Funding Pamphlet Poetry: An Interview with Publishing Director James T. Harding

Last week, Stewed Rhubarb announced a new scheme to fund spoken-word pamphlet poetry in Scotland, so we sent publisher James T. Harding to interview, erm, publisher James T. Harding to find out more.

Why do you want to support pamphlet poetry?

Stewed Rhubarb is currently the only specialist pamphlet publisher for Scottish spoken-word and performance poetry, and I think it’s really important that we’re able to continue supporting poets as they master the gap between stage and page. 

Pamphlets are significant because poets only get one first book, and they can only enter first-collection prizes once. The very competitive nature of the poetry market means that poets who do not win or get shortlisted for first-collection prizes have a much harder time building a sustainable career; pamphlet publication offers a chance for poets to hone their craft and develop their voice, all while building their audience and relationships within the book trade.

Oh yes—and let’s not forget that pamphlets are delightful things in their own right! They can act like a tasting menu of a poet’s work, or as a sharpened, single unit; they can tell stories, make arguments, and evoke emotions… Their shorter length often allows them to be more experimental than a book-length collection can, without losing their sense of being a coherent whole.

Why can’t you carry on as you were before?

Over the last two years, Stewed Rhubarb has become a (happy) victim of its own success. Running SR has evolved into a substantial part-time job for me – I worked 250 unpaid hours in 2018, and 460 unpaid hours in 2019 so far – but the nature of developing non-commercial products (i.e. debut poetry) in a commerce-based sphere (i.e. publishing) means that potential profits are far off in the future.

I love working with poets and helping them grow their careers, but my personal circumstances have changed recently and I am no longer able to subsidise the press to the extent I currently am.

I believe that Stewed Rhubarb has the potential to be a sustainable organisation whose expertise helps the next generation of poets and publishers, and on into the future, but in the short-term, a bedrock of financial support is needed so that I can spend more time making it so. I think it would be a great shame to artificially slow Stewed Rhubarb’s growth merely in order to reduce the time I spend on it.

Couldn’t you apply for arts funding for this?

The way the finances work out, I still need a source of income that is not arts funding in order to effectively apply and make use of the funding that is available. It makes more sense for Stewed Rhubarb to pursue funding that will help us grow our book-length list, where the expenditure is far beyond what we could realistically achieve through pre-orders.

Didn’t you used to get the poets to cover the costs of publication?

Yes, between 2012 and 2016 we operated on a ‘hybrid’ model, which co-founder Rachel and I talk about in more detail in this Poetry School interview. When I re-founded Stewed Rhubarb in 2018 (Rachel having moved to Canada), I wanted to move away from this hybrid model because it creates an additional barrier to publication which was disproportionally affecting working-class, queer and non-white poets.

How did the Fellowship come about?

I stole the idea specifically from Stefan Tobler of And Other Stories, a delightful, translation-focused publisher. (Though the model look quite a bit different in practice as poetry is a very different landscape: unlike translation, there are no dedicated funds for publishing poetry.)

Of course, many other presses do this and there is a long-standing tradition of pre-orders covering the costs of publication—it’s the oldest publishing business model around!

How many subscriptions do you need to make this viable?

We need 85 crumble subscribers, 175 custard subscribers, or a proportional combination of both. 

What will happen if too few people sign up?

We will cancel the project and return everyone’s money. 

Is everyone being paid fairly?

The poets get double the industry paperback standard in royalties, and an advance based on the number of subscribers; the editors, Charlie our publicist, and me as publisher/designer will receive only token fees—these will rise, of course, if we manage to get over the threshold for pre-orders. 

Will this undermine independent bookshops?

Realistically, the amount of money small bookshops make from selling pamphlet poetry is so small that they will barely notice if it dries up—but I don’t think it will, because the magical thing about good booksellers is that they bring in new readers. (Don’t ask me how: it’s an arcane art.)

Stewed Rhubarb has been blessed by very positive relationships with indies around Scotland, and I am keen to support them wherever I can. The budget for this project therefore includes a small pot of money to pay our favourite indies to host launch events for us, which means I’ll be able to demonstrate that appreciation in a material way.

If you too would like to support emerging poets to build careers on the page, you can pre-order next year’s pamphlet titles and join the Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb here.