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.

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