Save our Salt

Posted by Ken Edwards on Monday, June 1, 2009 Under: writing
Good news that Salt Publishing's internet campaign to save its business from going under has had a positive result. The Bookseller reports that Salt received more than 400 orders in a single day in response to its plea to customers to "buy just one book".

Chris and Jen Emery's enterprise has been a shot in the arm for poetry in the UK, and I was happy to respond to the campaign (the book I ordered on this occasion was Chris McCabe's Zeppelins - which has a wit comparable to Tom Leonard, and benefits from a classy hardback production too).

Chris Emery's vision of an economics of abundance in publishing and his early espousal of print-on-demand as a solution to the problem of publishing minority interest books were an inspiration to me, and helped set Reality Street on its present course six or seven years ago. Having said that, I had no wish to risk quite the level of "abundance" Salt subsequently embarked on. At the beginning of its operation, nearly ten years ago now, it seemed as though the majority of innovative poets in this country had a Salt book out (if not a Salt book about them) - and they were joined by an increasing roster of poets of all stripes, as well as essayists and short story writers.

Pretty soon, Salt was way outstripping every other poetry publisher in terms of quantity of production - there seemed to be at least one new Salt book every week, and the quality in diversity was impressive too. But I can't have been alone in wondering just how sustainable the business would be.

A six-figure Arts Council grant propelled Salt into the big league: including adverts in the trade and literary press and a huge marketing effort to get the books stocked by the major retail chains. Ironically, print-on-demand, the technological innovation that started all this, has proved a limitation at this new level, and I understand Salt has at least partly reverted to traditional printing and warehousing. But Chris and Jen's livelihood depended on the operation succeeding. And they were mainly selling poetry! Bravery! Or madness!

Well, the grant came to an end at just the time the recession hit (yes, even tiny Reality Street has noticed a recent sales dip), and when Salt launched its viral marketing campaign just a couple of weeks ago it reported a £55,000 budget deficit. That's the immediate problem to be fixed, and maybe it will be - but what of the long term?

I am afraid my prognosis is gloomy. I really, really hope I am wrong. But the basis of my belief is that interesting, innovative writing and publishing simply cannot survive in the marketplace, but must always receive subsidy in some way, overtly or covertly. The delusion that the market will solve all problems has obviously met something of a reality check in the wider world of politics, and it is no different here. It used to be accepted that non-commercial art, literature and music was an intrinsic good, deserving of ongoing public funding, but that view has not prevailed for many years, and the recent wisdom has been that the purpose of public money is to support the setting up of a business model that will then be self-sustaining in the marketplace. Well, mostly that's just bollocks.

I believe that even in the current world of the internet and the "long tail" the main way that commercial publishers survive is not through an even spread of products all making their little contribution to profits, but - still - through having a few mega-sellers (or even just one), onto which everything else hangs - whether that's the Bible or Harry Potter. Salt's only real hope for the future is to discover a major bestseller. But in innovative poetry? I don't think so.

At the time that I was starting to follow Chris's lead in embarking on a print-on-demand operation for Reality Street, I also vowed to stop applying for grants. This was because the hoops the grant-givers made one jump through were becoming increasingly tedious and irrelevant. And Reality Street has in fact received no grant aid since 2000 (ironically, the last was for Denise Riley's Selected Poems - one of our best selling books and probably one of the few Reality Street books that has made a profit).

Reality Street breaks even on an output of four titles a year (between a tenth and a twentieth of Salt's turnover). So where's the subsidy? First, the Reality Street Supporter scheme: a few dozen people make a huge difference by pledging in advance to buy everything the press publishes. It's manageable at that level. And second, my time is not costed in - again, manageable at that level, but if it were, even at minimum wage, the press would instantly become unviable.

I shall return to the Salt website and seek out more treasures within the huge labyrinth it has become. (That's one of the ironies: I have missed out on books I would normally have jumped on, just because of the sheer, overwhelming volume.)

I hope against hope that Salt Publishing will survive - but I can't help feeling that what's really needed, as well as, if not instead of, one huge small press, is a plethora of small small presses each with its unique vision. They exist of course  - but there are not enough of us.

In the meantime, if you haven't bought a Salt book recently, do so! (And of course, a Reality Street book too.)

In : writing 

Tags: publishing 
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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at