It’s Harold MacMillan who is credited (possibly apocryphally) with the above formula as an explanation to a journalist about why governments get blown off course, but it could just as well be taken as a description of a small publisher’s main preoccupation – after publishing itself. Going through all the editing, proofreading and design, and receiving the finished magazines from the printer, is only the first small fraction of it: the real business gets properly underway after that - trying to remove as many of the copies from your own premises in as short a time as possible. And that means organising events.
Having rolled back into Nottingham on the late train from St Pancras at around 1.40am this morning after our latest session, at the Lumen United Reform Church in Camden, I did a few calculations on the walk home from the station: we sold a reasonable quantity of magazines, at a special offer price, netting enough to cover the train tickets down and a bit more besides, but in order to achieve this I’d taken a day out of work and our three readers had each given up a good chunk of their own time. Economically, if we’d paid even a token sum (instead of relied on goodwill) there would have been no financial sense in doing the event.
But as I’m sure most of those involved in putting on similar things knows all too well, that’s the wrong way of looking at it. The real benefit to Staple lies not in the amount of cash in the tin at the night’s end, but in the opportunity to present work by our contributors to an audience that might not have heard it, to meet potential subscribers, spread the word about what we do, and hear poets from the venue’s regular audience on the open mic – these, after all, are people whose work we might one day want to publish.
Last night, it was especially nice to meet at least one poet we had already published, Barbara Cumbers, whose contribution to Staple 71: The Art Issue was a wonderful sestina based on Richard Dadd’s The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke taken from a batch received in the post. So the important thing about these events, it seems to me, is not any short term profit they might earn (though in the rare cases when there is some, it’s a definite bonus) but instead the part they play in building a relationship between our magazine, and its existing and potential readers and contributors.
Many who didn’t buy a copy last night may, in the weeks and months that follow, decide to give us a try, while those who did take home a copy or a fond memory of hearing, say, Sophie Mayer‘s performance of her poem in tribute to the late Louise Bourgeois, Fawzia Kane‘s reading of an atmospheric piece about Istanbul courtesans, or Jacqueline Gabbitas‘s poem in the voice of quirkily personified grass cursing the crows that peck at lawns, might be expected to bring friends next time, or lend their copy out, or simply tell others how much they enjoyed the evening…
It’s the kind of unquantifiable word of mouth that most small publishers rely on, lacking as we do the budgets for advertising, bookshop promotions and proper distribution, so even factoring in the occasional short term losses, it’s hoped that in the longer term these events will play a critical part in keeping magazines like Staple visible and viable. But besides such practical reasons as these, the live reading as a medium in its own right has its own rewards as a way of experiencing the good writing we publish in a new way.
Last night, finding ourselves facing a stained glass window, with a large wooden crucifix high on one white wall, we listened to Sophie Mayer intoning a very vivid invocation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s (in)famous photograph of an impish Louise Bourgeois toting her phallic sculpture Filette like a handbag. That’s certainly something you wouldn’t get anywhere else, the kind of moment that might make even Ken Russell do a double-take, and it will now swim into my mind every time I read that particular page in Mayer’s excellent Shearsman collection, Her Various Scalpels.
In other words, the business of events can be hard going at times, but it’s well worth the effort: long may our contributors continue to read and audiences turn out to hear them. We’d be nothing more than a large pile of blank notebooks without either, so it makes sense we should want to get out and meet them, one at a time if necessary.