The Future of Poetry Publishing in Britain
Few people in Britain read poetry and fewer still buy it. Poetry only accounts for 1% of the total number of books sold in the UK. According to a 2000 Arts Council report, over 90% of contemporary poetry sales in the previous year were generated by one imprint, and 67% by one poet (Seamus Heaney). Yet the numbers of people who write poetry and hope to be published just grow and grow: Roddy Lumsden estimates that over a million British poets “harbour some hope of publication” and Peter Finch describes the 1980s when, “for the first time in history it had become more popular to write poetry than to read it.” Before then, according to Finch “The ambition to Get Published At All Costs had not set in. Now it has”. This popularity of ambitious creative writing puts an extra pressure on the market for poetry.
For most poets, the ambition to Get Published At All Costs is an ambition to get published in printed form – preferably with their own collection. Finch explains it very well:
“for most of us publication means print – poetry set in type and reproduced on paper. Print implies merit, truth, it imparts status. If you’ve a poem printed, everyone can recognise your achievement”.
This is why the vanity presses survive, although publishing with them is many times more expensive than publishing on blogs or as pdfs. And poets want to be published in book form because it means the reader will pay to read the poetry, implying that it has value. There’s also the kudos associated with a good publisher’s name - what the Swedish professor Svedjedal calls the “publisher’s aura”. As yet, none of the reputable British e-book publishers can rival the best of the print publishers, and the most prestigious print publishers are not selling e-books. Interviewed recently for Wolf magazine, Michael Schmidt was keen but nervous about the idea of publishing Carcanet titles as pdfs: “I hope we will jump in the next year. It would be nice if a few of us could jump together.”
I think that if or when the e-book arrives, poetry will be one of the last genres to become electronic. It’s not what poets want. And because the number of non-poets who buy contemporary poetry collections is so small, what poets want is the most important force in the poetry market.
That said, some poetry publishers are already offering short, free e-books as tasters. Tony Frazer of Shearsman says: “The Internet is very useful to me as an add-on.” Poetry e-books are not profit-making products but marketing adjuncts, which can increase the sale of print books. Salt, which offers potential customers the chance to read sample poems as pdfs, announced in 2007 that its 31 March UK trade sales of poetry and short stories had increased by 200% during the previous 12 months (partly due to Arts Council support). Fifty percent of their sales are now made in North America, via the Internet..
I think that the future of little magazines will be online. E-zines cost very little to produce and attract far greater numbers of visitors than the numbers who subscribe to or buy printed poetry magazines. And the little magazines have seldom been run for commercial reasons. However, the change may take a while to happen. Despite Jacket’s success, there is still distrust among reviewers and traditional book publishers: as Schmidt says, “few editors of my acquaintance credit the web as a place to look for poems”.
Poetry’s future in terms of books sales may also be online. Online book sales already account for 10-12% of the general books market and in August 2006 Amazon was the only retailer to appear in the top 25 most popular websites. Moreover, with the growth of print-on-demand, the immensity of Amazon’s catalogue, and what Chris Anderson calls the “long tail” effect of online bookshops (where single books can be bought many years after they were printed and after shops stop selling them), the Internet may be able to offer the space for diverse poetry which the bookshops no longer can.
In terms of poetry collections, nothing will change until the people Neil Astley calls “poetry police” – gatekeepers in the form of publishers or bloggers – establish themselves online. Poets have long been accustomed to receiving no payment or a nominal fee for publication in magazines, and fairly insignificant revenue for publication in book format, even by the best publishers. The recognition (by the editor) and exposure (to a readership) are sufficient reward for most. The Internet can offer strong exposure but it is, as yet, relatively weak in providing recognition or validation. Until gatekeepers are well-established online, I think the Internet can only be an important sideshow.
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Jenny Pagdin is an MA creative writing student at UEA (this article is based on an essay written for the course). Her poetry has appeared in Nthposition, Agenda and The Frogmore Papers. She lives and works in Norwich.
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