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This is Jacket 16, March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |    

Chris Emery

in conversation with John Tranter

Photo of Chris Emery Chris Emery is part of the small team that produces Salt Publishing’s list of contemporary poetry books from Cambridge, England. He was born in Oldham, Manchester in 1963. He attended grammar school in Prestwich and went on to study art and design at Manchester School of Art and Leeds Polytechnic throughout the 1980s. He has worked in hospitals as a data manager, in public transport as a designer, and was design manager for the British Council before joining the Cambridge University Press and moving to Great Wilbraham, near Cambridge, where he now lives with his wife and two children.

This piece is 2,800 words or about seven printed pages long.

John Tranter: Chris, how and when did you come to join Salt Publishing?

Chris Emery: I first met John Kinsella in 1999 I think. I was a fan of his poetry and had come across him on a mailing list called British Poets. He was a Fellow in Cambridge back then and I went over to Churchill College and met this tall wild-haired punk, dressed head to foot in black. I looked tweedy and conservative. He gave me a pile of Australian journals and off I went. My life changed overnight. About nine months later we were working together, John had started a listserv — a discussion group on the Internet — called poetryetc, and I joined and shortly after he approached me about preparing an anthology. I made a trip to Perth in Western Australia and met up with Clive Newman (of Fremantle Arts Centre Press), and Clive and I hit it off and knocked about together in Fremantle for a week. It took a year for me to sort the production side of things out with Clive. By then I was hooked. The three of us just made it all happen.

What did you feel you could bring to Salt to make it work better?

Oh, I don’t know. I’m pretty good at getting things done. I’m quite good technically. I’ve a lot of management experience now I guess. So I brought all that corporate stuff to bear. And got hold of suppliers. And set up some systems for managing bibliographic data, and handling the copy-editing and typesetting, and the printing. Nuts and bolts stuff really. I’m very passionate about our authors. Salt became something different when the three of us linked up. John and his partner Tracy Ryan had kept this amazing journal  going for a decade (Salt magazine, an annual), and had done these fugitive necessary publications. I’m just the suit.

And what could you see as the drawbacks and the potential of the firm? It seems to me that the output for the first year or two needed to find a focus. Was it Australian, was it British, what was it?

Firm! Well we’re not quite that. Though I like the gangster overtones. The drawbacks were evident in having no capital and no infrastructure, but we had a history, and we had the unstoppable Kinsella. I wanted to make a sustainable business for us all. Something that would serve and build a community. A trans-national community of poets. Poets doing important work from different sources and springs. John’s good at pulling these things together and sometimes there are tensions and dislocations perhaps, but for a new publishing business no one should expect that focus to have emerged in the first year. We’re busy developing the list and we’ve not done bad getting off the ground with what I believe is a fantastic set of poets.
      But the question is perfectly valid, we do need to focus. I’m a little anxious about settling too soon on these things, but there’s an obvious UK avant-garde strand, perhaps even a Cambridge strand. I’m completely committed to an Australian part of the list, we all feel very strongly about that. And there’s a strong experimental strand from the US too. We’ve been lucky to attract some very important poets, often at very different points in their career, if I can call it that.

Salt has experimented with print-on-demand publishing. What does that involve, exactly? What are the advantages for a small poetry press?

Print-on-demand is a major breakthrough in printing though it’s in its infancy. It’s the same technology as photocopiers: toner particles are bonded to paper through heat. The image is created by changing the polarity of the paper and charging the toner so the things kind of stick together. The major technical difficulty lies around halftone quality — that is, shades of grey, including photographic reproduction — and of course binding. These books are mainly perfect bound and the first generation digitally printed books often fell apart.
     But the key thing is that this marks a transition in the supply chain. Printers are going to be cut out, and wholesalers and distributors will have print engines of their own, so they can print when they need to fulfil an order. In the US a business called Sprout, which has gone now, was printing books in bookstores while customers waited. That chops one link out of the supply chain, and reduces the need for stockholding, so all that capital is freed up to invest in more publishing. It reduces the risk too. The advantages are very significant for small poetry presses: more money to spend on more titles, no slow moving stocks.

What about distribution? Will bookshops carry half a dozen copies of each title, or will they carry maybe one, and phone the publisher to order one more when that one sells? That doesn’t sound good for the author.

Maxine Chernoff cover

This is key, and on the whole, one is better striking a relationship with a distributor or wholesaler who supports digital print-on-demand. Though there’s a price to pay in all this: the wholesaler often wants 55% discount on the retail price, after your costs and royalties there’s not much left. Bookstores do hold copies of the books but in the States returns can be as high as 35%, that’s a punishing model for any publisher. Enormous amounts of waste. I’m always happy to sell direct to anyone.
      As for the author, the model opens up opportunities to get in print and to stay in print. Most bookstore sales are returns waiting to happen and in the UK retailers are closing down poetry in favour of wall-to-wall best-seller lists. Some retailers are using a model based around very high percentages of returns. It’s just books as wallpaper. The great irony is that bookshops don’t really ‘sell’ poetry. I’d say on balance that it’s a good deal for authors. And the opportunities to distribute and print are very significant. Salt’s titles are available in two continents on demand right now, and sell world-wide. That’s not bad.

I notice that all the recent Salt books have full-colour covers. Isn’t that prohibitively expensive for a short-run book of poems? I mean, you’re not printing ten thousand of each title.

A four colour cover is the same price as any other on a digital press. You save nothing by not exploiting it. We use that to full competitive advantage. So no, it’s not expensive. Everything has to make profit at a single copy level. The model works and covers its costs. But no one can really profit from it. Not in poetry at least; the margins are too small.

Does this print-on-demand production method compromise the quality of the books? Would a browser in a bookstore notice that these books were somehow different, cheaper perhaps?

Yes it does at present, but as print engines improve — and binding machines — the files, once printed, will produce better results. The second generation engines are just coming on line now and we’re already seeing better results. Our printing partners Lightningsource are making real improvements to their products in the UK. I guess it’s debatable whether our customers are disappointed with the results. I hear some concerns but most people are pleased that important work is available for them that otherwise would be almost impossible to find. I’ve tested the books out on a number of people and most folks are unaware of the new technology, they just think they’re looking at a book. They read it.

They’re prefect bound, like any paperback, and the binding seems very strong. But from the examples I’ve seen, I notice that the binding has a kind of wavy look to it, as though the grain of the paper was running the wrong way. Is this a function of the technology? Is it important?

Yeah, our printers are working on this problem and it’s a notable deficiency. Recent printings have improved though. It happens as the book block absorbs moisture. You have to remember that with this process, tremendous heat is applied to it to bind the toner particles, and this bakes the paper dry. If the paper has a high moisture content or has been stored in poor conditions then when it comes off the line it will reabsorb moisture. That can distort the binding.
      And the hot melt that binds the leaves together, and binds them to the cover, can be difficult to manage well. The hot glue can often end up spreading and distorting the cover too. It’s actually hellishly difficult to do this well. Digital printing and binding is now unstoppable. These quality issues are very important, but they will be solved within three years. Salt pays the price of being an early entrant.

Your latest book launch party (7 November, 2001) at Heffer’s bookstore in Cambridge saw the launch of four substantial new books, each by a poet living in that town. Is there some kind of a renaissance of verse manufacturing in Cambridge?

Yes, I begin to think so. I’m still the new boy here, and I’m a Mancunian poet not a Cambridge poet, but there’s an excitement and pressure within Cambridge that makes for a very liberating environment, though sometimes a very insular one too, and there are several ‘poetries’ going on in Cambridge. There are a lot of poets living in and around the city. I mean dozens. That’s very unusual. In Manchester I can’t recollect anything in the late 80s and 90s when I was back living there after graduating. Cambridge just generates this new excitement for British poetry. And there’s the fantastic annual festival in late April, the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry, which increasingly looks outwards to Europe, to the Americas and beyond. All very exciting.

Do you think the study of poetry at the university here has something to do with it? Coleridge studied here, for example. These days many of the poets I meet in Cambridge seem to have been taught by Jeremy Prynne, a Cambridge don and a noted poet himself.

Oh for certain, though that’s not always a good thing. But lots of folk come here because they’ve heard of this exciting experimentation and openness to new ideas and forms. And to the sense of political and social engagement that permeates the poetry around the city. It’s a melting pot. It would be unfair to build up associations with Prynne, and while he has an influence on people he strikes me as quite selfless in this respect, but any great poet can be a bad influence, though personally I don’t know him very well at all.

John James cover

      It would be true to say though that he’s produced some of the most important works of poetry in Britain over the past thirty or forty years. He certainly sets a standard, for an approach to life as much as to poetry and poetics. But there’s Tom Raworth here, and of course the wonderful John James. Not folks I’d label as Cambridge at all, and not really part of Jeremy’s circle. One has to remember that Cambridge is a tiny city and though all these poets don’t exactly live in each others pockets we do see each other by accident as much as by design. That sense of community is very interesting, attractive even, but we’re all very different people.

In your ‘day job’, you work for Cambridge University Press as their production director. How many different titles would they publish in a given year? How much of that are you responsible for?

Well, I try to keep these lives very separate. The Press is responsible for about 2000 ISBNs a year world-wide. I’m supposedly responsible for all that. Though I’ve hundreds of people working with me throughout the world. It’s a truly wonderful job for a truly wonderful business. Very good people, and a tremendously exciting period of change and development for the Press.

Publishing used to be a very mechanical industry: trays of metal type, huge Linotype type-casting machines weighing a tonne or so each, gigantic rotary printing machines, and so on. How has the computer revolution changed that?

Absolutely changed. It’s almost unrecognisable in parts now. Computers have enabled us to do things with software that have simply changed the way we work and consume. We have digital workflows, using the internet to receive and send files, using fileservers to manage and control them and using the world wide web to manage an increasing range of operations, services and products.
      Cambridge has moved to an XML workflow, where textual content is managed separate from its appearance, and where a single workflow on one title can generate a wide range of products: a file to digitally print, files to deliver CD-ROMs, files for sharing business data, files for information aggregators, files for online services, eBooks... all from one workflow. And never a slug of metal type in sight. We’ve moved from a genteel and leisurely craft to white coats in ten years.

And what about the Internet? People say it will be the end of books as we know them: beautifully-crafted objects made out of paper and glue.

Kate Lilley cover

No, I don’t believe this, I’ve worked very closely on the development of electronic products for some time now and though there is undoubtedly a future there, it’s very uncertain, and nothing offers the ease of a book for transmitting information and ideas. A traditional book is portable. It’s energy efficient. You can read it in the bath or on the beach. And it can be a beautiful object loaded with emotional importance, as gifts, as memories, as landmarks in learning, or in getting pleasure. It’s difficult to feel attachment to a piece of the internet. Humans like objects they can touch and smell.
      I’m not denying the importance of the world wide web, it’s quite simply huge. And some folks really believe that this form of transmission is better, or more enabling, or less fusty than ink and paper. But I don’t share the vision that books are dead. They’ll be here for a long, long time to come. What the digital domain has done — the Internet, the web, portable devices and eBooks — is create a new channel. Not a replacement for the old one.

You write poetry yourself. Does this get in the way of publishing other people’s work?

Rather the other way around. My work with other authors has put a strain on the time I have to write. But there are big dividends too. I’ve gained a huge amount from working on texts with some poets. It’s given me breadth and in some cases I hope, depth. And that feeds back into my own work, not overtly, but in terms of what I am permitting myself to do or how I allow myself to think. To take risks, to trust myself. To avoid worn out, threadbare writing. I’ve done enough of that in my time, though, I have to say.
      Now I want to move off into new territories and find new voices. So my work has allowed me to bring a different sensibility to bear on the publishing. But there’s more of my old life as a painter and printmaker in there I guess. My artistic drives come from places other than texts, but so do everybody’s, I guess.

And what do you have planned for Salt Publishing for the next year or so?

We’ve a very exciting year ahead: a collected John James, which I am intensely pleased about, and great books by Kate Fagan and Kate Lilley. Well, I honestly shouldn’t single anyone out, it’s a terrific list. There are six Australians already, there’s more plays, some first time collections, a major Selected. It’ll all emerge over the next few months. We’ll have a few surprises too, and no doubt upset a few apple-carts along the way. Salt is a little revolution I suppose. I’m very proud to be a part of it.

You can read one of Chris Emery’s poems
in this issue of Jacket magazine.

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