For most poets the news that a collection has been accepted for publication by a mainstream publisher is a cause for celebration for themselves, their families ,and friends. It validates their work and provides third party endorsement affording credibility and kudos, justifiably so. However anyone that looks at the numbers behind poetry publishing may deduce that although the aforementioned are all true, a mass audience and riches are not going to follow.
A print run of 300 is standard for poetry, 200 sales is good, a best seller may be measured in the several hundreds ,rather than over a thousand, and 200 sales is break even on the print costs only. In 2010 not one of the ten poetry collections shortlisted for the prestigious T S Elliot Prize had sold more than 1,000 copies; one finalist had sold only 39, and Sean O’Brien’s winner, The Drowned Book, had sold just 758 copies in the ten months following its publication. So it’s all doom and gloom isn’t it? No.
In November, a quiet month, there were over eighty spoken word events in the Midlands listed in Garyswordz. In the summer during festival season that number can touch two hundred. Audiences are typically no fewer than ten, and no more than one hundred, with forty a good turn- out. If twenty is taken as an average, that means that between 1600 and 4000 people attend Midlands spoken words events in a month. Looking at the annual sales figures for mainstream poetry, that is quite an untapped audience. I attend around a hundred poetry events annually. Those occasions when national publishing houses, or their poets, were in evidence were seldom, and were exclusively at festivals. The preparedness of both to put in the hard yards is open to question.
Inevitably, small, kitchen-table poetry publishers have sprung up to fill the gap, compensating for lack of commercial experience with niche expert knowledge and enthusiasm. Unsurprisingly, they recognise where their market is. In the Midlands Nine Arches Press and Crystal Clear Creators co-produce Shindig in Leicester, Flarestack uses Poetry Bites as its showcase, and in the Black Country Bilston Voices and City Voices in Wolverhampton are promoted by Offa’s Press editors.
But nationally ,small presses do have their limitations. Earlier in the year I witnessed a small press published poet whom I did not know talk to no-one, read brilliantly, and then leave at the interval leaving prospective buyers looking at an empty seat incredulously, and leaving his publisher frustrated and let down. Subsidies can help and cripple. They can enable a publisher to take a chance on artistic grounds, but it can also featherbed them from taking uncommercial decisions about who will sell.
I believe that there is still much to be achieved commercially on the performance circuit. The most popular performers are virtually unknown in the published world. Some have self published collections, some don’t. Few organise themselves to sell, understandably tending to wish to concentrate on their art. A small press which grasped who the popular talent is, and took a professional commercial approach to marketing that talent has a largely worked market to harvest.
Self-publishing has traditionally been sneered at, but the economics, and sales opportunities are intriguing. Midlands poets Giovanni “Spoz” Esposito and Amy Rainbow have self published with sales in the thousands and several hundreds respectively. If published by a mainstream publisher they would be “best sellers”. The common denominator? Good work and a relentless performance ethic. Bluntly, if your work is good and you are prepared to actively promote your work, you will sell more books, make more money and be known by more people, than any conventional publishing deal is likely to deliver.
Blogs make no money, but they can be very effective at promoting your work to a broader audience. In 2010, 5305 poetry books by mainstream publishers were sold, in total, in the UK. As I write, this blog has had 15,051 views this year.
The lessons from all of the above? Mainstream publication is still something to aspire to. But mainstream publishers need to work much harder to get closer to grassroots poetry popularity, were they to do so, the sales growth potential is considerable. Small presses, by their very nature, are close to grassroots poetry. Mindful of the numbers of events, and people attending them, the opportunity to convert activity into sales is waiting to be grasped. Poets need to look beyond the holy grail of being published. Blogs can create awareness and achieve reach, fast and far. Those lucky enough to be mainstream published can become best –sellers by going out and performing in a systematic disciplined way, as can small press published poets. And those turned down by both? Self publication with a strong collection and grassroots awareness can outsell pretty much anyone with hard graft.