Another week: another poetry publisher waves for the third time at the crowd of spectators on the shore, and sinks back through the placid waters into the primordial ooze, with barely a ripple to mark the place where it was last seen.
Excuse me sir – did you see what happened?
No, not really. One minute there was a head bobbing out there. At least, I think it was a head. Definitely something round. With a bit sticking up out of the water.
Sticking out of the water?
Yeah. Could have been a hand. Or a leg. Waggling about a bit. An arm. Or a leg. Or I suppose (smirks) it could have been his—
Yes, thank you sir, lets leave it there. You’ve been very helpful. (To the crowd) Move along now please, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to see here. Move along.
The ecconomics of poetry publishing have always been on the faith-healing side of the economic ledger. There has never been a time when it was a money-making proposition in its own right – although there have been individual poets who sold well enough to earn their publishers some actual money, they were and are a minority.
How bad is it really? Well, Gary Mex Glazner’s book How to Make a Living as a Poet includes a standard breakdown of book costs, provided by Ireland’s Salmon Press. Assuming a typical 80 page poetry collection, selling at a recommended retail price of €9.00, the costs are as follows:
|fees for overseas distribution||€1.00|
|total costs and discounts||€12.13|
|loss per book||€3.13|
* bookshop & author & other discounts
average 55% of retail price
The cynical (and yes, I am one of them) would say that it used to be that poetry was felt to give a certain cachet to a publisher’s list: proof that they were in fact civilised beings, and not rapacious philistine pimps determined to get every last cent out of their authors. But also because poetry is an acknowledged artform. One of those things that have no obvious financial virtue, but which help to shape and define a country (and a culture)’s identity. It’s one reason why university presses exist – to look after things which we need, but which don’t belong in/to the marketplace. Research, exploration, discussion; all the things that shape minds, and open doors we don’t even know exist. Knowledge for its own sake. And to preserve things that people believe should be preserved. This is one of the reasons why there was such a huge outcry when Oxford University Press decided to close their poetry list back in 1998/9. (I should mention that the list has since been partially resurrected by/in association with Carcanet Press.)
As I type this, there are poets I know who are nervously waiting to see if their books will ever be published, or if their publisher will call it a day and their collections – fought over, sweated over, pimped and polished and accepted for publication – will be pulped. Even Salt – surely the most vigorously marketed poetry list on the planet – have had to make public appeals for people who care to put their money where it helps and buy just one book. (Good campaign: and it may even be working.)
The world is going to hell. (Again.) So along with saving power and water and the whales, save a publisher. Buy a book of poetry. It’s a ridiculously simple thing to do, but it could make a huge difference. (If it turns out you don’t like it, join BookMooch and give it to someone else who might!) If you can’t afford to buy it yourself, go into your local library and ask them to buy it. It all adds up.