HeadworX Publishers publishing lecture
What is HeadworX?
HeadworX Publishers is an Australasian company based in
Wellington, New Zealand, which specialises in literary fiction and
poetry. I founded HeadworX in 1998 shortly after finishing my
Honours degree in English at Victoria University.
The name is supposed to be a parody on all the corporate brand names and companies that make use of the 'x' at the end of their name, e.g. 'Actrix' or 'Selectrix'. Everyone knows that publishing in New Zealand makes no money whatsoever and gets by on 'the smell of an oily rag'. How appropriate that I discovered later there was also an auto-light repair company in Christchurch similarly called 'Headworx' around that time.
So that self-gibe explained one might think that HeadworX is a self-defeating organisation, but that is true only so far. In fact, HeadworX blesses its bad fortune because with the demons of money and profit out the window, it can now get on with publishing books of literary quality and not 'selling out' as it were to publish books that will make a quick buck. HeadworX is similar to poetry houses like Black Sparrow in Santa Rosa, California, New Directions in New York and Faber & Faber in England - all publishing houses that when they began published mostly for the love it fine works of literature. HeadworX is following on this tradition of poetry publishing in New Zealand.
What books are published by HeadworX?
HeadworX has so far published 25 books of poetry and literary
fiction by a mix of writers both established and new. It has
renewed and given voice to a plethora of quality works in the
past five years. These include works by established writers
like Riemke Ensing, Michael O'Leary, Harry Ricketts, David Howard,
Bill Sewell, Harvey McQueen and Stephen Oliver as well as new faces
like Helen Rickerby, Scott Kendrick, Jenny Powell, and Tim Jones.
In doing so it has established a reputation for quality production
and astute editing. I have edited and selected the titles, usually
with some editorial input and final say but not always.
Vivienne Plumb's Salamanca and Nothing to Declare by Harry Ricketts were the first HeadworX books published in 1998. Both publications I asked for from the authors. Overall, I'd have to say that a certain amount of luck is involved with starting a publishing house like this and establishing a list. Once you have a few titles under your belt, your reputation grows and more and more authors will offer you their work, at least that's how it's happened for me on one level. Yet, on another level, being myself a writer and the co-editor of the literary journal JAAM, I had a large list of contacts and people I knew who wrote well to call on initially for support. Hence, Harry Ricketts and Vivienne Plumb (both friends of mine) offered me their manuscripts - something I feel is not the ordinary way of going about things. I doubt that such fine writers would often do this, so I'm both flattered and honoured to have received their works for publication. From there on it was a matter of continuing and doing the best I could with limited finances in order to prove to bodies like Creative NZ that I was up to the task and was in it for the long haul. Slowly but surely I am now taken more seriously by Creative NZ. In the last round in May 2003, HeadworX received funding for two of their three applications, and received grants to publish poetry books by established poets Alistair Paterson (editor of Poetry NZ) and Tauranga poet Leonard Lambert.
How are the books published?
When I first started, Massey Printery digitally printed the
books. They offered me the cheapest quote at the time. In 2000, I
found a real day job, however, so I now have more money at my
disposal. Since 2000, the books have been printed (off-set) and it
shows in their handsome production which people continually comment
Usually each book goes through the usual publishing process of submission, selection, typesetting and then sending proofs backwards and forwards to each author and then some editing does occur. For instance, I may make editorial changes and suggestions to the authors, and herein a dialogue takes place between both author and writer. I have not had any serious disagreements or fall-outs over this process yet, luckily. Generally, however, if the author disagrees with something I've done I usually change it back the way they had it before. I try not to be dictatorial. At a young age as a publisher, I am usually working with experienced authors and am trying to learn as much from the authors as possible in order to improve my own editing experience and abilities as a publisher. So it's been very much a 'make it up as you go along' enterprise.
I didn't have any formal training in the area of publishing. I think if I had done a publishing course such as this one myself, it might have helped me learn things quicker rather than by the old 'trial and error' process. But then again, if I hadn't gone out and started something I think I would still be sitting round with grand visions of being a publisher and not actually being one, which I am today.
So after that initial editing and typesetting process is over, I then take the book to the printer. I usually use Astra Print who I think do a very fine job of their printing and binding. And once I've okayed the page proofs and the cover it's then printed and couriered to Auckland where its sits in my distributor Addenda's warehouse in cartons awaiting sale into bookshops. Addenda usually put the books in their next sales kit and so it takes two-three months before the books really hit the shops. They also sell the books to libraries. However, despite their best efforts poetry is hard to sell. Very few books I publish sell out and although most of them sell half of their runs (usually between 100 and 600 copies), I will make only enough to recoup my printing bills and keep the enterprise above water.
Anyone who thinks publishing is glamourous needs to hear this truth. It's a thankless and laborious job. It can get time consuming, ruining other areas of your life. Working on your own like I've done can be particularly trying on friends and family etc. But I do try and find time for people. Just lately, I've co-organised a month long series of poetry readings at Bizy Bee's Books, and that was in an effort to get out more and be seen. I also play club cricket over the summer and try not to stay inside working on books all the time! So hopefully I can keep up my energy levels and continue HeadworX for a few more years yet.
How does HeadworX fit into the market?
HeadworX has filled a niche in the poetry market. It has picked
up a number of authors who aren't recognised by the 'mainstream'.
This has been at times for some no good reason, i.e. use of rhyme,
not 'photogenic' enough, haven't done the right creative writing
courses, are personally too difficult to deal with, have
unconventional appearances, and that biggest crime of all: have
'originality'. HeadworX says anything goes. In doing so, HeadworX
has published some of the liveliest poetry books in recent years,
and wholly individual and catholic poetry styles have made for an
interesting list to some critics. James Norcliffe in New
Zealand Books recently paid tribute to HeadworX's recent
efforts as something of a 'phenomenon'.1
Another thing HeadworX is doing is trying to bridge trans-Tasman ties with Australia. I have travelled and been involved with festivals like the Queensland Poetry Festival, Subverse. Through this, I have met a number of Australian poets and have found the Australian literary market to be as small and diffident as the New Zealand market. But through these ties I hope to expand HeadworX's operations into Australia by publishing a few Australian poets. To date I have only published the Sydney-based poet, Stephen Oliver, but I am soon to publish the Brisbane poet Paul Hardacre.
I think HeadworX along with smaller presses such as Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, Steele Roberts and Sudden Valley Press have got many authors into print that otherwise wouldn't have been published. And this is something that makes small press publishing worthwhile in the long run.
Despite my earlier truths, I think there are real rewards at the end of a long, dark tunnel in publishing. Yet to get there you have to be prepared to put in the hard work and never give up. Nothing happens overnight. It's a bit of a cliché but it's very true to some extent.
Managing Editor, HeadworX
1James Norcliffe, New Zealand Books, June 2003, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 4-5.
(Mark Pirie's publishing lecture given to the Whitireia publishing students, August 2003)