Waywiser Press: The Small British Press That Publishes Big American Poets

Steve Kronen

If times were bad in England for English poets, they were worse for non-English poets. “For some time it had been obvious that British publishers were losing interest in American poetry,” says Hoy. “Established figures—people like Wilbur and Hecht—whose books had been routinely published over here for decades, now found their U.K. publishers were no longer interested.”

Like the investor who must decide whether to bail out of a plunging stock market or reinvest heavily, picking up bargains when prices are low, Hoy decided to invest. And Waywiser Press, named for the German word for an instrument used to measure distances, was born. “The situation was deplorable,” says Hoy. “Yet it offered a wonderful opportunity, and I gladly seized it, even though the same market conditions that were causing other publishers to pull back would make it hard going, at least for the foreseeable future.”

But the financial difficulty wasn’t the only thing that bothered Hoy about the state of British publishing. “U.K. readers are regularly asked to pay ten pounds [approximately eighteen dollars] for paperbacks that look as though they were prepared in the space of an afternoon, and are unlikely to survive one or two thorough readings,” he says. “Quite a lot of poetry publishing here is done on the cheap. I was determined, from the outset, that the books I published would be pleasing to the eye, without being displeasing to the pocket.”

Hoy makes all of Waywiser’s production and layout decisions, from margin width to cover art, and Helen Hecht calls him “a gifted book designer.” Joseph Harrison, whose first book, Someone Else’s Name, was published by Waywiser in 2003, and who now serves on the press’s editorial board and runs the company’s subsidiary office in Baltimore, agrees: “Phil is very conscious of the aesthetic aspects of bookmaking, to which he devotes considerable time and energy. I don’t think many small presses emphasize the look and feel of the physical object as much as Waywiser does.”

In the years since Waywiser was founded, it has published an average of five books a year, in print runs ranging from five hundred to five thousand. Hoy determines whether the books will be published in hardcover or paperback, depending on his estimate of likely demand, which is informed by discussions with sales representatives and distributors. In the U.K., Waywiser titles are distributed by Inpress, Ltd., a company set up by Arts Council England—the British version of the National Endowment for the Arts—to advance the cause of small independent publishers. Waywiser titles are distributed in the United States by Dufour Editions, Inc., based in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.

In its first year, Waywiser’s budget was quite small, but it has grown as revenue has increased during the past few years. “When we started up, in 2002, we had about five thousand pounds to spend,” says Hoy, “but three years on, I find myself with something between three and four times that much. Small beer, but at this rate we might have chips with our beer in five or ten years.”

While titles by established poets like Hecht, Wilbur, and Strand provide ballast for the Waywiser list, Hoy is eager to take on talent, regardless of reputation, and tries to publish newcomers at least once or twice a year. In addition to Harrison’s debut collection, which was subsequently released in the United States by Zoo Press in 2004, Waywiser has published first books by American poets Daniel Rifenburgh and Deborah Warren, and by British poet Clive Watkins.

BTL and Waywiser Press have not been without their critics. The most frequent complaint leveled against them is the preponderance of men on their lists. Of the thirteen poets published by Waywiser thus far, Deborah Warren’s The Size of Happiness is the only book by a woman. Of the thirteen interviews published by BTL, none are with women. Hoy, unerringly polite and thoughtful in his speech, bristles at the charge. “We were publishing, at our own expense, a series of books featuring poets we were enthusiastic about,” he says. “If people didn’t care for these particular figures, no one was obliging them to buy; and if they preferred to see other poets, what was to stop them doing what we did and setting up their own little press for the purpose?” In fact, five women have been solicited for BTL interviews, but three of them—Adrienne Rich, Gjertrud Schnackenburg, and Jorie Graham—declined for various reasons. Two others are presently in negotiation. And a shared volume of shorter interviews with three poets, including Rachel Hadas, is in the works.

While poetry is Hoy’s main interest, he is currently considering books by writers in the United States and England who are working in other genres, including fiction, drama, memoir, criticism, and history. Last October, Waywiser published Germs, a quirky memoir by the late philosopher Richard Wollheim. By the time Wollheim’s manuscript crossed Hoy’s desk, it had been turned down by major publishers in Wollheim’s native England and in the United States. Many editors doubted its commercial potential. Hoy, convinced that it was a “minor masterpiece,” pounced on it. Germs has since been chosen by three of the contributors to the Times Literary Supplement as the International Book of the Year, been nominated for the J.R. Ackerley Prize (given annually by English PEN), and garnered laudatory reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.

“The success of Germs has given us a wonderful boost,” Hoy says, “not only getting us a lot of attention in the media, but earning us enough money to bring out rather more than the usual number of books in the next twelve months, including one or two that are considerably bigger than we could have afforded a year or two back.” Future Waywiser titles include a collection of literary essays by Mark Ford, a novel by Matthew Yorke, poetry collections by Jeffrey Harrison and Ian Parks, as well as Wilbur’s six-hundred-page Collected Poems 1943–2004, which was published in the United States by Harcourt last December.

Before Germs was published, Waywiser and BTL survived with the help of a grant from Arts Council England in 2002, small donations, and unstinting moral and financial support by Hoy’s hardworking girlfriend, architect Evelina Francia. So far, Waywiser and BTL have stayed afloat in a diminished U.K. poetry market, when other unsubsidized small presses—Michael Hulse’s Leviathan Press, Anthony Rudolf’s Menard Press, and David Perman’s Rockingham Press, to name three—have called it quits.

Hoy expected an easier path to financial security when he started publishing books in 1998. “I fondly imagined that all we’d have to do was advertise the BTL books in one or two places, and we could then rely on the reviewers to do the rest. After all, here were in-depth interviews with some of the world’s finest poets, accompanied with bibliographies I thought most academic libraries would give their eyeteeth for, along with career-spanning lists of quotes from reviewers and critics. The combination would be irresistible. All we’d have to do is sit back and wait for the orders to roll in. I was badly wrong.”

But he didn’t turn his back on the poets whose work he values, including those on the far side of the ocean. “I’m not a gentleman publisher, indulging a whim. I want to publish literary works I truly believe in and to make a living from it. To many people that will sound quixotic or just plain crazy.” To the authors he publishes, it sounds heartening. Mark Strand is grateful for Hoy’s eagerness to publish his work: “I still doubt that there is any interest in my work in England, which makes Philip Hoy’s desire to publish me both amazing and endearing.”

Steve Kronen is a librarian in Winter Park, Florida. His new poetry collection, Splendor, is forthcoming from BOA Editions, Ltd. in April 2006.