It makes no commercial sense. Perhaps not even any other kind.

I’m talking about the Sphinx poetry pamphlet review service. I am proud it happens, but each time I do it, I wonder. . . .

There’s no spin-off, no ‘profit’, other than that of (perhaps) securing good reviews for some of my own poets. And my own poets have the same risk as all the others whose pamphlets go out for review: they don’t always get the remarks or the rating I think they deserve or that their authors would like.

Here’s the process. Publishers (some of them and by no means all) send in three copies of a pamphlet of poems. The publication has to be short enough that it’s not a book in disguise. Some full collections now are as short as 40 poem pages (I’ve seen 38), so the limit for this service is 34. Even then, if you write short poems and squash in 2 to a page, you’re chancing your arm.

I log the pamphlets on receipt. Sometimes they can’t be reviewed because they’re too short, or have no ISB number, or for a variety of other reasons. In this case, I usually post them back. Quite often the publisher sends only one copy, not three. In this case, if they’re this side of the Atlantic, I usually email the sender and suggest they might want to send two more. If they’re on another continent, I figure they should just have read the site submissions more carefully.

The pamphlets start to stack up on my shelf and topple onto the floor. When I can’t bear it any longer and have a little time for the task, I send them out to the review team. There are a lot of reviewers now. There have to be. If the pile of pamphlets numbers, say, 30, that’s 90 reviews. If I send out two each, I need 45 reviewers.


But it’s complicated keeping in touch with that number of people, and each time round, I’m aware some of them won’t want to review or will have moved house or something. Each time, one of the parcels won’t reach its reviewer (such a nuisance, because that means I’ll only get two reviews in, not three, and sometimes that means I end up buying pamphlets to replace the missing ones).

I update the notes for reviewers each time round and post them out with the pamphlets. It takes about a day to do the notes, the parcels and take them to the post. This week’s consignment cost not much short of £50.00 to send because the price of postage has sky-rocketed. More review copies have arrived so I’m not done yet.

When the reviews start coming in, I edit and file them. When all three are complete for a publication, I put them together and edit out any duplications if they unbalance the review (sometimes reviewers say the same thing, or all three choose the same poem to quote), work out the stripe rating and save them ready to go online. I try not to offend any of the reviewers, since they, too, are getting no payment for this.

When most of the reviews are done, I start to chase up late ones. There are always a few who have forgotten or mislaid the pamphlet. Or even those who sent them and I somehow deleted them by mistake (I try to be careful but it can happen).

Some of the reviewers will have returned their copies in despair. They don’t like something at all, or it baffles them so completely they feel unable to respond. Generally reviewers prefer poems that make sense, but not all poets intend ‘sense’ as the prime mover. So often I end up reviewing these myself, as well as a couple that I allocated to H. Nelson early on.

Finally I upload all the reviews to the website and wait for the flak. Somebody will spot an error in a review, or complain about the treatment they got from x, y or z. Someone I like will get a mean review from someone else I also like. Hey ho!

Of course, someone else will be dead chuffed by their review, busily milking the text for blurb for their next publication.

So why do it?

Originally, it was because pamphlets didn’t get reviewed. A method of ensuring they did.

However, these slender publications are getting more attention than they used to. There are a number of worthy poetry pamphlet competitions promising a pamphlet as prize. This publication can then be entered for the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award (if Scottish) or The Michael Marks Award: more publicity for pamphlets. As a result of the most recent Michael Marks event, a whole page in the Times Literary Supplement was devoted to Andrew McCulloch’s discussion of pamphlets.

However, they don’t all get reviewed, except on Sphinx, if they’re sent in. Some of them can vanish without a trace. Some of them, of course, probably should vanish without a trace, but that’s by the by.

I’d like to think that dedicating three reviews to a small publication can complete the circle for a poet. Poetry is a communication – not just a communication with people you know, but with people you’ve never met. Here are three readers, none of them friends of the author, making intelligent responses, from which something may be learned. The three readers can be the start of an ongoing discussion: what they say may make other readers want to get hold of the publication and contribute their thoughts.

So much of poetry these days (like everything else) is about winning something. I think winning is a red herring. We should stop obsessing about winning and start being interested in what makes us think, what makes us curious, what we can learn from.

There’s also the business of what poetry pamphlets are – and what they’re for. The reviewers are part of a thinking process: looking at that, weighing it in the balance, seeing where this aspect of poetry culture is going in our time. Most, though not quite all, of the Sphinx reviewers are poets, and I’m convinced it’s good for them to think hard about this issue. They have, after all, an investment in the business, and it’s in all our interests to raise the game, to brandish our shared understanding that we take this kind of thing seriously.

Latterly, there’s been interest in an even more neglected type of pamphlet publication: the short story pamphlet. One of the publications from the new pamphlet press Crystal Clear Creators is Without Makeup, a set of short stories by Hannah Stevens. Meanwhile, the division between poetry and short story blurs, as other poets create whole pamphlets of prose poems.

At the moment Sphinx can’t do reviews for short story pamphlets, even though such publications are a great idea, either on paper or as e-books. Perhaps someone else would like to organize a review service? You need a few bob to cover the costs, and quite a lot of time. What about it?

4 thoughts on “LABOUR OF LURK”

  1. Great blog, Nell. Sphinx does a invaluable service and should be commended. Being a non commercial service (forgive my awkward phrasing) lets reviewers write honest, good reviews.

    I’ve come across paid-for ‘reviewing’ services and they disgust me. While I appreciate that there are more books than reviewers, paying someone to write a review (which will always inevitably be positive and not address any issues) deceives potential readers.

  2. The reviewing service will undoubtedly be good for your publishing business. Quite right, too.

  3. I don’t think it is, James. Sometimes it makes relationships with other publishers, for example, which matter to me a lot, rather difficult.

  4. A marvellous post. The passage about winning being a red herring particularly resonated with me. Big thanks for all the hard work you and your reviewers put into Sphinx. It’s an invaluable service with reviews I know I can rely on.

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