A Conversation about Publishing with Karen Kelsay Davies

Oh the wonderful people you meet as a poet! Below is my conversation with poet and publisher Karen Kelsay Davies, the founder and publisher of Kelsay Books, which is a publishing company with four different imprints. Kelsay Books is fast expanding, which is so exciting! I met Karen through Victorian Violet, the journal Karen edits. And since she's a champion of formalist poetry, well... she's kind of a hero!

Be sure to check out our interview. Karen's a terribly insightful person, not to mention generous with her time. There aren't many presses out there doing such wonderful jobs promoting the art of poetry, and I was fortunate enough to spend some time talking shop with her recently.

First off, maybe you can tell me a little bit about Kelsay Books and your four imprints, just so we can get a general idea about your projects. What makes Kelsay Books different from other poetry publishers?

Hi Katie, thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my new company! The first imprint was White Violet Press (my baby), which I launched last October. It was created to showcase the work of mid-career poets who write formalist poetry. Six months later, I began Aldrich Press, for poets who write free verse. Just recently, two other companies evolved:  Alabaster Leaves—sort of an over-flow company for repeat business, and Daffydowndilly, a press that publishes poetry for children.

My main desire when I started the press, was to be a different type of editor. I wanted to improve on the “wait time” connected with the publishing process, and make it less painful for the poet.  So far I think I have succeeded—response time to a manuscript runs from 3–7 days, and the entire book is usually finished within 3 months.

The Heart Knows Simply What it Needs by Martin Willitts Jr.

Those ARE some amazing turn around times. I don't know how you can manage it all, but you do, and all of the books turn out so wonderful, each one a unique piece of art, both in terms of visual representation and content.

Can you tell us a little about the format you use for publishing chapbooks (binding, length, format, etc)? One thing I really admire about your books are the beautiful covers!

Thank you! I think the aesthetics are extremely important, and I spend quite a bit of time trying to match the “mood” of the poems with the cover of the book.  

All the books are a 6x9 size, perfect bound, with glossy covers.  I have recently (over the past few months), started publishing full-length collections, under 100 pages. Most of the submissions are now coming in with an average of 60-80 pages. I design the covers, although a  few clients have sent me their own designs to use. In general, I work with a high quality picture that is sent to me, or I find one myself if I know what the client has in mind. The quality of the books is outstanding!
Sonnets in a Hostile World by Gail White
I know that in the past, you’ve turned out some wonderful full length collections, but the majority of the publications are chapbooks. Why chapbooks? What makes them appealing to you as a publisher?

Chapbooks are great to have for readings and promotional use. Most of my clients are prolific writers, and it allows them to publish more frequently. The books are now running anywhere from 24–100 pages.

Personally, I like the smaller collections to be based on a theme or style. For instance, Catherine Chandler and Gail White both have written chapbooks comprised of sonnets. For larger collections, I lean toward non-theme based books because I like a variety of poems, long and short, lyrical and otherwise, all mixed together.

Have you ever fallen head-over-heels in love with a chapbook manuscript (could be from another press, too)? If so, what do you think makes you feel that way?

My first love is formalist poetry, so when I get a submission for White Violet Press I'm usually a little giddy.  I love lyrical lines and poetry that sings. If I had to list a few of my favorite poets I have recently published it would probably be: Annabelle Moseley, Philip Quinlan, Catherine Chandler, Sally Cook and Janet Kenny. They all “paint” their words with a rich, musical quality that I enjoy.

Poet and Editor Annabelle Moseley

 Have you ever had to turn down a chapbook manuscript you loved? Maybe because it wasn’t right for your press, or any other reason?

Yes, there have been a few I really thought were well written and clever, but they just didn’t follow the guidelines closely enough. I absolutely hate to do layout work on experimental poetry. The lines need to be justified to the left and in a traditional manner. I will let a few slip by if they look like they won’t be too much trouble, but I will refuse the manuscript if it is filled with crazy lines going all over the place.

So I know that Kelsay Books has undergone quite a change recently, and you’re expanding! I find that really exciting, and I imagine it might even be a bit overwhelming for a publisher. Where do you see your press going in the future? Are you planning to continue focusing on chapbooks?

I am continually trying to streamline the publishing process so I can be more efficient with my time. I have made my acceptance letter as detailed as I can, to prevent misunderstandings, and to help authors become familiar with how everything works. In the future I see the press becoming much busier over the next year, and I plan on doing more marketing of Daffydowndilly, the children’s poetry press.

So many start-up presses don’t make it, but it seems like Kelsay Press is really thriving! What do you think is the key to your success?

I can think of a few reasons. Like most people who run small presses, I started doing it out of a love for poetry, and a desire to work with other poets. It takes a lot of time and effort to get a small press off the ground, and if the press only does a few books a year, the “love” part tends to wear off after a while. You have to make money at it over the long haul, and the only way to do that, is to make it a full time venture.

I currently spend 30 hours a week designing covers, doing layouts, answering emails, reading manuscripts, and trying to market the company. I’m pretty tuned in, my phone gives me instant emails, so if I have a client with a concern or question, I answer promptly.

Unfortunately I don’t market the books as much as I would like, but by choosing mid-career poets with a need to send out books for reviews and to do readings,  it becomes more of a partnership between us. I respond quickly to their needs, and they make a good profit off the books they order.

My motto is to make publishing a pleasant experience. This past year I have produced 30 high quality books from excellent writers, and hope to increase that number next year. 

Any advice for the hopeful poet putting together her first chapbook?

Please follow the guidelines!  

The more previously published poems you have in the collection, the better your chances are of being accepted. Submit work that is as “print ready” as possible and doesn’t require a great deal of editing. It takes a considerable amount of time to do the layout and pull the entire manuscript together, adding clip art to make the book stand out. They become unique works of art in their own right, and I prefer to spend the time enhancing the book’s cover and overall beauty, not
changing lines that should have been dealt with prior to submission.

And yes, there is a reading fee, but if you want an answer in one week, it is definitely worth it!

Karen's Latest book! Available now!
And finally, Karen, I know you’re not just a publisher, but a poet as well. Care to talk about your current writing projects? Or maybe you can tell us a bit about your experiences with your most recent book “ Amytis Leaves Her Garden.”

I have had a very slow year, as far as writing goes. I thought reading and publishing poetry would help inspire me with my own work, wrong! However, I managed to win the Fluvanna Prize at The Lyric this year, and that helped ease the pain a little. I decided to put a collection together, recently, consisting of mostly formalist work. All the poems in the collection have been previously published in journals and magazines. A friend of mine commented on the book after reading it through and said this:  “…your poems are portraits. They are so warm and full of emotion for particular people.

I love that I can switch from writing to reading poetry whenever I choose to do so. And that so many poets trust me with their books. Thank you, Katie, for the interview.  It has come right at the one year anniversary of Kelsay Books, and I appreciate the opportunity to celebrate it on your blog.

Karen Kelsay Davies is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the editor of Victorian Violet Press, an online poetry magazine that encourages formal poetry. Her poems have been featured at The New Formalist, and have recently been accepted for publication in The Raintown Review, The Flea, The Lyric, 14 by 14 and Lucid Rhythms. She lives in Orange County, California.