Hopkins Celebrated - Interview with our Poet-in-residence

As he prepares to deliver his first masterclass on The Business of Poetry on Wednesday 1 May, Chris Hamilton-Emery - the University's poet-in-residence - speaks with Bill Carey, Fulbright Scholar.

Posted: 25 April 2013

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Roehampton's poet-in-residence Chris Hamilton-Emery

Interest in British poetry rose a few years ago, and Chris Hamilton-Emery, a poet and the operations director of independent Salt Publishing, took the trend into account when deciding which books to print. In his thirteen years with Salt, he had seen the way fashions change in the industry.

Now, the audience for poetry is declining. More poetry crosses Hamilton-Emery’s desk than in the past, but even when work “feels risky, feels like it’s taking a different approach” – feels, in other words, like the type of writing Salt wants – he has to make a tough decision.

“It’s actually not difficult to spot great books,” Hamilton-Emery says. “Great books come across your desk all the time. The hard thing is to spot the great book you can also sell.”

For Hamilton-Emery and other editors, that means balancing literary merits and commercial viability. But writers can make their work more appealing by playing a role in selling it.

Understanding how to market a book and build a following is important for writers trying to break into the industry, Hamilton-Emery says. He will address The Business of Poetry on 1 May in his first master class as the University of Roehampton’s poet-in-residence. The class costs £1 for students and staff and £5 for the public and will run from 2 to 4:30 p.m. at the Whitelands Chapel. (Book in advance through the Roehampton e-store).

Hamilton-Emery’s class is tied to the inaugural Hopkins Poetry Lecture and Hopkins Poetry Competition. The Hopkins Poetry Prize for students awards £250 to the best poem or series of poems of 500 words or less.

Hamilton-Emery has seen the business side of the publishing industry from two perspectives: as a poet and as the head of Salt. Writing as Chris Emery, he has published three collections of poetry: Dr. Mephisto (2002), Radio Nostalgia (2006) and The Departure (2012).

The Departure features a series of narrative poems, and one reviewer wrote that it was “studded with richly strange images and ideas.” In The Gathering, for instance, he builds such an image.

“It’s where the grey fields show our torn insane
withered in white. It’s where the trains
come flaming through under the brassieres
of old offices and Jupiter listens in,
its rusty ears, bangled, burgled…”

Hamilton-Emery also wrote a guide for poets, 101 Ways to Make Poems Sell. The book features tips on marketing in different venues, from local radio to internet bookstores. He tells readers how to write a press release (“An exclamation point is proof of incompetence”) and how to maximize benefits from a book fair (“The key …is mobility and meetings. Drink lots of water, avoid alcohol and too much coffee. Eat light”).

Some tips are expected: “Find out about the publishers you are wishing to submit to, learn about their editors, buy their books, read their poets, and discover for yourself whether your writing might be of interest to them.”

Others run counter to conventional wisdom: “Nothing is more important in achieving sales success than the cover of your book. Contrary to popular opinion, you can judge a book by its cover.”

But Hamilton-Emery says the most important thing writers can do is read. They need to understand the business side, but the writing is still the key. 101 Ways to Make Poems Sell shows his experience on both sides of the publishing industry. By 2006, when the book was published, he had been in charge of Salt for seven years.

The company grew out of Salt magazine, published by an Australian poet named John Kinsella. Hamilton-Emery and Kinsella became friends through a mailing list called British and Irish Poets. They decided to open a press for experimental poetry in 1999, and the company grew from there. Salt has “become my life,” Hamilton-Emery says. He runs operations, and his wife Jen is managing director. There are two other directors who help look after the business, and Salt works with three self-employed editors.

From the start, Salt’s core business has been in literary fiction, short stories and poetry. Over the years, it has added genres, including crime fiction, children’s poetry and science fiction. The company has published more than 1,000 books since its founding.

Because it’s an independent publisher, Salt takes more risks than major mainstream publishers. That’s not unusual, and it’s one of the ways Salt has grown. But it can leave independents “financially precarious,” Hamilton-Emery says.

Salt has twice hit rough periods financially, including in 2009. Salt lost its funding from the Arts Council. Spring sales fell eighty percent from the previous year. By May, the company wrote on its blog, its budget deficit was £55,000.

“You panic. Then you weep,” Hamilton-Emery says now, with a laugh. “Then you remember you’re still there. Most presses fail within their first two years…You have to behave responsibly and try to develop imaginative solutions.”

Salt’s solution was the “Just One Book” campaign. It asked readers to “buy just one book, right now… Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive.”

“Normally, I think you’d keep quiet,” Hamilton-Emery says. “But we went public and said we were in trouble. We didn’t want donations. We wanted you to buy one book.”
The effort worked. The Guardian reported that in a four-day period after the campaign launched, Salt received 800 orders for a total of £17,000 - “the equivalent of six weeks cash for the business.”

Salt is now financially stable, Hamilton-Emery says. Since the crisis, the company has launched two anthologies -- The Best British Short Stories and The Best British Poetry – which bring in about a quarter of its annual income. Last year, Salt earned its biggest critical success when Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

This year, the company will add a third anthology, The Best British Fantasy. Hamilton-Emery will also bring out a second edition of 101 Ways to Make Poems Sell. Scheduled for release in November, the book will update sections about using blogs and websites. Social media was in its infancy when the first edition came out and wasn’t a consideration. Now, learning how to navigate it is crucial.

Salt is active on both Facebook and Twitter. While social media isn’t very effective for selling, Hamilton-Emery says it can help in other ways.

“There are various techniques that can improve your reputation and build your profile through social media outlets,” he says. “And just exchange ideas and be a part of the community. That’s what’s nice about social media. Most writers were much more isolated, and now they’re not.

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