Poetry 101 – Building the Brand

046It’s a supply and demand problem. We’ve got some amazing new poetry in the UK at the moment, but nobody wants it. Ever since Salt Publishing announced (well, sort of, there wasn’t exactly a Press Release) that it would no longer publish any new poetry, apart from anthologies, there’s been a round of agonised hand-wringing in the poetry world. Poets want to know why it is so hard to publish poetry books, and why, when they are published, they barely sell more than a couple of hundred copies. Poets who have their first collection out want to know why they are permanently classed as ‘emerging’ rather than ‘established’ poets. There has been talk of the End of Poetry.

At the root of the problem is this; poetry in this country is a subculture (or maybe a cult). It’s generally only the people who write poetry who also read poetry, because they are the only people who really understand it and have their ears and brains attuned to it. Even some of the people who write the stuff don’t know how cringingly bad their work is, because they don’t read enough of it to have an appreciation of what good poetry looks and sounds like.

I earned my MBA from London Business School. I could (and I might) spend time drawing up a Porter’s Five Forces diagram for poetry, or doing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. There are poets who would shudder at the idea that poetry might even be amenable to such commercial dissection, and I will address some of the less ‘monetisable’ aspects of it in a later post. In brief, though, poetry needs to make a profit, or at least break even, before it can be published. Some people may subsidise the magazines they run, but for most of us that’s not viable and I maintain it shouldn’t be necessary. So, there are four ways we can consider making a positive difference to the margin:

1. Charge more for the product.

This probably isn’t going to work. It generally only works if people are clamouring to buy the product in the first place, and scarcity (c.f. designer handbags) adds value to the proposition. Although, I will say that one bookshop I know sells a lot of American poetry books, and the shop owner believes this is because they are beautiful objects in their own right; smooth paper, attractive typefaces, good typesetting with plenty of white space, luxury endpaper, gorgeous covers. The poetry gift market, maybe. Certainly books to treasure.

There’s also something to be said for ensuring that the quality of the actual poetry between those covers is high. Every poem needs to earn its place in a collection, there’s no room for fillers and makeweights. The skilled editor is key in this endeavour. Maybe there are too few of them around. Maybe those who are around, are unappreciated.

2. Charge less for the product.

This only makes sense if it helps you shift more stock, which is unlikely. Maybe there is a market for poetry downloads for Kindle, or poetry apps. One thing we shouldn’t do is make actual printed books look any cheaper or tackier. There’s such a thing as a ‘value signal’. I’m fond of the Stella Artois approach; reassuringly expensive. I don’t think there is much call for discount poetry.

As for low quality poetry; well, Pam Ayres, Helen Steiner Rice and Patience Strong have always sold well. Hallmark Cards are still in business. There is a lowest common denominator approach that hinges on giving the people what they think they want, rather than giving them something wonderful. Reality TV works on that premise. I’m assuming that most poets don’t want to go there. I certainly don’t.

3. Upgrade the Product.

This is a bit radical, but examples of it working are already available. If printed single-poet collections don’t sell (unless you are Seamus Heaney or Carol-Ann Duffy, or indeed, Pam Ayres), then sell your poetry in other formats. Spoken Word events are thriving, and poets who mostly perform their work seem to be appreciated by a growing ‘youth’ audience. Crossover with rap music is helpful, as poets like Kate Tempest (recently endorsed on twitter by Stan Collymore) have found. Poets who have been genre-busting for decades, like John Hegley and John Cooper Clarke, have found their audiences by getting out into comedy and music, respectively. It hasn’t done their careers any harm. It certainly helps to be accessible, but it may not be the place for every earnest experimental poet. It’s also a tough, gigging lifestyle, like being a stand-up comic. Not everyone is well-placed to do that.

Anthologies sell well. Bloodaxe have produced ‘Being Human’, ‘Staying Human’ and ‘Identity Parade’; the first two of these, at least, have stretched out beyond the usual poetry audience. Salt are cannily hanging on to the annual ‘Best British Poetry’ anthologies and have recently showcased new talent in ‘Salt Younger Poets’. But having read one or two excellent poems in those books, how many general readers then go on to look for more work by the poets they enjoyed? It doesn’t translate into sales.

Themed ‘Poetry Projects’ are fashionable at the moment. ‘Binders Full of Women’, ‘Poems for Pussy Riot’ and ‘Penning Perfumes’ address particular topics and cause a buzz in the poetry world. Publications are sometimes secondary to performance, and kudos to anybody who runs any of those performances outside London.  (It seems the ‘poetry set’ really believe that putting on a gig in a pub in Clerkenwell is central to national culture – to which I would say, it is necessary but not sufficient, because these gigs rarely engage anyone who isn’t already in the poetry world. Where are they advertised? – mostly to a bunch of known poets who haunt the right pages of Facebook.)

4. Expand the Market

I’ve been told that the market for poetry in this country is between 5,000 and 10,000 people, most of whom also write poetry. In a country of over sixty million, it isn’t hard to deduce that we could do better.

The market segment we should be aiming at, in the first instance, are those who are educated, and enjoy other aspects of the arts, but never, ever, pick up a book of poems unless they are choosing something to read at a wedding or a funeral. If I were a marketing manager working for UK Poetry plc, I’d call this market segment the ‘Nearly Theres’.  They buy music, by CD or download; they will appreciate the lyrics of a singer / songwriter and might go to gigs or festivals. They love literary fiction and clamour for the new Booker Prize shortlist. They might venture to the theatre to see some fairly serious plays. They watch BBC 4 history documentaries, and read the arts review pages in the weekend newspapers. They would love poetry, but they don’t know they need it.

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When I’ve asked friends of mine who don’t read poetry, why they don’t read poetry, they put forward two major complaints:

A)     It is all about clouds and butterflies and full of ‘doth’ and ‘hath’ and is generally soppy, impenetrable and does not engage them with its subject matter. They are a bit worried about having to listen to a lot of embarrassing soul-bearing.This view is caused largely by lack of exposure to contemporary poetry. You may say that things are better at school now, with anthologies that stretch to Duffy, Armitage and Zephaniah, but in order to access the sixty million, we do also need to reach people who were at school a while ago.

B)      It is frightening and intimidating. They fear they won’t understand it because they are not clever enough. They think poetry is a pastime for the elite. One friend of mine said this:

“I don’t know anything about poetry and I don’t know where to start. I’m afraid that I’ll say things such as ‘I like that because I see the picture of the glorious scenery in my head’ only to be stared at and laughed at by intelligent people and discover it’s actually about early twentieth century Soviet Gulags and that I’ve missed the point entirely.”

I think this is also partly caused by the way poetry has been taught. Students are taught to dissect poetry, looking for alliteration, synechdoche and so on, but are never asked how the poem made them feel, what they like about the sound and rhythm of it, what the poem conjures up for them, how it makes them think differently about the world. It’s like telling a mechanic to strip and rebuild a car engine, then asking her what it feels like to drive the Nurburgring. We’ve failed to transmit the enthusiasm, or indeed the purpose, of the poem.

I do not think it is a hopeless task to engage vastly more people in poetry. I know it can be done, because it happened to me. And here’s my evangelical conversion story: I read, and wrote, a little poetry at school as an adolescent. Doesn’t everybody? I went into my twenties with a handful of poetry books to my name; a Golden Treasury of Poetry, The Faber Book of 20th Century Verse, a collected Betjeman, and Penguin Modern Poets – The Mersey Sound. That was it. I studied Life Sciences, got a job in the pharmaceutical industry, and became a Nearly There. What made the difference to my poetic journey? Three things:

  • A friend bought me Wendy Cope’s Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis as a birthday present. Light, accessible, but also engaging, well-crafted, and funny.
  • I heard an interview with Alice Oswald on Radio 4’s Front Row, listened to her read some excerpts, and immediately ordered a copy of Dart from Amazon.
  • An on-line friend showed me some poems he had written. I realised that Normal People both read and write poetry. I started noodling around with writing poetry myself. I began reading again with the accessible end of the list. I needed a little exposition to move on to something more chewy. I’m still not completely there with the elliptical and associative stuff, but I’m open to learning.

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So, in short, I don’t believe it is hopeless, but I think the key to saving poetry is to push it out to a much, much wider audience. It will take some radical re-thinking of how poetry works. I don’t know whether contemporary poets have the appetite for this, or whether they quite like being part of an initiated elite, indulging in something that is not a commercial proposition, but only a kind of mystical one.

I realise I haven’t got down to the big questions; how to engage more people with contemporary poetry, and indeed, why. I’ll save both of those ideas for later.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Poetry 101 – Building the Brand

  1. 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. 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, I’m doing it, 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.

    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 three answers would be:

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

    2. 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 woth 19 times as much as a sale from other places due to all the middle men. Think about it.

    3. 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.

    • Thanks Adele – I particularly liked your point about buying a book if you want to keep re-reading it. I wonder if we are trying to sell poetry or trying to sell books. There might be a difference!

    • Quite a few poetry publishers do see themselves as doing charitable work – continuing to subsidise their loss-making magazines for example, and not ever expecting to see a profit. Also, poets like us are asked to give work away for free, which in itself is a value signal about what we think poetry is worth.

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