Poetry Publishers and Road Hogs

I’ve been away for a long weekend and two different events have dominated my thoughts since coming home. Firstly the two drivers who thought they were entitled not to be overtaken but were entitled to impose their view of the road on other drivers. Secondly the news that CB editions are folding. This follows Salt’s earlier decision to close their poetry list to single poet collections (although anthologies will continue). Both events seem to be disparate, but do have common threads.

In the case of the two (male) drivers, I’m trying to resist the easy conclusion that they resented a female driver overtaking them. Both drivers were ignorant of their less than competent driving (the driving that had me looking to overtake when it was safe to do so). If I assume their reactions – sounding their horns and one of those drivers attempted to accelerate then flashed his headlights until I was out of sight – were not deliberate attempts to cause accidents, then both drivers clearly thought they were entitled not to be overtaken and entitled to tell me how to drive. Where did that lack of consideration for other road users come from?

It’s always sad to see a poetry publisher close, but not surprising. Poetry publishing is not financially viable without subsidy (either from public subsidy, feeding profits from other business into the poetry arm or publishers using their own savings) because the low print runs generally involve higher costs and the low sales means there’s very little, if any, profit. But it’s hard to grow a readership for poetry with a zero marketing budget and not all poets are natural self-promoters. Delegating the job to teachers who don’t read poetry either isn’t a serious option. Even getting an individual poem in a high circulation newspaper doesn’t necessarily mean that the readers who read and liked the poem will go and buy the poet’s collection. Rob A Mackenzie’s article on getting a poem in The Guardian newspaper highlights this.

Elsewhere, Nicholas Murray predictably suggests improvements to the marketing and distribution of poetry. There are two strands to this, firstly that bookshops need to “wake up and start stocking small press poetry” and secondly that arts funding bodies set up a networking cooperative to help poets and readers get in touch with each other. The second is very unlikely to happen: funding bodies have a preference for developing practitioners rather than audiences.

The first suggestion assumes a sense of entitlement that bookshops, who need to stock books that the general public will buy, can be told to stock poetry. Supermarkets will happily stock the latest thriller because they know they can sell it, but won’t touch poetry because the sales figures are far too low. Bookshops are not charities and are not going to make any effort to sell poetry books without publicity from the publisher, which won’t happen on a zero marketing budget. Readers might help here by going to bookshops and requesting copies of poetry books but why would they bother when it’s quicker to find it online instead? Of course, before a book can be requested or ordered, readers have to know it exists. Poets are not entitled to tell bookshops how to behave any more than those two drivers were entitled to tell me how to drive.

Nicholas Murray’s main suggestion is that poetry lacks proper criticism. It probably does, but where is this criticism going to be published and who is going to write it? Newspaper book sections rarely cover poetry, poetry magazines are cutting space available for reviews and Nicholas Murray is dismissive of “eloquent puffs from poet’s friends masquerading as a book review”. The fact is most poetry reviewers are also poets who may know the poet they are reviewing and will also be aware that a writing a negative review may have an effect on their own ability to get published. Whilst most poetry reviews on this blog are positive (because I tend to review poetry books here that I enjoyed reading), Nicholas Murray’s clearly not a reader of my reviews elsewhere.

Perhaps the way forward for poets is to drop the sense of entitlement and lack of consideration for their readership. Encouraging poets to buy books by other poets or subscribe to the poetry magazines they submit poems to might seem like a good starting point, but it has obvious limitations and ignores a wider readership. A better starting point would be to encourage poets to write more reviews (some guidance on how to write a review here), join readers’ groups and recommend poetry and for workshop leaders and course tutors to talk about reading poetry as well as writing it. The biggest complaint I hear from poetry readers is that it’s too difficult to find out about new books or to find reviews written with a general reader in mind.

Poetry readers also want buying poetry books to be made easier. When it’s easy to find a video of a poetry performance on a video sharing site such as YouTube for free, why would a poetry reader bother to try and find an inaccessible book that has to be paid for? Can poetry readers and poets share the same road?

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4 Responses to “Poetry Publishers and Road Hogs”

  1. garylongden Says:

    A good piece Emma.

    You cannot buck the market. Poetry books sold through conventional outlets have low appeal. Poets have failed to produce material which engages and excites a mass audience.

    Yet there is a significant audience for spoken word. My Midlands “What’s on” lists some fifty poetry events, plus three festivals in the month of September. At a modest twenty people an event that is a thousand poetry aficionados, all potential book buyers. How are they served by a poets and organisers alike? Poorly.

    I was at one poetry event , co-hosted by a small publisher, at which one of their poets spke to no-one beforehand, brought no books to sign and left at the first interval, despite having read creditably.

    I run a quarterly poetry event. A good performance can easily se a poet sell ten books. Do that twice a week, fifty times a year and that is a thousand sales, you would only be beaten by Seamus Heaney. Is the problem the market? or is it a poets determination to do what is necessary to promote their work?

  2. emmalee1 Says:

    Hi Gary

    Thanks for commenting. Yes, a main source of poetry book sales is poetry readings. The only downside is that these sales aren’t recorded, unlike a book shop sale, so it helps perpetuate the impression that poetry doesn’t sell. Readings (done well) are a great way of introducing poetry.

  3. jaynestanton Says:

    A thought-provoking post, Emma. Unless we attempt to attract a wider readership, poetry sales will continue to comprise, in the main, poets buying each others’ books.
    I agree that poetry/spoken word events have greater potential in terms of book sales. I know that Nine Arches press have made a deliberate effort to bring poetry to a wider audience through their Wordsmiths & Co events. Personally, I make most of my poetry purchases at events and, with the poet’s voice fresh in my head, tend to read rather than add it to a growing To Read pile.
    Re book suppliers and publishers, I feel it’s my duty as a reader to tell them what I want to read. In reality, from publisher to seller, it’s largely the other way round.

  4. emmalee1 Says:

    Hi Jayne

    Thanks for your comments, which I agree with.


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