Meet the member: Shearsman Books

1  What's your company called?
Shearsman Books.

2  What do you publish?
Poetry, and books related to poetry—thus, as well as poetry collections, essays, memoirs, critical surveys etc.

3  What's the story of the company?
Like many a small poetry press, it’s a one-man operation, and has been so, in various guises, for more than 35 years. It began as a magazine, and then grew to include small-scale pamphlets and the occasional fugitive slim book. In 2003, it began to grow into what it is today—a very busy small press, with a large list for such an outfit (currently over 750 titles in print)—thanks to the arrival of digital printing and print on demand. Because we work with Lightning Source, an American company with print facilities in the US, the UK and Australia, we are able to sell into those markets and also have local lists. The ability to move books without transatlantic (or trans-Pacific) shipping is a boon not to be underestimated for a small operation like this one.

4  How's business?
Our last financial year (to September 2018) was down a little, but the underlying trend is ‘steady as she goes’. I don’t expect to see anything dramatic in the way of increased sales in the near term, but likewise don’t expect any dramatic reverses. The press has settled into a groove, so to speak, and pays its way without any subsidy—other than the disguised one of a lack of payment to its main director, myself. Poetry publishing is a mug’s game in financial terms, and the market seems to be still shrinking, notwithstanding claims to the contrary in certain quarters. I believe however that there is always room for a press with a proven brand and a willingness to try new writers, especially those who write in ways that may not be widely accepted in the mainstream publishing market.

5  What do you enjoy about being independent?
I like not having to follow another’s dictates. If I get things wrong, it’s my fault; by analogy, when I get things right, it’s down to me.

6  What is the biggest single issue in publishing right now?
You know, I have no idea, although I hear things through the specialist press and blogs. My guess is that the literary end of the market is experiencing real difficulties. Poetry is no longer in the market, save for the occasional Nobel Prize-winner, mass-market anthology, or school set-text. Paradoxically, the fact that the majors have all but exited the market means that nimble independents can stake out small swathes of territory for themselves. I very much fear that books of short stories are going the way of poetry, and also that literary fiction, with some brave exceptions, might end up in similar territory. I do hope not.

7  What one piece of advice would you give to a fellow independent just starting out?
I can’t give advice to anyone other than those in the poetry sector, which perhaps means that my advice is of little general use. However, the way this press is run follows some very basic business principles: in a nutshell, eliminate all the costs that can be eliminated, and thus keep the risks to the business down to a minimum. It’s an old saw, but it’s true: you can control your costs, but you can’t control your income. Get that right and you shouldn’t go under.

8  What do you get out of belonging to the IPG?
Valuable information from much more professional operators, and a sense of being a part, if a very small part, of the world of UK publishing.

Visit the Shearsman Books website