Each quarter the Poetry Book Society sends out a bulletin to its members along with a copy of the selectors’ chosen book for that quarter. The bulletin lists poetry books and pamphlets published that quarter, articles on the selected book and recommendations, the recommended book of poems translated into English, the recommended pamphlet and gives poets chance to comment on their own books. Some poets write about the themes explored in their collections, others write about what inspired them or how they chose to write the book and others dodge the question by writing about what they were doing while writing their book. All books listed in the bulletin are available to Poetry Book Society members at a discount and the Poetry Book Society will endeavour to source any book or pamphlet not listed that a member requests or wants to buy. The Poetry Book Society also organises readings by the T S Eliot prize shortlisted poets and administers the prize.
Despite its great history, the Poetry Book Society was founded by T S Eliot and friends with support from the Arts Council and supported by leading poets past and present, the society is not elitist. It is open to any poetry reader. Not only can members obtain poetry books at a discount, they can place orders via a freepost address or on-line. At a time when high street book shops and even independent book shops either don’t stock poetry or insist on only stocking collections by dead white male poets and/or the current poet laureate, it is a vital lifeline for anyone trying to buy poetry.
Poets find it virtually impossible to get their books into shops. Waterstone’s, the main book shop chain, has a central buying system that doesn’t buy poetry. Individual branches are in theory able to trace poetry books via Gardiners, but staff rarely get trained on how to do so and any customer asking for a poetry book generally leaves empty handed. Independent book shops are very reluctant to take poetry books for fear of accepting a self or vanity published poetry book that then becomes impossible to shift. Smaller poetry publishers can’t afford to send out sales representatives and as independent book shops often won’t take on poetry books directly from poets, then it becomes impossible for poets to get their books in independent shops. Consequently a poetry book distributor like the Poetry Book Society becomes absolutely essential. And getting a book selected by the Poetry Book Society can increase sales by around 1,700 copies.
The Poetry Book Society is not perfect: some smaller publishers find it very difficult to provide the information the society needs in time for its publishing schedule and some confuse the selectors’ choices with what the Poetry Book Society wishes to promote. But the Poetry Book Society is simply a distributor and the selectors are free to choose from whichever books have been sent in by publishers. It also relies on feedback from members. Personally I’ve always found staff at the Poetry Book Society helpful and approachable, even letting me know when a publication’s been delayed due to technical or legal problems. It was a lifeline when I had a series of temporary jobs whilst looking for a permanent post and struggled to afford poetry books.
The announcement from the Arts Council of England that it would no longer be funding the Poetry Book Society from 2012 was hugely disappointing and may lead to the end for the society. It will make it very difficult for poetry readers to get hold of poetry books. Inpress does a sterling job on behalf of independent poetry publishers, however, it does not have the range of interviews and features with poets that the Poetry Book Society’s bulletin offered.
This decision also puts the T S Eliot Prizes in jeopardy. There was a meeting on Monday 4 April between the Arts Council of England and the Poetry Book Society to discuss the way forward, but there has been no announcement yet. The Arts Council of England have tried to justify this decision by arguing that it wants to focus on new writing from younger people. So when these new writers collect a body of work and try to get their work published they will find that not only are they chasing fewer publishing slots from fewer publishers, but, if they manage to get a collection published, they will be doing all their own marketing and will find it practically impossible to get their book out to poetry readers. We have plenty of poetry writers in this country, we desperately need readers who can be enabled to buy books. That was a crucial role the Poetry Book Society played.
Click on the link to find out more about the Poetry Book Society.