Interview with Anthony Etherin, Publisher
How did Penteract Press start?
Penteract Press started three years ago, as a publisher of single-sheet leaflets. I was directly inspired by several Canadian micropresses — derek beaulieu’s no press, for instance — who had already published poems of mine in leaflet form. I liked the idea of making low-cost, print-as-needed ephemera that I could hand out to people, but which still ‘belonged’ to an imprint.
I began with the intention of publishing only my own work, but that changed quickly. Very soon I was publishing experimental poetry leaflets from all over the world — and within 18 months, I was publishing books.
Tell us a bit about Penteract Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Penteract Press is a publisher and promoter of structure-based poems — or ‘experimental formalism’. This covers three principal areas: Constrained poetry; concrete/visual poetry; and traditional verse forms.
We want poems that explore all that can be meant by “form” — be that sonnets and villanelles, strict letter-based constraints, or works that walk the line between poetry and the visual arts. We are avantgarde and we are traditional — or, rather, we look beyond such things, and try to be all-embracing in our formalist adventures.
Over the last three years, we have published 62 leaflets and seven books. We have three more leaflets to go, and then we are finished with them. From 2020, we intend to focus solely on full-length books. Most of these books will be full-colour paperback editions, but we intend to also produce the occasional high-quality monochrome hardback.
Our mission is to become the primary venue for international constrained and concrete poetry — two of the most underrepresented and underpromoted corners of poetry.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
The seven books we currently have in print are Aperture by derek beaulieu, a sequence of recoloured letraset poems; Sea Pictures by Mary Frances, who finds seascapes in photographs of old stones, complementing them with cut-ups abstracted from Moby-Dick and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; Toby Fitch’s Object Permanence, a collection of coloured calligrams; two of my books: Cellar, which features palindromic and anagrammatic micropoems, and Stray Arts (and Other Inventions), which includes my most complex experiments in poetic constraint; and two anthologies, Concrete & Constraint and Reflections, which each present sequences of complementary constrained and visual poetry. From 2020, we intend to publish ten books per year. Our next ‘season’ will be March 2020, one of whose books will be another anthology: Science Poems.
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
We’re excited by what’s going on right now, with some fascinating poets emerging, particularly on the visual poetry side. We’re also pleased to see how like-minded small presses are promoting and supporting each other — this is essential.
But a lot needs to change. Generally, poetry doesn’t sell. Sales of experimental poetry are shocking. The problem, of course, is a lack of coverage — but with the increasing importance of social media, there’s reason to think this might change.
A certain style of lyrical poetry has already become very popular on Instagram, and I don’t see why other types of poetry can’t benefit similarly. However, it’s not going to happen if poets and poetry publishers don’t embrace these new possibilities. More poetry (and more publishers) need to be willing to share their work freely online, particularly via social media. Naturally, I’m not advocating the abolition of all traditional methods of marketing — but it’s clear that they are becoming less effective. New ideas are needed, especially from the fringe arts. Put another way, in order to sell their product, publishers of experimental work will need to themselves become more experimental.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Penteract Press?
I don’t like reading fees. And I don’t like the idea of (small press) publishers and poets having to spend money on advertising — though I admit it might be necessary, sometimes.
Printing costs are tough. But there are some good deals out there, if you’re willing to look. We tend to go with short print runs — typically 100 a time — and to price our books such that they are both affordable, yet likely to make enough money back to cover the print run. Lots of consideration and calculations go into this.
As part of this plan, we only start paying our authors once 100 copies have sold — however, when this is the case, we pay generously, and, until it is the case, we offer a 50% discount on author copies, as well as some free ones. This way, we guarantee that one or two poorly-selling books won’t sink our press, while still giving our poets a fair deal.
We’ve only been making books for just over a year, but sales continue to increase, and we are very pleased with how the press is operating, in terms of both sales and the quality of work we are producing. There aren’t many small poetry presses making a profit without the aid of funding; I’m proud that, at such an early stage in our evolution, we are already one of them.