Saturday, June 01, 2013

Ripples on a smooth sea, or storm in a teacup?

The news that my publisher, Salt, was stopping publishing single collections following a drop-off in sales was alarming. Not only was Salt best known for its poetry, but having gone through a few choppy waters, had appointed a renowned poetry editor, Roddy Lumsden, had had a successful series of anthologies, and was finally seeing commerical success through its fiction arm, and the Booker shortlisted "The Lighthouse." In the way of things, the Guardian, who has conspicuously not reviewed most of Salt's single collections over the years, wrote it up as a news story primarily about the market for poetry. As a counter balance, Billy Mills made the counter-case that one publisher's decision isn't the last rites for poetry, and that poetry is actually thriving.

Serious as I am about my writing, I'm an amatuer writer in one sense: I've never got paid for it - and so I do look on these things with differing perspectives; as a writer, (and as someone published by Salt and in two of the award-winning anthologies mentioned by Billy Mills I guess I can declare an interest), and as a reader. When I hear of a falling off of sales - I wonder where from? I certainly buy more poetry now than I did five, ten, fifteen years ago. Many of these books haven't even got an ISBN. There's certainly more fish in the pool - so I don't think anyone will be making a living out of my largesse; still with books, magazines and readings, I contribute quite a few quid to the local (and wider) literary scenes. Where were these readers who have left off buying poetry? Poets are always poor - and, though much is talked about "poetry on the internet", you'll still be hard-pressed to find much work by published poets on there. I've been saying for years that this is stupid - that making poetry books available to download might actually increase sales rather than decrease them. The devil, I suspect, is in the detail.

Yet Salt did one thing very well; their books were lovely things; better even than Fabers in some ways; and with a much more contemporary look than Bloodaxe for instance. Only Carcanet look quite so well-formed on my shelves. I've bought Armitage,Berry and Riviere from Faber, Donahaye, Kennard, McCabe, Goldsworthy, Croggan and McCullough from Salt, Ivory, Williams and Wright from Bloodaxe and Ashbery, Murray, Welton and Letford from Carcanet in the last couple of years. A good spread, I think, though a mix of the well-seasoned favourites and the bright and bursting newcomers. All lists have their bigger names and more stable favourites, and I guess whoever you are, you need to nurture those if you are going to be able to take risks on the new. I've still no idea why Salt has done so badly in Poetry Book Society Recommendations or Guardian reviews, but Armitage aside I'm not sure when I last bought a PBS recommendation.

Bookshops are still important for picking up books - and you'll rarely find contemporary poetry from any of our publishers in these bookshops. The market may well have changed irreversibly; yet its hard to know really. I do think, same as anything else, a poetry book (or a poet) needs to have had some reviews, to have good word of mouth, to have some contemporary relevance and to be available: and though there are good books out there - not so many get all of these: and where one does (William Letford's "Bevel" for instance), its a tiny splash. In the small world of poetry publishing, there seems an unusually close relationship between press and poet - certainly no big transfer fees between them (though I notice the new Sophie Hannah revised Selected is from Penguin, not Carcanet.)  Yet as the above list proves: I'm not one to choose one press above another as a reader. (Though I don't seem to have much of a liking for Cape or Picador's mainstream lists.)

So we get a bit of a storm in a teacup that makes me think that if I had a large fortune, maybe now would be the time to turn into a small one, by becoming a poetry publisher. I can think of half a dozen Salt poets I'd pick up immediately, and perhaps another half dozen from the Modern Voices series that I'd also find time for. I'm sure some enterprising individual is probably doing the same thing right now. Yes, there is no money in poetry, but as someone else said, there is no poetry in money either.

It may all turn out to be ripples on a smooth sea - Salt may have just been unlucky, publishing widely at a time of industry upheaval, gave it a good strong list, but also without the history to back it up, and, with a back catalogue of 400 or so collections nothing stops them coming back into the market in a few years if they felt it was worth doing so. Poetry as I know it is a cottage industry. Yet culturally its more important than a few jars of home made marmalade. I think that "audience" has long been neglected - both by publishers and bookshops who've not known what to do with their poetry (and that includes long neglect of electronic dissemination) and by the arts establishment. Was it Saatchi's touting of the YBAs or the Turner Prize and Tate Modern that made contemporary art both successful and edgy? I'm not sure; but it was certainly not by "dumbing down" and introducing a National Art Day where we all paint pictures of village greens; which is pretty much where the National Poetry Day has found itself. I've always felt the audience - if there is one - for poetry needs to come from left field; and certainly I've seen large audiences for poetry in Manchester on a regular basis than for Booker listed novelists. The difference is that the poetry reading is the art, whilst the book launch is merely a promotional tour to support it.

Not all of those in the room will have bought a poetry book: but all will have experienced the scene. A little ripple here and there doesn't stop us from seeing the calm straits of the blue ocean: if the horizon is only in our imagination, and really this is no bigger than a duckpond, then I don't much mind: perhaps we're okay in our skiffs, and don't need an ocean liner.

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