Tuesday, 6 September 2011
It started out so simple, so obvious, so worthwhile. But it just didn't happen. Here's a basic outline of why.
The idea was to bring small press publishers together and help them engage with the public. 'Small press publishers' meant anyone publishing low print runs independently - novels, poetry, comics, zines, artists books, prints etc. Mixing content in this way would help publishers, artists and writers learn new things from each other, uncover new opportunities and find new audiences. There would be a space comprised of a shop, a workshop space, a gallery, studios, a reading area and a cafe. The space would facilitate networking, learning, promotion and sales of small press stuff. There would be events, exhibitions, book launches, talks, workshops, meetings, and a wonderful shop full of rare and beautiful things.
It would be a social enterprise and it would be run in a professional way, would have a team of experts from each area as consultants, would offer opportunities and services for creators and also for the general public.
The first thing to go was the idea of having studios. The next thing was the cafe. Then there was some question as to whether or not a gallery was necessary. By the end, it was starting to look like a shop with a bit of extra space for readings and book launches. Then, even the store was an issue. It was turning in to a network that facilitated things, but even that wasn't quite right...
P.R.E.S.S. was never meant to be 'my thing'. It was just an idea I had, and knowing that I had the crossover knowledge needed to bring different publishers, artists and writers together, it made sense that I'd get things started. But, it also made things difficult. Wrangling a board in to place was a challenge. Getting people to see it as a group effort rather than a one-woman mission was also a challenge. Encouraging people to shape the business plan, without molding it to their own needs or altering it to the point where it's a completely different venture was a further challenge. This was just the tip of the iceberg.
So, what happened?
You can't just create a community, it needs to grow organically.
Trying to force a community together does not work. It takes time, patience, and a lot of networking.
Without a genuine community in place there is no sense of group ownership. At least, this is what I'd like to attribute the general sense of apathy to, but it could just be that people don't want to get involved.
After some market research it became clear that the majority of publishers wanted to get something from P.R.E.S.S. but not give anything. What I mean by this is that they are happy to avail of any services and events, but will not actively promote or mention PRESS on their blogs, sites, facebooks, twitter etc. They would like P.R.E.S.S. to keep an eye on all their ventures and offer to market their work and devise readings and events specifically designed for them. They do not want to have to contact P.R.E.S.S. and tell us about what they're doing or suggest how they could use the space. The only publishers willing to actively participate were the ones that already had good marketing, good launch ideas and a good network, i.e. the ones least likely to need our services.
This would be all well and good if we were only working with a tiny number of publishers, we could easily spend our time and resources (essentially) doing their work for them. But to be a viable business we needed to work with a greater number of publishers and not limit ourselves to just the ones working regionally.
The other problem with the lack of community was that there was no cohesion with in the network. We'd organise something and instead of everyone coming together to participate, people would turn up, complain about the poor turn out (even though they hadn't invited anyone or promoted it through their networks in any way) and then try and do their own version. So we ended up with a lot of unrelated but very similar things happening and no one would promote each other or P.R.E.S.S. Infuriatingly counter productive. And funders would look at our numbers and say 'There's not enough interest' and I'd say 'Yes, there is, it's just not concentrated in one place. It's different people at a lot of these events, if you added up the attendance you'd actually have a pretty big event.' And they'd laugh, because they could obviously see the futility of the venture.
Also, one of the nice things about a social enterprise is the shared sense of responsibility, and shared liability.
But no-one wanted to commit to any kind of responsibility or liability. It's understandable in the early stages, but you reach a point where you can't go any further without a group of people willing to put some risk into it. We hit that point. I certainly wasn't going to be solely liable for potentially tens of thousands of pounds for something I had no claim to, no gain from and no real control over.
Too many Fraggles, not enough Doozers.
Generally a problem in the creative industries, people who are creative aren't always the most organised. That's why arts management jobs exist. Also, the people who are both creative and business minded are too busy doing their own stuff to do other stuff as well. This is why we didn't get far with a board or a management team or any kind of workforce. The other problem was that the people who really could do a lot for P.R.E.S.S. weren't in a position to work voluntarily ( And part of the point of P.R.E.S.S. was to make sure people got paid properly and could make money out of publishing, so it would be contradictory to expect people to work for free) , but we couldn't generate money for salaries until we'd set up and we couldn't set up with out people working on it.....
Wrong place, wrong time.
Sunderland offered the best incentives for an arts sector social enterprise, but there was a resounding 'No' from publishers. Very few were convinced that Sunderland would be at all viable, mainly because people from Newcastle would not travel out.
Newcastle was tougher, less incentives more cost, but people felt there would be more visitors. But where in Newcastle? So, I had a lot of meetings and viewings to find somewhere suitable. There's lots of great places, Heaton Road seemed like a good location. Again, a resounding 'No'. It needed to be in the centre of town. So, I found some places in the centre of town.
The problem now was the timing. It was important that P.R.E.S.S. was professional and could establish itself as a proper self-sustaining business, so we'd need to kit out a building properly and for that kind of investment you need to know you'll be there for a while and that you are secure in your tenancy. However, around this time everyone was going crazy for pop-up shops. Perfect for many people, great for arts and collectives etc. Not great for a business, and that's what P.R.E.S.S. needed to be. But that's what all the landlords wanted, just some casual pop-up thing they could use while waiting for some 'proper' full rate paying tenants. This made negotiations very difficult and a lot of funding people who had initially been excited about the prospect of P.R.E.S.S. being run as a long term business now wanted to push us in to six month tenancies. Also, a lot of the things that P.R.E.S.S. would offer (such as workshop space) was now being offered by collectives in pop-up spaces, which looked to funders as though we weren't offering anything new. Even though we were....
I think P.R.E.S.S. or something like it could (and should) still happen. Something that brings people together and provides opportunities for people working in an overlooked and misunderstood sector of the arts. Something that gives the public access to unusual and low print run material. Something that acts as a starting point for beginners and also as support for established creators and publishers.
I think I will probably try again, but not in the North East and not anytime soon. And if I find somewhere financially viable for it, I'll do it as a straight forward business not a social enterprise. Then, if a community grows around it, great, and if not, then at least there's still a functioning business.