How to work in the arts: Stuart Bartholomew (Verve Poetry Press & Festival) & Bobby Nayyar (Spread the Word)

In the third installment of our arts careers profiles, we speak to Stuart Bartholomew (Publisher and Director of Verve Poetry Press and Verve Poetry Festival) and Bobby Nayyar (Programme Manager at Spread the Word). Hear from today’s profilees on their various paths into the arts, from call centres to Waterstones booksellers, leading to where they got to today.

Four photos from Verve Poetry Festival edited together: an audience shot, a steward's t-shirt, a woman performing at a mic, and two people looking at a Verve Festival leaflet
Photo: Thom Bartley

Name and job title: Stuart Bartholomew, Publisher and Director of Verve Poetry Press and Verve Poetry Festival

Length of time working in the arts: Only coming up to five years really. Unless you include my bookselling career with Waterstones, in which case 28 years! I actually learned a lot of the skills I value most highly in my arts roles at Waterstones, including Events Management and publicity and an understanding of the selling side of publishing. The first Verve Festival was held in Waterstones in Birmingham and grew out of the events programme there.

Could you tell us a bit about your current role? For the Press, I am the press basically. I pick and approach the poets we will work with, schedule the publishing calendar, work on editing and copy-editing books, design covers, type-set books, liaise with and pay printers, communicate with our followers on social media about books and events, connect with our bookshop stockists, keep our distributor (Inpress Books) informed of upcoming titles, keep our warehouse topped up with stock, post out books that are ordered via our website, and anything else that comes up.

For the Festival, I have more help – mostly voluntary at the moment. I programme the festival: I approach poets/hosts, negotiate fees, secure funding and sponsorship, run our festival bookshop, produce the programme, liaise with our host venue (currently Birmingham Hippodrome) and form strategy for the festival moving forwards. I have help with managing the event itself, running the weekend, managing the volunteers, planning in detail the four days as well as marketing to our potential audience and our regular attenders.

The plan in the next year or so is to try to move some of this work onto a professional footing by securing more Arts Council funding and contracting two individuals to work one day a week for the press (Marketing/Sales/Admin) and two individuals to work one day a week for the festival (similar role). It might well end up being one person doing two days with each organisation, or two people doing a day for each, or four different people. I’d also like to be able to pay myself for the work I do – at the moment this isn’t happening! One of the most difficult things in the arts is making sure that people are paid for the contributions they make, or more specifically moving from a situation where they are not to one in which they are. If we’d needed paying at the outset, there wouldn’t have been a Verve – simple as that. But five years on that feels like it needs sorting. We are very good at paying our poets and a lot less good at paying ourselves at present.

Photo of the book 'CLosed Gates or Open Arms?' an anthology edited by Joelle Taylor and printed by Verve Poetry PRess
Photo: Thom Bartley

How did you get into this role? I basically created both organisations, and therefore created my role. The festival came first. While running events at Birmingham Waterstones it became increasingly apparent that Birmingham needed a poetry festival (how it didn’t have one is anyone’s guess) as poetry is such a big part of the culture of the city. ‘If you want something doing, do it yourself’ is sometimes said, isn’t it? I felt uniquely placed to be able to do this for the city and also to make some book sales for Waterstones in a quiet February. I had a lot of support from local poets – notably Cynthia Miller (my co-founder), Emma Wright from The Emma Press and Roz Goddard. We knew the festival had to be right for Birmingham, which meant it being multi-cultural, and encompassing both spoken word and page poetry, and aiming at those starting out in poetry as well as experienced poets and poetry fans. We knew it needed to be a poetry party! What we didn’t know was how much those aims would chime with the wider UK poetry community, many of whom came, and many of whom were extremely positive about our mixture of poetry fun.

The press seemed like a sensible next step, seeing as we were often booking Birmingham-based poets for the festival who didn’t have books, which didn’t seem right for the poets or for us. My years in bookselling and my close connection with other people running presses such as Emma, Jane Commane at Nine Arches and Clive Birnie from Burning Eye, convinced me that I could do it. What I didn’t realise was how much the name of the festival would help the press quickly establish itself. Poets wanted to publish with us, and people were keen to buy the books we published.

To sum up, my bookselling background, and my business knowledge from that background made things that might seem like big moves to some people feel to me like things that I could do. But the biggest skill I learned at Waterstones was to surround myself with people who could help, and in the poetry world, as well as in the arts world as a whole, there are always people around who are more than happy to help if they can.

What advice would you give to young people getting into arts careers? I think the thing for me is that you can learn the skills you might need to succeed in the arts in the most unlikely places. And that they aren’t necessarily the kind of skills you might need to be an artist or a writer yourself. Many of the skills you will need are fairly universal in business generally (apart from a strong love of the arts, which I will assume you are already bringing to the party!). Organisation skills, marketing skills, financial skills, strategic skills, an ability to plan – all of these will make you brilliant at the kind of jobs I do. Personally I am not that brilliant a poet. And don’t even try to get me on a stage! But I can make things happen. And I am good at connecting with people who might want to give me a hand. And I am really interested in all the parts of the arts business cake. It isn’t enough just to want to edit people (which is what many people who ask for work experience with the press seem keen on). You need to like getting people to buy your stuff too. And sums. There are lots of sums.

Photo of one book, 'We've done nothing wrong, we've nothing to hide', the Verve anthology of diversity poems edited by Andrew McMillan
Photo: Thom Bartley

Is there anything you’d tell your younger self about working in the arts? My younger self was a career bookseller and had no idea about a career in the arts until he fell into it in his late forties. I’d tell him to look around himself a whole lot more and see what he can get involved in. I’d tell him to learn all the skills mentioned above a lot more deliberately, so that it doesn’t take another 20 years for him to be ready. I’d tell him to make himself indispensable to any arts organisation he comes into contact with. If you can solve problems for people by taking a huge chuck of work off them or by helping them move forwards in some way, they’re going to want to keep you around.

What other jobs might you find within literary festivals and indie publishing?

  • Programming/curating
  • Profit & loss
  • Marketing
  • Editing/giving feedback
  • Design
  • Organisational
  • People management
  • Planning/evaluation
  • Selling
Photo of Bobby Nayyar sitting on a bench. He wears a white t-shirt and dark jeans.
Photo: Kashif Haque

Name and job title: Bobby Nayyar, Programme Manager at Spread the Word, London’s writer development agency.

Length of time working in the arts: Fifteen years. I started out as a publishing trainee at Faber and Faber in 2005.

Could you tell us a bit about your current role? My work is divided between managing a nine-month development programme called the London Writers Awards, booking in workshops and events, and managing our national Life Writing Prize. On a day-to-day basis I write a lot of emails, have a few phone calls a day, and while in lockdown a lot of Zoom meetings!

Could you tell us about how you got into this role? I’m the only one in my family who works in the arts; both of my parents had factory jobs when they were working. In terms of education, I read French and Italian at Trinity College, Cambridge, then had a postgraduate year at the University of Chicago. Both were useful for practical work skills – Cambridge for reading and absorbing lots of material in a short space of time, and Chicago for learning how to give presentations and be a better communicator.

Limehouse Books logo: four red shapes that make up a red houseI’ve had a varied career path. I worked a lot in call centres when I was younger, which helped me develop my communication skills, which is vital for a job like this. I started out in book publishing, then decided to start my own publishing house in 2009: Limehouse Books. While learning the realities of running a small independent press, I took on freelance work which included arts practitioner work in schools teaching creative writing, digital marketing for a literary journal, proofreading and editing for an agency based in India. I got most of this work through networking and keeping in touch with people I used to work with. Through a contact I was sent the job advert for the role at Spread the Word, I applied and have been here since 2018 working part-time.

Could you share some advice for a young person wanting to get into the arts? The main challenges for getting a job in the arts is having contacts and the relevant experience. In my early 20s I wanted to work in publishing but had no friends or family who worked in the industry, or even the basic knowledge that you needed to do work experience and internships to help get your foot in the door. It seems really obvious now, but it certainly didn’t back then. Thankfully times are different now – and there is much more information available online and through social media. The key is to do your research, be tenacious and unafraid to ask people you don’t know for advice – if you are polite and professional, they will probably get back to you. Earlier on in my career I was mentored, which taught me how to ask and learn from someone with much more experience. It is certainly true in work, as in life, if you don’t ask, you don’t get! Something else you need to consider, which is tough, is that salaries for working in the arts are lower than other industries. It gets a bit better as you move up a career path, but starting out is going to be a challenge, especially if you have to live and work in London.

Is there anything you wish your younger self had known, that you know now about working in the arts? It took me years to get into publishing. If I had known someone to give me the advice above, I probably would have got there a lot quicker. Working in the arts is rewarding and enjoyable, but it is also challenging especially right now. Explore different avenues and talk to as many people as you can. And try to develop your skills at each stage in your career.

Find out more about Spread the WordSpread the Word is London’s writer development agency. There are lots of regional writer development agencies across England, and they often do lots of work for young or emerging writers – find your local one here. Spread the Word focuses on kick-starting the careers of London’s best new writers, and campaigning to ensure that publishing truly reflects the diversity of the city. They run awards, development programmes, workshops, newsletters and more for writers.

Spread the Word logo, with a white cone

What other kinds of roles might you find at a writer development agency? It depends on the agency, but you might expect to find:

  • Chief Executive/Director
  • Director of Finance/Finance Officer
  • Writer Development Manager
  • Various Programme Managers – for Festivals and Events, Learning and Participation, Young People’s Programmes, Awards, etc.
  • Marketing and Communications Manager

Keep your eyes peeled for more Young Poets Network features about careers in the arts – and let us know in the comments what you’d like to see next. Find our first careers feature with Arts Council England Literature Relationship Manager James Trevelyan and Ledbury Poetry Festival Manager Phillippa Slinger here, our second feature with Annette Brook from the Royal Society of Literature and Ali Lewis at Poetry London here, and our fourth with harana poetry‘s co-editors Kostya Tsolakis and Romalyn Ante here.

Stuart Bartholomew is Director and Programmer of Verve, a Birmingham festival of poetry and spoken word founded in 2017. He is also Publisher and Co-Founder of Verve Poetry Press – an independent press that focusses on publishing poets from Birmingham and beyond with connections to the festival. His programming and publishing vision is to celebrate the full breadth of quality poetic activity in Birmingham and the UK – whatever the style or source – in colourful and exciting ways. He also works as a branch manager for Waterstones Booksellers. Verve Poetry Festival has been described by Anthony Anaxagorou as ‘The best poetry festival in the UK’ and won the Saboteur Award for Best Festival in 2019. Verve Poetry Press has been described by Andrew McMillan as ‘always exciting’ and won the Saboteur Award for Most Innovative Publisher in 2019 as well as receiving the Michael Marks Publisher’s Award in the same year.

Bobby Nayyar is a writer, publisher and programme manager. He started his publishing career in 2005, when he became the first recipient of an Arts Council England bursary to train in publishing at Faber and Faber. He went on to join the marketing department at Little, Brown Book Group, rising to manage campaigns for the Virago and Abacus imprints. In 2009, he founded his own publishing house, Limehouse Books, where he has published over 20 books. He has also managed Equality in Publishing, helping to set up the Publishing Equalities Charter, worked at Wasafiri Magazine to manage their digital presence. In 2018, he joined Spread the Word, London’s writer development agency, as programme manager working on their London Writers Awards project, prizes and workshops. 
He has written two novels and a collection of poetry. His short stories have been published in the Mango Shake, Too Asian, Not Asian Enough, and The Book of Birmingham anthologies, plus journals including Wasafiri and Aesthetica. He lives in London.

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