Too often, the discussion is about poetry readers, What the UK needs are more poetry buyers. I run a small press that has so far produced 21 poetry titles, all designed by Edwin Smet, and printed by TJ International, in handsome, stylish, hardcover editions. The books are edited carefully, and have no typos.
The poems range from the Cambridge School (Simon Jarvis) to the American contemporary (Don Share) to the gnomic (Elspeth Smith) to the lyrical and witty (Penny Boxall) to the savagely original (SJ Fowler). A few have been highly commended, listed for prizes, got great reviews, etc, and all have been launched in famous bookshops, and are sold at Amazon, and also in many fine shops across the UK. Sales, despite this (one was an Observer Book of the Year 2013) are low. Not very low - just slow low. Several have sold around 450 copies (good for press less than three years old), a few 250, and a few about 150. None has sold less than 100, and none more than 500 (yet) at time of writing.
The idea that somehow poets, and publishers, are failing the public at this time, in not delivering the goods, is a pernicious error that some poets (those especially who neither understand or engage in, business, much) are trying to spread, because it relieves them of having to face the wider horror of an abysmal culture barely poetry literate.
Instead, small presses like my own have gone out of our way to make books beautiful to hold, read, and share - by excellent poets - accessible and/or innovative - writing on subjects of great current interest - the economy, ecology, desire, love, sex, politics, humour, time, life, faith, science - that could hardly be of a wider range. The books are priced the same or less as novels of the same standard, and can be found in local shops and online, easily. They get reviews so people can hear about them and there are also plenty of readings, tweets, posts and status updates, to get the news out and about. There is no stone or bulletin left unturned. It is hard to imagine a serious poetry lover or reader in the UK who has not by now seen or heard of, our books.
So - why do (our) poetry books sell on average 250 copies or so - the same amount that Keats and Pound sold for their early debuts, 200 and 100 years ago, more or less?
Is there a law of the universe that most poetry sells a few hundred copies?
Well, we know that famous poets, poets on radio and TV, and poets who win or are listed for prizes may sell 500, or 1,500, or even 5,000 copies, but that's rare. I dare poets to come forward with their sales figures. I know over a thousand poets, personally and well enough to consider them colleagues, and maybe 1% sells over 2,000 copies of any one of their collections.
Am I wrong?
If so, tell me how to sell more poetry books.
Meanwhile, let me remind you, the reader, of one thing: every time you don't make a poetry purchase, that poetry press lacks a sale. And, sooner, or later, without funding or patronage, presses that don't sell a lot of books have to close.
Simple as that. Salt cut its brilliant poetry list to the bone, not because the publisher hates poetry (he loves it) but because it ceased to make business sense.
Poets tend to forget that most small press publishers risk savings, and marriages or partnerships, to work for years on end, often unpaid, for very little in return. The least they should expect is that people who read, and enjoy, and appreciate poetry, should stump up and keep buying their books.
Not buying poetry books - and there are a million good reasons, but only give them to me if you are unemployed and never buy alcohol, tobacco, or food in restaurants - is like saying you love the environment, but never recycle. It's like wanting a democracy, and not voting.
Poetry book non-buying is the great shame and taboo of British poetry - most poets I know don't buy books, often. Sure, they may be underpaid and struggling, but they likely make as much or more than small press publishers. My salary is currently zero, and I work 30 hours a week and more on my press.
There is a kind of NOMS - Not On My Shelves - idea - that it's a nice idea that other people buy books, just not me. Of course it will always mean a sacrifice, and one can't buy all the poetry books, but - and only if - if one actually wants a small press to survive, wishes won't be enough. You need to support them, by buying books.
Salt is often derided for its ill-fated "Just One Book" campaign - but why? As a press, it has the ugly job - embarrassing to many poets - of actually trying to sell the damn stuff.
100s of poets send me submissions each month. Do they realise their book will cost thousands of pounds to edit, design, proofread, print, and launch? Poets and poetry readers forget that poetry books are labour intensive, time consuming things to get right. You can't just conjure them. At some stage, people are going to have to spend hundreds of hours on each book.
I want to keep Eyewear going. I think we are now publishing poetry books as good or better than anyone else's in the world - as stylish, as well-written, and, usually, as well distributed (in the UK at least). But I can't keep Eyewear going forever, unless we sell out the books we publish. You wouldn't expect a news agent to stay open every day on the off chance you might pop in once a year for a lottery ticket, would you? You'd understand they needed sales every day.
If you love Eyewear books, share the idea of them with as many friends as possible, and, yes, please, try and buy at least one of our books each year - better still, join our book club. Otherwise, don't blame me when the small presses close.