"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Monday, 26 August 2013

Do People Still Buy Poetry?

Charlotte Mew
The news that the estimable CB Editions run by Charles Boyle is planning to wind itself up next year has been greeted with shock and regret by those who value individualistic, innovative and enterprising small press publishing.  Charles Boyle gives his reasons on his Facebook page and there have been, naturally, many comments.  But it seems to me that, in addition to the obvious factors such as the difficulty of the market, the reluctance of bookshops to host small press publications, the failure of public funding bodies to work out how to help small publishers in practical non-bureaucratic ways, there is a more fundamental issue: no one seems to be buying new poetry very much.  [Try sampling a Facebook parcel of poets' posts and see how rarely anyone reports breathlessly having bought someone's new collection and enjoyed it and is telling others to go out and buy it.  If poets themselves don't buy each other in numbers then we are in trouble.]

All poetry publishers, great and small, have been finding that sales are dropping though it is worth reminding ourselves that there never has been a golden age.  I used to admire the volumes in the Oxford University Press list in the 1970s and 1980s but I was told recently that the actual sales figures were surprisingly low.  I am reading at the moment the Collected Poems of Charlotte Mew published by Gerald Duckworth in 1953.  In the introduction by Alida Munro, wife of the Poetry Bookshop proprietor Harold Monro, she reveals that, exceptionally, 500 copies of Mew's debut collection The Farmer's Bride were published in 1929 when the Poetry Bookshop's normal print run was 250.  The Poetry Bookshop (and I have written elsewhere about this in my The Red Sweet Wine of Youth: The British Poets of the First World War and more recently Matthew Hollis has covered similar ground in his biography of Edward Thomas) was at the centre of British poetry in the years just before and during the First World War.  Anyone who cared about the future of poetry would know that the Imagists and Georgians championed by Monro were where it was at.  The history of modern poetry has confirmed this but...250 copies.

It sometimes feels that the poetry readership is finite, that all the marketing and tweeting in the world won't get it into four figures for a new book, but that can't be accepted passively so what do we do?  Is it that people are lazy and can't make the effort of special attention that poetry needs to yield up its pleasures?  I don't think we should blame the readers.  I would offer two explanations.  The first is that we lack proper criticism.  Strong, reliable, discriminating reviewers and critics (not eloquent puffs from the poet's friends masquerading as a book review) could help sort out the wheat from the chaff. I believe (maybe because I can't face the consequences of not believing) that if people are put in touch with the very best poetry being written they will buy it and read it as they still do, to some extent, in the case of quality literary fiction. But reviewing just now is partial, selective, lacking in critical authority and doesn't even perform the basic function of telling us what has come out.  Excellent new books of poetry sometimes receive no reviews at all. So unless you happen to be lucky enough to stumble on one of those books they remain silent phantoms in a warehouse or on the poet's Mum's mantlepiece. Some form of comprehensive monthly listing with short reviews would enable us at least to know what was out there.

Secondly, we need to improve the marketing and distribution of poetry, to get it into the bookshops.  Booksellers like Foyles need to wake up and start stocking small press poetry for starters.  The funds of the Arts Council for England, Literature Wales etc need to be used to set up some sort of network for small poetry presses, a kind of affordable Inpress that you didn't have to pay to join that was the equivalent of Italian olive growers banding together as co-operatives to market their produce.  A pilot project, some hard-headed research, some practical scheme for helping poets and their readers get in touch with each other, would be far more helpful than individual grants to poets.

In the end if the poetry being offered to readers is no good then they can't be blamed for declining to sample it but I believe that there is enough decent poetry being published to tempt them if they can be enabled to locate it.  Otherwise poetry will die from neglect.  And that, we can all agree, is unthinkable.


Unknown said...

most poetry books are priced too high . . . they cost too much. The cost of producing them could be lowered via Print on Demand etc and online sales venues, but assuming they could be cheaper (which I think would be possible if the fetish practices of most publishers could be cured), even if poetry books cost less than 4 dollars (as many of my self-publications do), would they reach a wider audience— not mine, of course, nobody wants my books, but real poets, authentic poets could perhaps find more readers by reducing their book prices, perhaps?

Nicholas Murray said...

I am not sure about this. Make a comparison with a comparable experience as I did, with a theatre ticket, a football ticket, a CD or DVD. Poetry books and pamphlets have short runs which make them individually more expensive than if they were produced in their thousands. Is price really the issue here? Really? I think the reason for people not reading (buying) poetry is more to do with the other issues I discussed. Maybe some people through the internet have developed an expectation that everything is free and a poem is found under a cabbage leaf. Poets don't expect profit but paper and ink cost something.

Rik said...

Bill is entirely right. Poetry books are massively over-priced.

As to re-popularising poetry, that starts and ends (in my not so humble opinion) in the classrooms. Poems need to be taught and shared as things to enjoy, to start a conversation, to see/feel things in a different way. They can't do that when they're pinned out on the textbook dissection block, being examined for iambs and rhymes - being 'taught' to kids purely because the syllabus requires it and the exam demands it.

Poetry IS fun. It's as much a part of every person's life as playing, or flirting. Stop killing it in the classroom, and future generations might start buying the stuff we write for ... pleasure!

Nicholas Murray said...

I agree absolutely about the need to stimulate a love of poetry at school; that's how all the poets I know began by discovering the richness and potential of it from gifted teachers. But I am puzzled by this "overpriced" issue. Is poetry any more expensive than any other kind of book? I am currently reading John Barnie's "The Roaring Boys" (Cinnamon), one of the best poetry books of the past 12 months. It is priced at £7.99 and I think it's great value for money.

charles said...

I too am puzzled by the price issue. What kind of price would stimulate sales? And then factor in author advance/royalties, production costs, free review copies, etc … In general (and I’m aware this doesn’t apply to much poetry), the cover price of UK books is forced up by discounting by Amazon and other retail outlets: if a significant proportion of sales are going to come through Amazon, which will sell at a large discount, the publisher will raise the cover price to maintain its own margin. France and Germany don’t have this issue, as discounting is restricted by law to as little as 5%.

Yvonne said...

I buy poetry books whenever I can afford to, which isn't very often, as it seems people don't buy copy writing very often either.

Paul said...

I don't think poetry volumes are expensive but they probably feel like it because they're slim. Yet although people are content to pay £6 for a novel they'll read once in a week, they think twice about buying a £8 book of poetry which they might come back to many times, and which might take a month to read properly. (And, of course, there's £10+ to see a film, £20+ for a good theatre ticket, £30+ for a football ticket. Let's face it: an £8 poetry book is just a couple of pints.)

So it's partly unfamiliarity with the processes of reading poetry, as much as the unfamiliarity of the poets themselves.

I agree about reviewing and definitely about short reviews. One of my gripes about the single poetry review in the Guardian each week is that they're usually dense and incomprehensible; written for poetry insiders and scholars, not general readers. So more reviews, please, but more readable reviews too.

Anonymous said...

I agree - it's most likely a sad consequence of the Internet revolution. Anyone can publish poetry and everyone drowns in the "free market" which kills the real market. I think it will come back and take new turns rather than dying out. There's a dip now and it has been before as well - in Sweden the poetry market is slowly growing bigger again through different things such as poetry slam, anthologies etcetera. And I'm happy to see that your post engages a lot of people!

Nicholas Murray said...

Thank you, Katarina, I am glad too that people think this is worth airing. We are all on the same side on this one, wishing to see poetry more available and enjoyed. Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Press left a Facebook post which revived his idea of an Arts Council bookshop (which in fact there used to be in Sackville Street off Piccadilly). He also points out that the Poetry Society runs a caff but not a bookshop.

Anonymous said...

I seldom buy poetry, but that's possibly because it's rare for a poet to speak to me enough to want to hold a volume in my hands. But I do buy.
I do like very much the little, bespoke, quirky, handmade collections where it feels as if the poet has had me in mind all along.
Michele Brenton gifted me with a handmade chapbook that I have treasured and reread, entitled Useless Woman.

Unknown said...

We are hosting a poetry festival in defense of the the famous Mamilla Cemtery in Jerusalem as a dialogue with memory. During the course of this project it has become evident that many people don't want to do the hard, sometimes time-consuming work of reading poetry; that they have lost contact (or ability to access) non-discursive knowledge. That's why they aren't buying poetry books.

Caroline M Davies said...

Thought provoking post Nicholas.

I think that Maryvelma's comment comes closest to the crux of the problem. Although it's not simply about it being hard work but people often seem afraid of poetry, they think it will be too difficult and will make them feel stupid for not understanding it. It certainly behoves those of us who do read poetry to engage other people. I'm currently doing abuddy read of Wilfred Owen's poetry with a couple of people on Good Reads who possibly wouldn't have embarked on something like that without encouragement.

Getting more or in some cases any poetry into bookshops may help but is only part of the answer and only for those of us who still buy books. My children much prefer to read ebooks and if they want to find out about something or to be entertained they go to youtube. I see some of Kate Tempest's offerings have had 60,000 or more views on there so perhaps all is not lost?

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that poetry is far more variable than prose. I read a lot of new novels but very little poetry. I get review copies sent to me which is why I read them because I honestly wouldn’t pay the money they’re asking for them. It’s not that I’m a mean Scot; I have a limited budget and I think before I spend £8 on anything. Even when I was working I rarely bought new books. I’d buy two, three or four second-hand books instead. I was the same with music. If Pink Floyd released a new album tomorrow I’d be first in the queue but I’m not sure I’ll be in a rush to be amongst the first to read the new Salinger when it comes out.

The problem I have with poetry is that I don’t like much of it. I’ve written the stuff for forty years but very few poets do anything for me. All my heroes are dead men. Occasionally I’ll read a single poem that’ll make me sit up—the Internet is wonderful that way—but, for me, they’re pretty much one hit wonders. The poetry I like is the poetry I write. I would love, simply love, to find out there’s another Larkin or Williams out there. There may be technically proficient poets writing today—although how to tell, how to tell?—but technique is not everything: Bukowski and Brautigan lacked technique but they made up for it in heart.

The issue though is not whether the poetry on offer is good. It’s whether it’s capable of connecting with its readers. It’s a big world out there and you can’t appeal to everyone but there’s someone for everyone. Mostly younger readers don’t know how to read poetry. I mean that in a broad sense—they can read a poem and get it—but they don’t know where Poetry fits into their lives. Novels and short stories have a place—often on public transport—but who sits down after a hard day’s graft and reaches a hand out for an anthology of poetry?

I got into poetry at school. Schools are full of poets, mostly bad ones admittedly, but the young get the need to write poems. Most lose it by the time they reach eighteen—everyone’s a poet at eighteen but not many still at forty—and so the time to win them over is limited. That’s who you need to market to. But where do they go for stuff? Not bookshops. Online. And poetry is certainly alive and well on the Internet. But it’s like everything on the Internet, how the hell do you find the good stuff? Typing ‘poetry’ into Google really isn’t going to help much.