Friday, 31 May 2013

Can Poetry Publishing Pay For Itself?

I was asked to answer this question on another blog (by the poet Judi Sutherland), following on from the closure of some publishing companies, and the decision of  one of the main companies, Salt Publishing, not to publish single poetry collections any more. My answer grew so lengthy that I think I should blog it!

I’ve been involved in poetry since the 1970s and it has never paid. This discussion has gone on throughout the decades, so we aren’t in a situation where poetry is somehow doing worse. In fact I can see poetry is more popular than it has ever been (you can see that by the participation all over the internet and the thriving live events all over the UK and Ireland).

People talk about print runs of 1,000 in the old days, but I have been told publishers used to get funding if they said they needed a print run of 1,000 and they sent out loads of free copies to dispose of them. A friend of mine used to get 5 review copies of each book by some publishers. There were regions that were particularly known for getting this kind of funding and publishers acively moved there to get it. This is why there’s still some doubt over whether funding should be allocated specifically to print runs. It’s quite hard for a poet to know how many free copies have been sent out, although I’m sure some big name poets sold well and would know by the royalty figures how many books were bought.

I also think we’re in a much better situation for poetry sales than the one I remember in the 70s, 80s and 90s, thanks to the internet and the ease of finding and buying poetry collections. I used to have to travel from Canterbury to the Compendium Bookshop in Camden, London, to buy poetry because you just couldn’t find a selection in bookshops. And I’m sure the Compendium was good but didn’t stock all the poets I would like to have found.

The problem isn’t whether or not poetry is popular, or whether or not it’s easy to buy books. The problem is that people enjoy poetry in many ways (my teenage sons loved it at school too, so education isn’t the problem as all their mates enjoyed it and even wrote it), but people don’t want to buy books.

Why don’t they buy poetry books? They only buy a poetry book if it’s so special to them that they want to read it over and over again so they want to keep it on their shelf. They have to buy a novel to read the whole thing, but they can hear whole poems at events and hear and read whole poems on the internet. They don’t have to buy the book. And it would be a mistake not to share our poems online or at events because…. 90% of poetry book sales are at readings and you absolutely have to have a following. What makes some books so special that people want to buy them and keep reading them? That’s one of the things that makes a poetry collection sell and we all know which books we have on our shelves for that reason and what it is that makes them collectable.

It’s great reading all the ideas from various people who have suggested what publishers should be doing to sell more books, and I always look in the hope of seeing something I haven’t tried. But publishers really have tried all of it and much more. I sometimes think many publishers don’t like to depress poets by telling them how much is done behind the scenes.

All of our books are easily available on Amazon and for bookshops to stock. I have book reps going round the UK, Ireland and parts of France continually repping the books to shops. I see bloggers saying that getting books into shops would help and they think publishers don’t try, but it’s really hard getting poetry into shops (managers tell me they can only sell the famous names) and bookshops stocking a book don’t make a definite sale – unless a customer goes in and buy it, the books do all get sent back for a full refund. That’s the standard way retail works in bookselling.

Publishers aren’t stopping now because the situation is worse. There has always been a turnover of publishers, with new ones setting up and some closing down. When I set up Ward Wood, Roddy Lumsden warned me not to, and told me that over the years he had seen so many publishers set up then stop when they got ‘exhausted, bored, or bankrupt’. We each step in and take our turn as part of the collective effort, and it’s the collective effort that’s another of the answers to this problem. I won’t be closing down though – I don’t want to suggest that, but it’s normal that there is a turnover of poetry publishers.

It really is hard work promoting poetry, and it’s like hitting your head on a wall. You can be very experienced at PR (I am) and do a massive amount of work to see a trickle of sales at the end of it. And each sale feels like a halleluia moment.

The amount of work I have had to put into promotion and sorting out the distribution channel has meant I no longer had time to do my paid work – I had to give up £400 per week as a freelance journalist and webcontent writer (I didn't realise this was going to happen and might not have taken the risk if I had known). And poetry publishing work is non-income. So when people suggest all the extra marketing work that could be done, bear in mind that it all takes time, and that time is also something that takes away your income. I could only do it because my father died soon after I started Ward Wood and left me some savings.

Poetry sells in the lower hundreds with a lot of work by the publisher and the poet. Sales and income aren't everything. An excellent book, good promotion, and hopefully some additional successes like award wins and shortlists, all help establish a poet's name. I always tell authors I can try my best with sales and we do sell as well or better than many other similar presses, but one thing I can guarantee is that a good publisher can help an author get noticed and establish a name and good reputation. It isn't all about money, although money is clearly a problem if it's making companies run at a loss and close.

But we do it. We do it because we believe in poetry with a passion. That’s why publishers have always stepped in to keep publishing outlets open and I suppose they always will. I hope ebooks will help poetry in the way I find they help novels and I’m starting to believe that they will. I’ll be experimenting with 5-day free promotions to see if they boost sales after the free period. This has really worked with fiction and it would be a pity if it didn’t work with poetry. It would cut the cost of the print run (although I always also have print books as they’re so important for the way poetry sells at events and for people who want a treasured signed copy to read many times). Ebooks can also have a low cost and still help as the number of sales is higher, and a low cost doesn’t seem to cut into print book sales for some reason, it boosts print book sales too.

So my answers would be:

1. Publishers probably need to be selling something else and not just poetry. Our fiction does help but I wouldn't say it's easy to sell novels. It is a specialisation and we're up against competition from the very big players and their huge promotional budgets with novels. Nonfiction is probably a good idea and is the bestselling form.

2. Supporting ebooks to help poetry publishers who make them available. Even if you hate Amazon, you can really help publishers by buying their ebooks.

3. For print books buy direct from the publisher’s website rather than Amazon. You might be surprised to find publishers have great discounts on price, much better than Amazon. Each sale from our website is worth 19 times as much as a sale from other places due to all the middle men. Think about it.

4. The very simple answer – just buy books. Unfortunately, even the poets and poetry lovers aren’t buying enough books, not by a long shot. If you want publishing outlets to stay open you do have to buy their products.

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