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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Five Good Reasons Against Vanity Presses

A vanity press is one that operates in one of two ways. Either it accepts a full-length manuscript – whether a novel or collection of poems – praising the author’s work with superlatives and charging such a generous profit margin on publishing the book. Or a vanity press publishes an anthology of ‘poems’ and encourages the authors to not only buy their own copies but encourage friends and relatives to buy copies as well. Some vanity publishers will charge extra for including a brief biography of the author, perhaps in exchange for a certificate stating the author has now joined a library of other writers who have paid for a biography. Both methods make a profit for the publisher who doesn’t actually need to bother marketing or promoting the books. On the face of it, these vanity presses simply fleece the naive and gullible into parting with too much money for books that don’t and won’t sell. So where’s the harm?

Consider these scenarios:-

The Radio Talk Show Host

A local poetry society has produced an anthology of poems selected by an established, respected poet. A caller complains that “none of the poems rhyme” and goes on to say that they were so disgusted with the anthology they threw it away. The DJ asks about the caller’s writing experience. The caller states they have a certificate confirming that they are a member of a library and have been published in many books. The DJ interrupts the caller’s list of books by asking if the caller has attended any writing courses. The caller hesitates, then attempts to list those publications again.

The problem is the local poetry society know full well that those publications are all vanity publications. But does the radio audience? Are listeners thinking “the caller’s vanity published therefore the anthology is worth buying because it’s real, contemporary poetry” or are they thinking “the caller’s got an impressive list of publications and a certificate, so the anthology must be rubbish.”

The Poetry Workshop

An open workshop: simply bring several copies of your poem, hand them round to the attendees, read your poem and wait for feedback. A new attendee produces their poem with a flourish. The other attendees, which include several widely published (properly published) poets with years of experience in critiquing poems. They offer constructive advice, indicating that a couple of lines don’t scan and suggest minor alterations to fix the problem and suggest alteratives to the cliché in the second stanza. The new attendee challenges every single comment, accusing the others of not understanding the point of the poem, of mis-reading the poem, of not understanding what poetry is about. To justify this, the new attendee produces a list of publications and argues the poem is complete and doesn’t need meddling with.

The Mourning Grandmother

A live literature event: several professional writers have read extracts from their published work. During the interval, a woman nudges the arm of one of the poets and pushes several pieces of paper in the poet’s face. “What do you think? Where can I get it published?” asks the grandmother. The poet suggests that the grandmother gives the poet chance to read it first. While the poet is reading, the grandmother turns to the other professional writers asking the same questions. The poet reads what appears to be a biography in what seems to be an attempt at rhyming couplets (“Oh, I must get to the shop/ I remembered, I must buy a mop” being a typical example), however, it becomes clear that this is a heart-felt piece about a much-loved grandchild who died from a terminal illness. The grandmother, who has worked herself into a fluster, is impatiently waiting an answer. “I’ve been published,” she says. “But I couldn’t afford to buy the anthology. So I never saw my poem in print. Where can I publish this one? You’ll know, you’re a writer as well.”

What do you say?

The Local Newspaper

The editor gives a talk and mentions some ideas for maintaining and increasing readership. One of those suggested ideas could be a poetry supplement – a double page spread featuring readers’ poems. An audience member (a novelist) asks what payment will be offered to the poets if the poetry supplement goes ahead. None, is the editor’s response. The novelist points out that locally there are some established published poets who would welcome the opportunity to promote their work to a wider audience and get paid for it so why is no payment forthcoming? The editor’s replies, “Well, there are all these people who write poems and who will pay for copies of the anthologies. So we don’t need to pay them.”

The poetry supplement didn’t go ahead. I don’t think I have to spell out why.

The Local Independent Bookshop

Poetry presses are run on a shoestring and it’s not usual for for a press to be run by one person as a side-line to a full or part time job, a writing career and family commitments. Consequently all poetry presses expect the authors to do as much as they can to promote their books. There’s no marketing department to send out review copies and run promotions. There are no sales representatives to visit bookstores and persuade them to stock copies of the books. Most poets hold readings and workshops to sell their books. Naturally, it helps if poets can persuade their local independent bookshops to take copies on a sale or return basis.

The problem is that bookshops don’t like being approached by poets. The staff are suspicious. The only poetry publishers they’ve heard of are Bloodaxe or Carcanet. They suspect that, because the poet is approaching them rather than the press, the books have been self-published. Actually looking at a copy of the book and reading one or two poems to establish whether the poems are any good or not is too time-consuming and too much like hard work. Their default position is no.

A local bookshop were not interested in a book by a local poet published by an established, respected poetry publisher, despite the poet offering copies of reviews, a list of publishing credits and emphasising membership of a local group of professional writers. The bookshop were not shifting from their default position. But then, the bookshop needed local writers for a series of readings. The poet volunteered, sending copies of reviews, publishing credits and mentioning membership of a local group of professional writers. Needing to fill slots, the bookshop said yes. The poet turned up on time and read. The bookshop realised this poet was real and offered to stock their book.

Vanity presses do harm and their reach is beyond the naive and gullible and impacts on genuine writers.

Related articles:

Self-published: to review or not to review?

If you don’t have time to read, you’re not a writer

Common faults in short stories