We asked Clive Birnie from independent publisher Burning Eye Books a few questions about the world of publishing and the dos and don’ts of submitting your work.
When setting up Burning Eye Books, why did you choose to focus on platforming spoken word artists in particular?
I didn’t. It is not a term that I would have recognised at the time and it is not one I particularly like now. We publish poetry. We just happen to focus on the performative end of the spectrum and often in a place where poetry and comedy collide. Many of our poets cross over a line where if they only published printed words rather than got up in front of microphones no one would feel the need for any word other than poet. I compromise and say spoken word poet sometimes to differentiate from non-poetry spoken word. If you look for spoken word in a bookshop you find audiobooks.
What do you think the page offers to a poet that the stage doesn’t, and vice versa?
The page = book sales. Books are merchandise. Books as merchandise. That is what Burning Eye was started for and this remains at the heart of the mission. I read an interview with the late great Felix Dennis where he bragged about selling more copies of his book at one sell out gig than that year’s TS Eliot winner had sold in total and thought there was something in that. The thing is that the reader, the audience member doesn’t care. It is all poetry to them and if they read a poet they like they will go and listen to them read or perform and if they hear a poet they like they will buy the book so that they can take the voice home with them.
How do you work with your writers in the editing process to get from initial manuscript/pitch to book release?
We take a “we are making the book of the show” approach so take a light touch to editing but a more rigorous approach to copyediting. We allow input on covers which is unusual. The printed version of the poem cannot stray too far from the live. OK it can to a degree but only in the sense that it is the studio version not the live album.
What advice would you give to spoken word poets looking to start submitting their work to publishers?
Follow the guidelines. Follow the guidelines. Follow the guidelines. Gig. Gig. Gig. Work the poems over and over and over. Most poets submit too early before they are ready. It takes most poets five years or more to build a name and a body of work worth publishing. Be patient. Read more poetry. Then read some more. Read the poetry from outside your poetry bubble. Look at the shortlists from the Forwards and Eliot and if you don’t recognise the names do something about it. The best Burning Eye poets are not influenced by other performing poets and it helps them stand out. Have reasonable expectations of what an independent poetry press can do. We get some poets who think we have the resources of Penguin Random House and are surprised when they realise Burning Eye is a desk in the corner of the spare room of my home from where I coordinate a small part time team of freelancers. Also Burning Eye is not the only publisher for performers. Look around. Buy and read books from different publishers and understand who does what and how. If you have never bought a book by a particular publisher don’t even think of submitting to them until you have.
What seems typical to you in terms of a submission?
One that follows our guidelines and comes in during a submissions window via Submittable and by no other route. Anything else gets ignored. I get a couple of envelopes through the mail every month of unsolicited submissions. I reason that anyone who can’t be bothered to look up our submissions policy is not serious. In terms of style of poetry there is not a typical submission. Oh we get a lot of over rhyming poetry with the same sound of the end of line after line after line, of course. But as that is a pet hate of mine they rarely get past the first cut. Don’t do it guys. It has been done to death. Move on. Try harder.
Is it necessary (or of benefit) for poets to have agents?
Makes no difference to us. Booking agent yes – get more paid gigs. Lit agents that are interested in poetry are like unicorns. I wouldn’t encourage poets to waste time looking for one.
What do you think are the common misconceptions around submissions to publishers or publications?
That the publication of the book is the end of a process when it is in fact the beginning. Books only succeed if the writer, the poet is relentless in pushing the book. Assuming a tiny poetry press has marketing department is a common mistake. Expecting your debut book on a fringe press to get reviewed in the TLS and the Guardian is another. Not realising that you the poet will be the biggest customer for your book no matter which publisher you go with. Expecting your book to be stocked by Waterstones. Bookshops sell tiny quantities of poetry books a minuscule amount and 75% of that is by dead poets. 75% of the rest will be anthologies. 75% of what is left after that is Faber and Faber and 75% of what is left after that is Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Picador etc. The big dogs. We get good sales as a whole from the book trade but is its 20% of the total and that is dominated by our bigger sellers.
Have you ever read a manuscript that completely stopped your world? If so, can you say what it was?
It happened recently with Dan Cockrill’s Notes on Loneliness. When it landed I opened it up and started reading and didn’t move until I had read the whole thing and it is a big book. That doesn’t happen very often. Stand outs are Sally Jenkinson, Emily Harrison and Hafsah Aneela Bashir. They all had a similar impact.
Outside of Burning Eye, Dostoevsky Wannabes sent me Lou Ham: Racing Anthropocene Statements by Paul Hawkins and I did the same thing and read it cover to cover in one session. It is a remarkable book that deserves a wider audience.
What are the top three things you look for in a submission?
A distinctive voice, proven track record in live performance and precise adherence to submission guidelines.
What are the common mistakes made when submitting work?
Not following the damn guidelines. Blanket bombing emails to editors with “Dear editor” and all the email addresses in the To: field. That’ll get you blocked for good.