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This item is taken from PN Review 55, Volume 13 Number 5, May - June 1987.

PN Review 56 will be given over to a survey of poetry publishing, with introductions and anthologies by the editors of most of the leading British poetry imprints. Guest editor Michael Abbott will present, in a neutral spirit, the range of publishers' interests and the quality of the work they choose to foreground. The issue is published in connection with a promotion called Poetry Live, initiated by Desmond Clarke who until recently was Marketing Director of Faber and Faber. Poetry Live may involve as many as two thousand bookshops, as well as libraries and other institutions throughout the country, for two weeks of activities. The project is supported by major trade chains and organizations. To raise the profile of poetry - or rather, Poetry; to fill the windows of bookshops with poetry books and theatres with performing poets; to sell more books, to get people in the habit of buying poetry books. . . It is a marketing exercise in the spirit of the 'Best of British' and 'Best of Young British' promotions of past years. Inevitably it has certain forms of rhetoric, certain distortions built in, certain assumptions which puzzle and annoy the purist. It begins from the premise that there is a Poetry Boom, something unprecedented in the history of British publishing.

Is there really a poetry boom? We shall find out in a couple of months' time. The evidence we have to go on so far is partial. Because marketing people assert that something radical is happening, and the literary media are eager to believe the rumours and incapable of analysing the statistics with which they are presented, the evidence that reaches us is untried. It's worth remembering certain facts which make the boom look bubblish.

During the recession of the 1970s many poetry lists died or went dormant, including those of Macmillan, Gollancz, Sidgwick, Dent and Deutsch. Faber, Oxford, Routledge and Penguin produced, for a time, little new verse. None of these lists has recovered momentum, whatever the impact of marketing on backlist sales.

In the 1970s, the readiest money to be made from poetry came from publishing anthologies, of which there was a spate, resulting in the inflation of copyright fees, a subject touched on often in these pages. Anthologies address various markets, but preeminently academic ones. Contemporary poetry is a growth area in the secondary and tertiary curricula. There is now a lucrative and easily locatable market. But it is a market for set anthology texts and for a very narrow range of individual authors.

When the Poetry Book Society changed its policy a couple of years ago, it declared that it could double its membership (which then stood at roughly 1000) by offering incentives and adopting a more costly but professional approach to marketing. At the last count its membership had grown by just over 20%.

Is it credible that in ten years an 'industry' that has been in operation for a matter of centuries should have developed so dramatically away from its traditional commercial marginality? Beyond the academic community, is there actually a greatly increased general readership? Has the world of bookselling and of reading radically changed? This is what we are asked to believe.

There are important, if not irreversible, developments in the world of bookselling, and they must be taken into account. W. H. Smith, for example, moved decidedly back into serious books, making available from or through its shops a range of titles which previously could be found only in a few main branches, if there. W. H. Smith now carry poetry not only in the Sherratt and Hughest branches but in most of the major outlets. Waterstones shops welcome poetry. The Blackwells group has long been congenial to the art. In a town where one shop has a good poetry department, others tend to open their doors, too.

Trade developments have been accompanied by more professional 'packaging' of poetry by publishers, by improvements in cover (though not in text) design, and by a relative reduction in the price of poetry books.

The book trade and general public have been alerted to the Poetry Live promotion. Publishers' marketing departments demand space for their poetry in bookshops. They set poets in front of cameras and microphones, create news stories and generally apply well-tried marketing tactics to an area of publishing regarded, in the past, as too insignificant, or too pure, to be promoted in this way.

Most of the leading daily and Sunday papers have remarked the poetry boom in credulous articles. The Times went so far as to run a feature on the Poetry Industry and the Times Literary Supplement mounted a costly series of poetry readings around the country, using the supposed boom to promote itself as an organ committed to new poetry. The campaign was not a success. But it's significant that the managers of the journal believed in the poetry boom sufficiently to consider such a promotion feasible.

The evidence for a boom is ambiguous. For instance, three poetry books appeared on best-seller lists in the last eighteen months. True: each had a marketing angle ably exploited by the publisher. Such successes are not a barometer of the market at large, rather a barometer of the effects of certain kinds of marketing which, by their nature, cannot be universally applied without destroying their efficacy. What is more, they must be contrived and orchestrated by marketing personnel with a firm professional grasp of the market-place. Such personnel are rare.

There have always been poetry best-sellers, even during the bleak 1970s. What has been lacking is a chorus of voices declaring a connection between them, insisting that a pattern is discernible, that a change in the actual market has occurred. These voices sound now, but sound over a statistical void. We are sometimes told how many copies of books sell into shops, but not how many sell out. We are told how much a poetry list contributes to the overall revenues of a publishing operation, but not how much of that contribution comes from the sale of subsidiary rights to feed the anthology boom, or from performance rights, and how much from book sales. More importantly, we are not told how much revenue derives from lead authors and how much from the wider list. Is there a broad boom or are a few poets making the running? I suspect that, as in the wider world of literary publishing, much of the income derived by publishers from poetry is the fruit of anthology, performance and other subsidiary rights sales and that perhaps ten poets out of the hundreds published in this country account for 90% of the boom. We need another crisis in publishing to show us just how energetic the industry is. How many poetry lists would survive a recession like that of the 1970s? How many would continue to 'talk growth'? Indeed, how much actual growth is there when one of the market leaders produces a spring catalogue without a single new poetry title - the entire list consisting of revised and new editions?

Poetry Live will tell us something about the literary milieu, for instance, how well the regional arts associations, booksellers, libraries and educational institutions - those elements in the cultural infrastructure - work together; but it will tell us nothing about the state of the art, the quality of readership, the quality of the work itself, or the impact of professional marketing on the writers of poems. I am concerned for the artist where exposure means the destruction of those privacies and obliquities of perspective that lead to distinctive writing. Philip Larkin wrote little late in life in part because he was spirited into the establishment, his reticence became a public badge, he had an identity wished upon him, despite (or because of) the wry energy with which he hedged his privacy about. Geoffrey Hill has remained aloof from the media, apart from one disastrous invasion by television; he has proven irreducible and therefore 'unpopular'. Poets, it begins to seem, must be media-conscious, media-friendly, performing if they wish to sell, because the media are certainly poet-conscious, and performance gets you a long way. If poetry sells, the poetry published by the larger houses will increasingly be the more readily saleable type. This too is unsettling. The best poetry isn't always media-friendly. The best poems do not necessarily find their way through the market-place when they set out. . . It may be a matter of 'not yet'; but if the market insists on the tune, it will become a matter of 'not at all' - the 'not at all' which already tends to overtake first and second rank poets who inadvertently grow old, eccentric, disabled, or who die.

This item is taken from PN Review 55, Volume 13 Number 5, May - June 1987.

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