work is not on there.

The Two Rivers is the most unusual of these four books. I have a soft spot for artist’s books made by people who have absolutely no binding experience, because they often come up with innovative solutions to their problems. In this case, I think the problem was: how can I make something meaningful, something personal, out of things that I could buy at Officeworks? Salgado has printed his words onto both sides of A4 sheets of kraft (recycled brown) paper with a laser printer (I can tell, because the ink doesn’t run when damp, like inkjet), using only the verso/recto two-thirds of the page, leaving a 4cm empty strip on each inner margin. Each strip has been carefully marked up with pencil, and folded around behind the stack of sheets, and then glued along the strip, adhering each page to the next. The whole left-margin stack is then glued to the inside of the cover, using the outside surface of the strip. To cover the stacked strip, a colophon page has been glued into the back of the cover and smoothed over the ‘binding’.

The cover itself is an A3 sheet of heavy gloss stock, printed on the outside with various colour photographs of the author and the two rivers flowing past war-damaged buildings. The cover is folded in such a way that it opens as a gatefold, with the title roughly hand-written by the poet in black marker pen. It is completely improvised, yet carefully planned, and also slightly dodgy in the most delightful way. It looks like a book, and the pages turn and open much more easily than the best perfect binding. I can only suggest a couple of small improvements that would lift its game: paste down the back page completely so that it completely covers the glued ‘spine’; and either trim the pages before fixing them into the cover, or investigate the concept of ‘page creep’, to allow extra space in the measurements and thus align the folded sheets. Creep is the way that the thickness of the paper affects the fold. Inner folds are sharper, narrower; outer folds are wider, as they have to wrap around all the other pages, and thus they sit back from the inner pages, causing untidiness. Most commercial books allow for creep and guillotine-crop the book block, but you can see it in ‘American’ hardback bindings, where the deliberately un-cropped pages make rough little mountains and valleys on the book’s fore-edge.

This book is the closest physical thing I’ve seen to the concept of ‘liberature’, a sort of writer’s artist’s book, identified by Sarah Bodman and Tom Sowden in their 2010 research into creative publishing. Liberature is an attempt to connect the words with the vehicle, where, like some types of artists’ books, ‘the physical object ceases to be a mere medium for the text – the book does not contain a literary work, it is the literary work itself’ (2010: 9). Here, the cover images are not just a static cover spread, but an essential part of the book, with the extended cover, folded in on itself, inviting us to follow the two languages that flow within the pages. The Two Rivers exists as a physical memento of a travel experience, and it is produced in a limited edition of 100 copies. There is a paradox here, and one that exists with artists’ books too: where does it live? Bookshop or gallery? Why is it not listed on AustLit, with his more mainstream work, if it is poetry enough to send to Cordite Poetry Review in hope of a review?

So what can one do?

Self-publishing allows complete freedom and a chance to work with your particular budget, but even when taking the low road, it pays off to do a little research about design. Yes, the poetry is what counts, but when that poetry is, for example, so tied to the left margin that it is falling into the right hand gutter of the book and you have to crack the ‘perfect’ spine to read it, then design matters.

The problem is – and I’ll happily place this on the table right now – there are no ‘how-to’ books for poetry layout. Even design manuals won’t tell you what to do other than ‘centre verse to the longest line’ and perhaps say that Garamond is a nice font for poetry. The closest thing I’ve found is hand-printed as a fine press book, called Printing Poetry, by Clifford Burke. Even he has trouble being definitive, acknowledging that every poem and its setting need individual attention. He frames the printer’s responsibility towards the reader and the text as ‘response-ability’, the ability to respond appropriately, to become familiar with the text before working with it (54). ‘While reading a manuscript,’ he says, I try to see it in type in my mind’s eye, the way some people see the stage while reading a play’ (55). By saying this, he is implying that there are decisions to be made akin to stagecraft: sets, costumes, props, music and movement. For him these are: paper choices, framing paratexts like page numbers and titles, ink colour, justification. However, for all his hesitations, towards the end he writes: ‘Much as a printer strives for some unique or individual expression in a book, it must be remembered that there are rules limiting gross individualism, rules imposed by no authority but function’ (82). What he’s essentially saying is: reign in the fiddly bits. And no Comic Sans.

Poets who self-publish are very familiar with their text. Burke is really talking about visually mediating a text. In order to do this, you need to think about all the professional roles you are replacing: editor, book designer, typographer, printer, bookbinder. All of them humans who trained their hands and eyes, who have been mostly been replaced by software, replaced by that non-material desktop publishing culture. It’s a culture I’m very familiar with, having made many mistakes and produced lots of books for clients that now make me wince. I know what it’s like to pump something out that you think is fabulous until you see it ‘in the flesh’. What got me out of the rut was moving back to materiality, and research.

Learn by looking at books that work well: study your competitors. I have trawled many op shops and book sales and made a collection of volumes that are truly awful, because sometimes knowing what you don’t want is a great way to start. Develop an awareness of your personal aesthetic: do you want cool and contemporary? Find a publisher who does it well and track down a similar typeface. If you like a classical look, find some publishers from the 1960s (Edwards and Shaw are a good start) or even further back, and see how they did things. Pay attention to the leading (the space between each line of text) and the position of the text (perhaps centred, or left; hanging from the top or sitting on the bottom of the page). Decide whether your titles are part of look of the poem or set more dramatically, perhaps in a different case (upper, lower, small) or style (bold, italic, roman). What is the longest line of the entire book? Are you prepared to break it, or will that determine the page size? Are you happy to trust the offerings of an online provider? Find other books by the same company, perhaps in the local library, and see what you think. Or, you may find that talking to human designers and printers might be quite helpful, as long as you are not asking them to do work for free. You may find it worthwhile to pay them a small fee to talk you through a few questions.

These four books are fine examples of their respective production categories. As I’ve hopefully shown, good results are only limited by knowledge of production. I’ve not discussed many things, like value, and cultural capital and privilege. I think these are separate issues. There seems to be a vicious cycle in the poetry community about publishing. Publishing houses are filling their lists quickly and are sometimes committed for years. Also, poets are not tenured by publishers, so they tend to have to move between publishing opportunities and then have to try to get on other lists. Rinse and repeat. Poets might have a mix of ‘real’ books and self-published books. This gets confused with ‘no-one wants to publish this manuscript that I’ve worked so hard on for years’, and so the general assumption is that if you haven’t got a ‘real’ publisher, you’re not a real poet. Yet really, there are only so many publishers, and they’re overworked. So maybe the future is self-publishing, and maybe it’s a good thing to spend some time on the design, so that your book stands out from the pack. And maybe it’s time that book prizes accept self-published books. What do you think?

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