Monday, 20 May 2013

‘So. Farewell then / Salt poetry books / With your lovely jackets …’

(E. J. Thribb, 17½)

Salt Publishing – which has been publishing around 30 poetry collections a year for the past 13 years – will no longer be publishing individual collections (but will keep their anthologies – The Best British Poetry 2013, etc – running).

Salt redrew the map, they opened things up, and they did this with style and they had marketing savvy. And then?

It’s been suggested that Salt should have published fewer books and ‘marketed’ those better. I doubt this would have made a difference. Hindsight is always tedious, and this particular hindsight downplays the extreme difficulties of the context in which Salt was working. (And by the way, though I have heartfelt sympathy for the circa 100 poets rendered publisher-less by Salt’s decision, I’ve always thought it rash for any writer to assume that if a publisher takes on one book then they have entered into a marriage that will last for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Authors desert publishers, publishers abandon authors. Fidelity is one option among others.)

For all publishers of poetry, the numbers don’t stack up. First, reading is no longer central to the culture (I’ve quoted before Philip Roth’s prediction that within a few years the number of people who read ‘literary fiction’ will be down to the number who now read Latin). Second, even among readers and book-buyers, poetry is peripheral. In a previous post I quoted figures from Matthew Hollis’s book on Edward Thomas and Robert Frost: a century ago, within a year of its publication an anthology of unknown poets from an unknown press ‘was in its ninth printing and was on its way to 15,000 sales’; today, despite a UK population increase of around 50% since 1912, it’s rare for a poetry collection to sell 1,000, and the great majority sell way, way under that. To look at the usual figures you may need a magnifying glass.

And yet at the same time, an ever-increasing number of would-be poets are signing up, with absolute dedication and often with talent too, to the proliferating creative writing courses; and despite the internet, for many if not most of them the printed book remains – for recognition and status and self-esteem, a necessary thing – the gold standard. At the very least, there’s a supply-and-demand problem here.

A free-market capitalist system is no less bizarre, in its dealings with literature, than any old-style communist regime that favoured socialist realism and sent other forms underground. Especially a system in which basic human concerns are increasingly measured in monetary terms; in which the value/success of a book is calculated according to sales figures; and in which the Arts Council founds its own arguments for funding on ‘economic impact’ (‘if this is the language we need to use to justify the investment we represent, then we should and we will’: Alan Davey, Chief Executive, ACE, 7 May). One of many ‘morbid symptoms’ (Gramsci) this situation leads to is the expectation that poets, competing for a share in the tiny market, self-publicise – an activity requiring wholly different skills from those required to write the stuff, and that can skew both judgement and what gets written.

Meanwhile, we muddle along: alongside Waitrose and Sainsburys, a range of little shops – they come and go – selling organic local produce to niche groups of consumers. Boutique.


Lindsay Waller-Wilkinson said...

How about self-publishing, but working with a shit-hot editor and yes, the author would have to pay for the editor's services, and yes, have to pay for the printing, and yes, then market/promote the book, but with ref to one of your other posts, could get quite a lot of that achieved for the price of a stately-home course? I've looked into it so I know.
I do believe there is a lot of good poetry out there that doesn't/will not see the light of day and some poets may just be quite good at selling/promoting their own work.
The poetry world has always been quite snotty about self publishing`-it's only recently ceased to be called 'vanity publishing.' Perhaps we need to get over it. People (the general public) do love poetry, but often not the kind of poetry honoured, praised and published by the so-called intellectual poetry hierarchy, (think Poetry on the Underground, and the Bloodaxe "Being Alive' etc Collections, to name a couple of BIG successes, think some of the stuff the Poetry Society and PN Review etc puts out in contrast.)
I don't see why poetry is the only literary form that feels it has to remain solely the property of the intellectual. None of the other forms are so prescriptive and I do believe there is room for different genres within the blanketing arm of 'Poetry". Popular doesn't have to mean of lower quality, simplistic, sentimental, or badly written.
On another note I'm often amazed at how many poets don't read poetry, how many writers submit to magazines that they themselves never bother to subscribe to (often claiming poverty as a reason, chicken and egg are two words that spring to mind perhaps, but...) and, as you say, how few books generally people actually read.
What if we stop worrying about commerciality and money and returns and think about tapping into resources and individuals who do have money as people used to in days gone by, and also, poets accepting they can't expect to make a living by 'it' alone?
Lots to discuss, think about, even, perchance do...

charles said...

Lots of issues here, Lindsay, but thank you. For self-publishing (in book form) you can buy in editing and design expertise, but then there's the matter of the ISBN ... More generally, getting a self-published book into bookshops (other than a friendly local one) and getting it reviewed will be hard, very hard - but given that these are hard even for books from established imprints, then certainly (assuming the poetry is good, and that the poet has a supportive network of readers, friends, etc) self-publishing is an option.

Adam Lowe said...

The average self-published author sells 40 copies of a book. That's always worth bearing in mind. But a self-published book sent to the right reviewers and awards can do okay.

In regards to the ISBN, you can get them for free if you publish through, say, You can also pay an additional fee to have the books distributed through Ingram to bookstores. But this still doesn't guarantee bookstores will buy copies without any effort from the writer. You'd need to do all your own marketing (or pay someone else to do it), but you could probably get a bookshop to order in a small number by hosting an event there.

Poetry can be seen as elitist. But there are plenty of exciting poets doing things at festivals, in schools and in public places. Plenty are moving off the page and using multimedia, performance, T-shirts . . . But those poets probably don't rely on book sales either. Others have pointed out that it might be the logistics, economics and restraints of poetry books themselves that might be the problem.