Monday, 3 January 2011

Poetry never sells, apart from when it does

Reading through the winter 2010 issue of Poetry News, the newsletter of the Poetry Society (content not on-line), I find a grim interview with Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt Publishing ( Chris reports that Salt's sales are down in 2010 by 42% to bookshops but 60% overall. He posits that the traditional business model for selling poetry (and other literary material) has crumbled due to limited stocking by bookshops, major store closures and the shift to accessing poetry on-line. And then there is the recession. Chris is not completely downhearted, looking at different business models. That Salt exists still is only due to their "Just One Book" campaign which encouraged people to save Salt one book at a time. He remarks that there is a "disjunction between people wanting their tax to be spent on a business [though the Arts Council or university patronage] but not their disposable income." Yikes. Time to row for the shore.
But three pages further on there is an interview with Jenny Swann, once of Five Leaves but sailing under her own steam since 2008 (the last of the sailing metaphors) with Candlestick Press. The review indicates that poetry can sell, without Arts Council support, in pamphlet form. Jenny certainly does have a different business model, by selling beautiful pamphlets "instead of a card". On a recent trip to London I saw her pamphlets in racks in bookshops including the London Review Bookshop, the British Library and a Waterstone's or three. You can find out about Candlestick at She has the advantage of Carol Ann Duffy editing two Christmas collections, with eight more planned over her laureateship. That will have made a huge difference, but I have no doubt Candlestick would still be doing well without that bonus.


Anonymous said...

Interestingly, I went into the Nottingham Waterstones in the summer to find, of all things, three bays of poetry on the ground floor!

I went there again in November for a 'field trip' (I'm a creative writing student) and the poetry had returned to its usual upstairs niche, but the manager said that was only to make room for the Christmas books, and poetry would be making its way back downstairs after the festive season as it's one of the areas that's selling well at the moment!

Not sure what to make of that...

Alan Baker said...

As I've noted on my own blog, Salt chose an aggressive corporate model, which depended on continual growth. I think they've had problems for two reasons: 1. Poetry seems to have gone the same way as music in that a lot of it is freely available on the web, which has affected the market for printed books. 2. Poetry has also - like music - fragmented, with highly specialized publishers catering for niche markets - meaning lots of books are sold, but each book tends to be sold in small quantities. I think Salt spread its net too wide, and that more specialized publishers will survive. Incidentally, I also think that the excellent Candlestick Press is also catering for a specialized market, in that people who buy from Candlestick are unlikely to buy from Reality Street or Shearsman, and vice versa.