Whether by accident or not, and it hardly matters, we got some things right:
The timing. This has been, since the ACE cuts in late March, a mess of a year for the public profile of poetry: the cuts themselves; the Poetry Society fiasco (and it’s not put to bed yet); the rolling-of-eyes at the shortlists for the Forward prize, in some quarters now termed the Backward prize. If people needed to feel better about themselves, to come together in a cooperative way rather than with an adversarial agenda, to be assured that what they’re doing is worth the doing, the occasion may have enabled this.
The work on display.
(1) When judged by the amount of new poetry they put out each year, the poetry publishers no one ever calls ‘small’ – Faber, Cape, Picador – are, in fact, small; and most of their publishing slots are taken up by new work from writers already on their list.
(2) Whatever you think of creative writing courses and the professionalisation of writing, they’ve contributed to an increasing amount of quality writing seeking publication.
(3) It’s the presses that people do call ‘small’ who publish most of this work.
(4) There is no gap in quality between much of the work published by the small presses and the work put out by the Big People. There is no gap in the dedication and professional skill with which the books are produced; if anything, the small presses, in their attention to the design of each specific book, score more highly here. There is a gap between the marketing and publicity resources of the Big People and those of the small presses; that is, in their ability to get their books to readers. Which is why a book fair ain’t such a daft idea.**
And then, the selling. Mostly only anecdotal evidence so far, but there was more actual buying going on than I – or, I guess, many of the presses – had dared to expect. It’s possible this was influenced by the way in which the fair was presented in the publicity: as something put on without public funding, and needing support. More likely, I think, it was an infectious thing: if you’re standing next to someone who’s shelling out, you think, hey, so it’s OK to buy, I can do this too (and if I don’t get that book that’s teasing me now, it may be gone when I come back). Special thanks to the buyers who set this going.
* Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–99); quoted in the programme to the book fair.
** This isn’t brain surgery. But it does seem, as Chris Hamilton-Emery argues in his post on the book fair, to be beyond the Arts Council.