Tuesday 2 April 2024

The Elephant in the Poetry Publishing Room

Right now, the Elephant in the Poetry Publishing Room isn’t funding, which is eternally being debated. No, there’s another issue that very few poetry publishers are prepared to discuss in public, and that’s the collapse in sales of single-poet collections.

Those sales were already low, but they’re now pitiful. And if you doubt the veracity of this statement, just take a trip over to the official Companies House website and have a look at a few sets of poetry publishers’ accounts. And read and weep.

Of course, amid the rush for that afore-mentioned funding, most publishers are only too keen to bury their disastrous sales figures. What’s more, if funding is what keeps their heads above water (rather than actually shifting units), they have little motivation to tackle the problem head-on. However, if we love books, it’s urgent that we should all discuss the reasons why customers are turning their backs on poetry collections, and then ask ourselves how we might turn things around.

First of all, what about those reasons? Well, to start with, the fall-out from the pandemic is still being felt. Audiences at festivals and in-person readings understandably remain lower than pre-Covid, given the average age of attendees. Meanwhile, online readings don’t seem to generate a similar level of interval and post-reading conversations between the poet and members of the audience (and by extension, thus bring about far fewer sales).

Moreover, the posting of free content on blogs, websites and social media is undoubtedly a major issue. Faced with such an abundance of riches, all available gratis, readers understandably wonder why they should bother investing in books.

It feels like a fundamental shift has taken place, as if the rules of the poetry publishing games have all changed, though most of the players haven’t noticed yet (or aren’t making any public acknowledgement of having done so). In this context, it’s especially important to assert the poetry collection’s value as an object, as a sensory experience, as a physical connection with the words that are printed on its pages, as an act of communication that reaches far beyond a screen. As a consequence, production values become even more important. The quality of the paper, of the cover design, of the typesetting, fonts, all become something to savour, something that lifts print-based poetry above a phone or tablet. That said, however, a balance needs to be struck between these materials and the affordability of collections, as sales are inevitably connected to retail prices.

And then there’s the permanent qualities of books against the transient nature of the internet. As readers, if we don't buy, read and treasure poetry collections, we'll be left with a random succession of poems to be scrolled through for free on a screen, consumed and forgotten in minutes.

This seems a pivotal moment for everyone involved in the poetry world. Sales aren’t an issue that only affects publishers. By extension, the problem also ripples out to poets and readers. Leaving aside the policies of ACE, if we ourselves don’t take the bull by the horns, get innovative in our poetic relationships and make an effort from all sides to embrace the importance of print-based poetry collections, we’ll lose the huge diversity of voices that are published every year in the U.K., in which case we’ll have nobody but ourselves to blame…

1 comment:

  1. One rule remains constant: if people value something they cannot obtain witout paying, at least some of us will pay for it. A lot of colections get published, not because an unfilled space in the market was identified and a book published because the market demanded it, but because a poet and a publisher (maybe the same person) decided they wanted a certain voice to be heard, whether anyone was asking to hear it or not. In the world of intense competition and wildly accessible media for both readers and writers, sales figures are not the only criteria of success. But if poets want sales--look for what's selling. A theme suggests itself--why Taylor Swift and Beyonce are more popular than 'most any politician. Or write whatever we want, and be happy to sell a dozen copies. Either way is okay. (Davidrogersbooks.wordpress.com)