In the last year, I’ve no idea how many poetry books were published, but I can get an idea of numbers by looking at how many books were entered for some of the prizes. 109 books were entered for the Forward Prize’s Best Collection category and 57 for Best First Collection. There were 92 entries for the Aldeburgh First Collection prize. In both cases, these figures represent record numbers. I know this is the tip of an iceberg. The figures won’t include the majority of self-published books or collections from small and experimental presses, many of which wouldn’t have considered entering.
In some ways, these large numbers are a good thing. Why not have a huge variety of poetry available? After all, readers will decide what they want to read and what they don’t, and restricting that choice by offering less variety would hardly be a positive step. On the other hand, a large number of books makes it harder for individual collections to come to the attention of readers. If you walk into a room, find ten books on a table, and you have to choose one, you might have a flick through all of them. If there are a hundred books, you might still flick through ten, but the perfect book for you might be among the ninety you never set eyes on.
The growing presence of poetry publishers on the Internet means prospective readers are faced with what must feel at times like a bewildering amount of choice. Would less choice actually be a relief?
I also wonder whether the quantity of new poetry books is sustainable in such a small (and often niche) market. Let’s say ten books are published and each sells an average of 500 copies – that’s 5000 sales. But let’s say a hundred books are published. Are people going to buy any more than 5000 books? If they don’t, that means an average of 50 sales per book. A growing number of poetry books requires a growing number of poetry readers. Current readers don’t have either unlimited time or bank balances.
Now, I had a collection published this year. It’s hard then for me to argue that fewer should be published! I wouldn’t want my book to have been given the chop. But are current levels sustainable? And does a large choice help readers or hinder them?