HeadworX Questionnaire Response in Alternative Small Press Publishing in New Zealand

Questionnaire by Michael O'Leary, answers written by Mark Pirie, HeadworX Publishers, from O'Leary's book Alternative Small Press Publishing in New Zealand 1969-1999, Steele Roberts Ltd, Wellington, 2007

Publisher: HeadworX. Mark Pirie is a writer and editor who has made an impact in recent years with his publication of stylish poetry volumes by poets often neglected by the literary establishment. In his ground-breaking anthology The NeXt Wave he explored the concerns of 'Generation X' through their writings, poetry and song lyrics. He is also editor of JAAM.


BERNHARDT, Jeanne Catrin Baby is this wonderland? 1999   Prose, (150 copies) cover art by the author

BEYER, Tony The Century 1998 Poetry, (150 copies) cover art by Russell Chalmers

ENSING, Riemke Talking Pictures:  Selected Poems 2000 Poetry, (600 copies) cover art by Judith Haswell

McQUEEN, Harvey Pingandy: New & Selected Poems 1999 Poetry, (250 copies) cover art by Russell Chalmers

OLIVER, Stephen Unmanned 1999 Poetry, (500 copies) cover art by Margaret-Ann Hamilton

PLUMB, Vivienne Salamanca 1998 Poetry, (210 copies ) designed by Mark Pirie

PLUMB, Vivienne The diary as a positive in female adult behaviour 1999 Fiction, (250 copies) cover art by Russell Chalmers

POWELL -CHALMERS, Jenny Sweet banana wax peppers 1998 Poetry,              (210 copies ) cover art by Russell Chalmers

POWELL - CHALMERS, Jenny Hats 2000 Poetry (500 copies) cover art by Russell Chalmers

RICKETTS, Harry Nothing to Declare: selected writings  1977 - 1997 1998 (300 copies) Poetry, and fiction with book design by Mark Pirie

SCOTT, L.E.Earth Colours: Selected Poems 2000 Poetry, (500 copies) cover art by Russell Chalmers

1 - What was your initial reason for getting involved in publishing? Please try to think of this in the spirit of what you were thinking and doing at the time.

            My initial reason to get involved in publishing was due to my own personal interest in publishing. I always wanted to be involved in publishing in some form and after finishing Honours at Victoria in 1997 I started HeadworX to gain further hands-on experience which would eventually lead to further jobs in editing/publishing. I also liked the idea of publishing work and helping authors get their work in print, and especially liked the idea of providing a publishing alternative outside of the academic coteries that have developed in recent years. I thought their elitist/selective approach to literature as shown in the Histories/Companions/Oxford Poetry anthologies was damaging to the full range and long-term development of literature in New Zealand. In my view Terry Locke's secondary school anthologies just released (see Doors and Jewels in the Water, Leaders Press, 2000) are far more representative than the OUP one in 1997. Big Smoke (AUP, 2000) is also good in terms of representing a wider range of poets.

2 - Who or what was your main influence behind your decision to publish? These may include literary or non-literary influences. 

            I didn't really have any literary influences as such I was just willing to publish whatever good manuscripts I could find or whatever was sent to me. The majority of work I have solicited and put together myself, e.g. Harry Ricketts, Jenny Powell-Chalmers, Harvey McQueen, Riemke Ensing, L.E.Scott. Stephen Oliver, Jeanne Bernhardt and Vivienne Plumb were all submitted to me. But I did have a few influences in mind. For instance Louis Johnson, who I always admired for his heroic attempts to get as many authors in print as possible and for his work in breaking down the academic coteries and selective approach to literature through his Poetry Yearbooks (1951 - 64). Other influences in publishing were New Directions and Black Sparrow Press and Faber and Faber, in terms of book design, typesetting, etc. I was interested in a stylish format and I rifled through as many poetry books in the library to study how the books had been put together. I also had the good fortune of meeting Russell Chalmers, the husband of Jenny Powell-Chalmers, who contributed excellent covers for most of the books.

3 - In your choice of authors was the main consideration for inclusion philosophical, literary or pragmatic?

            My main choice for inclusion was that the work was of 'good' literary merit, or so it seemed to me - reviewers may see it differently of course! Other than that some of the authors I have published have tended to be 'outsiders' in the literary community, some have been neglected authors who haven't been properly recognized for their work, and some have been new authors who have found it difficult to get their manuscripts published because they weren't established as a 'name' author. So HeadworX has filled a gap in the market by allowing these authors to get in print whereas the established commercial presses might not have published them due to either financial reasons or personal prejudice and dislike of their particular writing style.

4 - "...and if there is still a number of commissioned works which seem to have been dreamed up by a sabotaging office-boy on an LSD trip, there are now each year a growing quantity of books which worthily add to our literature." Professor J.C. Reid from an article introducing New Zealand Books in Print, written in 1968. I interpret Reid's assessment as an indication of the rift between the acceptable  'worthy' literature as endorsed by academia, and the new wave of sabotaging office boys and girls who at that time commissioned publishers to put out their works, or simply published things themselves, and in many cases the work of their friends.  Comment on this quote in relation to the 'Vanity Press' vs 'Real Publishing' debate.

            No comment.

5 - Initially, was your focus outwardly cosmopolitan or inwardly New Zealand looking, and how has this emphasis changed over the years?

            HeadworX has been Australasian in focus. I'm interested in publishing both Australian and New Zealand authors, but my editing of the literary magazine JAAM has been very international in outlook. We have published authors from Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, the US, Brazil, Canada etc. I think this international, cosmopolitan flavour has certainly changed over the years and New Zealand authors are now confident to see their work alongside the best of overseas poetry.

6 - What were your methods of printing and distribution as a publisher? Did you receive any financial or other assistance from either public organisations, or private sponsorship?

            I have used low-run docu-tech digital printing at Massey and Otago Printeries. This is high speed 'photocopying' but the finish is very good. I have some financial assistance from Creative New Zealand. 3 of the 10 books I've published have been funded. The amounts have varied, however. I only received $500 to publish Harvey McQueen's work, which doesn't even help to cover the printing costs of such a book. I started out distributing the books myself by going around the bookshops and placing them on sale or return but now I prefer to use a distributor as it removes the personal burden to me in this respect. My books are distributed in New Zealand and Australia by reputable distributors: Nationwide in Christchurch and Dennis Jones in Melbourne. Note: I have recently switched to Addenda in Auckland for local distribution.

7 - How much of your publishing was commissioned and paid for (either fully or partially) by the author? Was your operation helped by the voluntary work of friends and family?

            I have paid for the cost of publishing myself mostly. But I have accepted money from the authors in terms of selling them 40 or 50 copies at wholesale discount on publication to recoup my costs. These copies were then used for personal sale by the authors to friends and at readings and events. My operation was helped by voluntary work from the authors in terms of readings and marketing and by designers such as Russell Chalmers and Judith Haswell. All the typesetting, book promotion, advertising, editing and book design has been done by me.

8 - What has been the cost to you personally in terms of time, money and resources, of being involved in publishing in New Zealand? You may consider this in relation to more difficult areas such as relationships with friends, family etc. also.

            The cost has been enormous. To the extent that it cost me a social life. The amount of time consumed by these activities is something I'm looking at as I will probably look to publish only 4 titles a year maximum. It has left me financially broke most of the time as well. This is something that doesn't trouble me too much at this stage but in the future if I do settle down and raise a family, publishing may have to go. However, now that I'm [working] full-time the financial burden has been lifted somewhat, so who knows? I will probably stick at it.

9 - Where do you place yourself and your achievements as a publisher (and as a writer if applicable) in the history of the modern-day New Zealand literary scene? Do you feel that your contribution has been adequately acknowledged.

            I'd like to think I have done good work in opening up the New Zealand literary scene a little and letting more voices become accepted here. I'm simply following on the good work that's been done by the likes of Louis Johnson. I don't make any claim to exerting an influence on people's writing styles or instigating a particular direction. I suppose though my anthology The NeXt Wave was an attempt to sum up a particular generation's writing style and way of saying but it has been misrepresented in some ways and has suffered the brunt of coterie attacks. The book to me was more concerned with including a wider range of writing styles than would be normally acceptable to the established presses. For instance rhyming verse and song lyrics feature alongside more obscure postmodern academic styles. Interestingly I have since received quite a lot of acclaim overseas from critics in India and the US. A favourable review was published in World Literature Today (June 1999). So I would say local critics have underestimated me and this is partly due to the coterie backlash I have received from the book. At the moment I will just keep going on the direction I have already charted for myself and keep up the good work. Acclaim is not really of vital importance though it is nice to receive some recognition for one's efforts, and this is already coming in dribs and drabs, both overseas and locally. My support is growing. What more can one ask for?

 Mark Pirie, Wellington, 2000