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Are Too Many Poetry Books Being Published?

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?

This Post Has 57 Comments

  1. I love the fact that more poetry books are available. In the past few years I have noticed more people reading and writing poetry. Poetry clubs, circles and meetings are flourishing all over the country.
    Some books will be much better than others, or perhaps I should say the poetry in some books will be more accessable than in others but the variety offered by the publication of so many books should be welcomed and encouraged.
    How wonderful to have a choice of a hundred books rather than just ten. I can happily spend hours browsing a collection of poetry books in a bookshop or library in order to find the nuggets of gold that lurk and, sometimes by happy accident, I find a new name with new ideas.
    Publishing is an industry and everyone needs to make money through sales but if we continue to encourage and publish as much poetry as possible and buy whatever our purses can afford this reader will be a very happy bunny indeed.

  2. I can’t help but feel that if the already niche, and some might argue elitist, world of poetry publishing were further reduced, new poets would have even less chance than they do already of being published.
    In a sense the Poetry market is a tiny mirror image of the Fiction Market. Nobody is suggesting the general public should have fewer books of fiction to chose from, so why should poetry be penalised? Poetry is rich and diverse, let the poetry reader have as large a range of poetry to chose from as possible…They are an intelligent minority who are more than capable of deciding what is worth reading or what appeals to their particular tastes.

  3. In the last two-years I have published 8 books of poetry.
    Each book contains 50-70 poems at least and each subject is different one from the other.
    I have sold 2 books only, people are not interested in poetry.

  4. It’s always nice when people post deliberately controversial topics.

    Your argument could be extended: there are too many poetry magazines, there are too many poetry prizes, there are too many poems, there are too many poets. The same points apply in each case: if you’ve a fixed audience or market (or economy) and you add more “producers” then, all other things being equal, visibility and market share will be less for each producer, and competition will be greater.

    The whole argument is built on the notion of an unchanging marketplace. However, if you believe that the market/audience can be stimulated by, say, more products, better products, the increased promotion that competitiveness might bring, or the general sense that “there’s such much poetry around, it must be a good thing”, then the argument is flawed, and you’d need evidence of the relations between production and consumption to make it. Moreover, if every writer of poetry is a reader of it, then the two things should grow in tandem.

    But is it not rather insane to talk of poetry in such terms? Poetry is not an industry or a business, even though we can reduce it to such. Of course, it’s a livelihood for some people, and to that extent they have to see it in something like business terms. But even those people are not generally thinking: “must get an increase in the market share so need to write a few more sex and violence poems”.

    Can one actually have “too much poetry”? Rather then being bewildered by choice, cannot a poetry reader choose to spend more of their disposable income on poetry, if they find lots of choice, lots of rich resource, pages of delight to wander in? Will not people shift time from films, music, eating out, novels and sitcoms if they find poetry more rewarding? Isn’t there a supporting industry of poetry readings, poetry reviews, poetry critics built on the back of the poetry book “industry” precisely to guide people in such choice? Surely poetry, if it were one thing, one cohesive art form, is out there to shift culture in particular directions, and it can only do so if its voice is loud and strong?

    Possibly an increase in poetry may signal an increase in its value, its contemporary relevance; or the recognition that it offers increasingly what other media and forms cannot. I’m only speculating, of course, because I seem to remember reading elsewhere that sales of poetry books were actually decreasing. That would be more worrying than an increase in production, if true, because it suggests a decline in the audience. Or at least the paying audience for poetry books. But even here one would have to be careful, because it might simply mean that less was being spent on expensive volumes of Tennyson and Browning: perhaps because these works are readily available on line, so readers can focus their spending more on the new Duffy slim volume which they can’t get on the web – overall spending, down, number of new contemporary books sold, up.

    What this all amounts to is perhaps a need for some research: by the Poetry Society, maybe, or the Society of Authors, on the relation between poetry audiences, what they read and what they spend.

  5. I’m a writer and reader (of course) of poetry. I’ve had many poems published in journals and one collection published, as well. I don’t think the number of published collections is a problem. We all know that poets and poetry publishers are not in it for the money. And we often come with our own audience, which is increased by our appearances at readings. If your collection is published, then you have something to sell when you participate in a reading. People are making their choices about whether to buy your book not only in shops and on-line, but also at readings, via blogs etc. There are many ways to sell poetry books. I don’t think we should be worried about being spoiled for choice.

  6. We shouldn’t be attacking the existence of artistic work. It’s a hard world already for writers in general, and particularly for poets and editors driven by a love for the material, form and the strange power of poetry. Poetry is one of the most diverse art forms there is. There is more than enough room in the world for all the different kinds of poetry that existed in the past, exist now and could exist in the future through experimentation and dialogue with the world and other writers. Writers should buy more books anyway, and so a greater choice is to be desired. Charles Causley once said to me, ‘there can never be too many artists.’ A generous thought.

  7. What does a poet want? For people to read the poems. Sometime ago I gave a reading at the close of which I told the audience I understood why few books are sold even by featured readers — admission fee, a drink, other books to choose from, the economy — but that to get new readers I would give away twenty copies — over there on the table (‘And I don’t want to see 22 copies left!’); and ‘when you’re done, give the book to someone else or leave it on a bus….’ The books flew off in a trice.

    Out of 1,000 copies printed of my last collection I’ve managed to sell, trade, give away over 700 within 18 months.



  8. Just to be clear, I do of course hope that you are all correct! I also value the variety of what’s available and hope that the market for poetry can grow. However, I have genuine worries about its sustainability and about the visibility of individual books when so many are being published, especially those written by quieter, less visible people. There are also only a limited (and shrinking?) number of places on bookshop shelves too, but a growing number of new books.

    You can find news of millions of poetry books on the Internet – the more there are the harder it is to keep up with. I’m sure several brilliant books go almost unnoticed while inferior books, bouyed up by a writer’s reputation, connections or publicity, are brought to the forefront of our attention. The more books competing for attention, the more chance there is of this happening, I would have thought, especially with books produced by small presses. The best books may not be noticed or read at all. How do we manage all that?

  9. In the last two years I’ve published 15 books and pamphlets, and sold more than 1300 copies. It’s working for Calder Wood Press. Mind you, the authors are integral to the promotion and sales effort.

  10. I think you havent taken into account the geography of poetry. There are many “local” books which sell in smaller parts of the poetry community.
    An important point is people will never buy a book of poetry by someone they havent heard of – an observation made by the owner of the old Poetry Bookshop in Hay on Wye. Only some poets will become better known and available in the chain bookshops many miles from where they live. We have to hope that they rise to the top by merit.
    It is really important to allow a free field which anyone can enter by publishing books.

  11. If there is a fixed population of poetry-book buyers, with a roughly steady amount of money to spend, then it’s hard to see how more-books-published doesn’t mean less-revenue-per-book, with the concomitant implications for already struggling poetry publishers.

    The win-win solution is, of course, not to publish fewer books, but rather to create new readers of poetry (or “new markets”, to use that oh-so-tastelessly-commercial phrase).

    There is a community of literate readers out there (the sort of people who join book groups, read literary novels etc) who are currently intimidated by poetry, and give it a miss because they don’t know where to get started and don’t like feeling stupid when they don’t understand denser contemporary poems.

    It’s a shame that when efforts are made to reach this potential new readership, parts of the poetry world react with cries of “dumbing down” (look at the hoo-hah over “Staying Alive”). Talk about an own-goal!

    If you love poetry, and want to support poetry publishers, then why not think about what *you* might do to spread your enthusiasm to just one other person who doesn’t currently read it?

  12. “If there is a fixed population of poetry-book buyers, with a roughly steady amount of money to spend, then it’s hard to see how more-books-published doesn’t mean less-revenue-per-book”

    True, but then we are talking about the difference between fourpence and twopence here…

    Poetry is the most localised genre I know. It’s well possible for a poet to be (relatively) famous in Huddersfield and unknown in Manchester, with matching sales in each case. I don’t really think more books published is doing harm to anyone, unless they’re a tree.

  13. @Sheenagh Pugh, I agree that the amounts of money are very small, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Poets can perhaps afford to be unconcerned about the revenue from poetry books because we don’t expect to make a living from them anyway; publishers, however, do need to recoup their costs, at least on average.

    I’m not arguing for fewer books to be published; individual publishers need to make their own decisions about what (and how much) to publish, based on their own economic circumstances and artistic priorities. Rather, I’d like to see the poetry world coming up with some creative ideas to get more people trying – then, hopefully, reading and buying – more poetry.

  14. It’s hard to say whether current levels of poetry are sustainable or not.

    It depends partly on what you mean by sustainable. Aside from the commercials (Faber, Chatto, Cape, Picador) and Salt, most UK poetry publishers with paid staff are sustained by grants from the Arts Council. Readers aren’t the key factor in their sustainability. They are sustainable if the Arts Council keeps giving them money. Otherwise most of them probably aren’t.

    Publishing operations run by volunteers are sustainable as long as volunteers want to put the effort in to keep them going. If you can’t cover the print bill with a book either the poet or the publisher is getting something very wrong.

    Even a crap poetry book should cover its print bill if the poet can be bothered to put the effort in to sell it.

  15. I’ve just been reading the selections of favourite books for 2009 which poets made for Michelle McGrane’s blog at

    Though some books recurred, I was amazed by the variety of authors and presses. I found this very cheering, especially the enthusiasm shown for books from small presses

    I’m less worried by the quantity of books available than by the pricing. It does seem to me that some collections by some major publishers are now relatively expensive (well into the teens of pounds). I’d prefer the books to look less lovely and to have a much lower price tag!

    I’ve just had a (very well-produced) chapbook published, partly as an experiment to see if a much cheaper (if smaller) book sells in more quantities at readings. Perhaps not surprisingly, at my first two readings I have sold far more of the chapbook than I’d normally sell of a (discounted) paperback. So far, then, I conclude that sales of poetry are price-sensitive at readings. Experiments continue!

  16. Some interesting replies here. Thanks everyone. I liked this from Noel:

    “Will not people shift time from films, music, eating out, novels and sitcoms if they find poetry more rewarding?”

    There’s a challenge! That leads to Kona’s point about attracting new readers rather than cutting the number of books. Easier said than done, of course, but even so…

    Good (and sobering) point from David on subsidies. Can such subsidies lead to publishers not trying very hard? i.e. if they don’t *need* to sell the books…

    Pamphlets are great to have at readings, as Alison says. I wonder, though, if publishers can afford to sell their books any cheaper? And if readers generally would prefer to buy more (and cheaper) books, but with less production quality? Big issues.

  17. Well, in terms of effort expended and hours worked, my guess is that Arts Council gets exceptional value from most of the publishers in subsidises – and in many cases subsidies are used to support valuable new projects – but there’s clearly serious implications when you have disconnection between income and sales.

    I think there is a role for Arts Council funding in supporting publishers but it needs to be a structured in a way that makes readers of books (rather than Arts Council officials) the most important customers.

  18. Hi Rob,

    Your argument (I know it’s only one side) against increased book production only stands from a reader point-of-view if you believe that this is a static readership for poetry. In my experience, new books – particularly by writers who might not otherwise be published, or from presses operating in innovative ways – create new readers for themselves, as well as, obviously, responding to the existing market.

    On another note, I think the question is not how many books are being published, but are they any good? And how are they being published?

    At Penned in the Margins I edit every single book personally and thoroughly – I will work with my authors over a long period to develop their manuscript, sometimes from before there even is a manuscript. This is time-consuming and cuts my margins down a lot, but on the other hand I think the books are better for the genuine collaborative process between author and publisher.

    Tom x

  19. As with so many areas of life government spending and natural selection will have an effect. If the current number of titles can be financed and sold at commercially tolerable volumes then we have an equilibrium. If government funding is slashed the picture will change. Similarly if too few of a publisher’s current body of titles sell well enough to support the whole portfolio then attrition will follow. If both factors coincide the numbers will decline sharply.

    Technology has a role to play. Digital print will continue to improve exponentially. Print costs should fall. Short print runs or print on demand will deliver reasonable quality product as new lower costs. If more titles can be funded (I am thinking in terms of the cash demand of stock on the balance sheets of the publishers) via more cost effective shorter runs within available funding / financing then a greater number of niche tastes can be catered for in commercially viable ways.

    The internet should help. It allows poets to reach audiences. It allows publishers direct access to their readers at better margins. It allows the reader to mine the “Long Tail” of published titles in a way that is impossible if the only decent book shop in your locale is called Borders and is about to close. It could allow established poets and publishers to publish select samples of their work on line to tempt the taste buds of the reading public. At present though too little of this happens. The financial winter of the next government may change that.

  20. You’re right Rob: your figures are just the tip of the iceberg. There hasn’t been any research done specifically on poetry sales for some years, but I can give you some information I’ve collated relating to the publication and sales of poetry books from just a few years back. This figures are largely based on sales through bookshops, but they do cover everything published over the period; but to what I’ve noted you need to add website sales, direct mail and sales at readings.

    I only have figures for 2005 but they won’t have changed to any great extent. In that year 63 per cent of Britons aged 12 to 74 bought any kind of book, with 34 per cent buying fiction, and only 1% bought a poetry book. Previous research has shown that of that 1%, only around 5% will have been books by living writers, 95% of the poetry books sold in our bookshops being the poetry classics. A research report from 1998 showed then that the top 5% of buyers – 2.5% of the population – bought 28% of books, by value. The average bookshop stocks 96,000 different titles (which compares with 20,000 different “product lines” in a Tesco superstore), but only 5000 of those titles account for 53% of all sales; 23% of titles sell 100 copies or more, and these account for 94% of all retail book sales revenue. Most publishers publish books in order to make profits on their investment, but only 1 in 10 books is successful – so that’s the commercial pattern, not the less “successful” non-profit poetry press one!

    Here are some figures from the Publishers Association. 787 million books were sold in 2005 and 756 million books in 2004. BookScan figures (sales tracked through bookshops) for 2004 show 459,075 poetry books were sold. So poetry accounted for 0.06% of all book sales in that year: only one in every 10,000 books sold is a poetry book. In 2004 there were only 5172 different poetry titles listed by Bookscan. 751 of those were anthologies and 4421 were collections. Is that too many? If so, in whose terms? Every book has its particular readership, however small or specialised or locally based.

    80% of the total poetry sales in 2004 were made by 227 titles (52 anthologies and 175 collections). The top 10 books accounted for 22% of all sales (2 anthologies and 8 collections). However, 3721 books listed sold less than 10 copies through the bookshops. 1978 books sold no copies at all through the bookshops. There were 639 different imprints listed which publish poetry, but over half the sales were made by Faber, Bloodaxe, Penguin and Picador. The rest of the publishers accounted for the other half but with only 28 imprints achieving at least 1% of the sales.

    Who’d be a poetry publisher!

  21. Very interesting figures Neil but I have one quibble. 96,000 titles would take up so much shelf space that I think the figure must be wrong for the ‘average’ bookshop.
    One 3 foot shelf takes 28 (say 30) books, so roughly three 3 foot shelves take 100 books. (A title in multiple copies of 4 stocked for three months each would mean one year of book space per title) 96,000 books would need approximately 3000 x 3 foot shelves, which is almost one and two-thirds miles. Who said this about an average bookshop?

  22. Speaking of shelf-space:

    Bless Foyles and London Review Bookshop who took my collections on long-reach faith; they needn’t have. Foyles shelved four copies of my first book (‘A Cracked River’ Slow Dancer Press, London) in 1999; one is left. Both have my second (‘Mourning in the Presence of a Corpse’, Dar al-Jadeed, Beirut, 2008). I visit the books from time to time.

  23. My calculation, based on 35 books per metre shelf, and 6 shelves per bay, is that a ‘largish’ bookseller with 6 bays of poetry (most will have less), will stock around 1200 poetry books. That’s a decent stock, but that same bookseller may have more than a hundred bays of fiction, maybe 30,000 books. And that 30,000 will turn over far faster than the 1200 poetry books, which is why the major chains will ask 60% discount from poetry publishers.

  24. Thanks, Neil, for your comment, which raises all kinds of questions. In some ways it shows that poetry is such a small market that it’s never going to be easy to make it sustainable, however few or many books are published. On the other hand, this point is key:

    “In 2004 there were only 5172 different poetry titles listed by Bookscan. 751 of those were anthologies and 4421 were collections. Is that too many? If so, in whose terms? Every book has its particular readership, however small or specialised or locally based.”

    I enjoyed your comment too, Norbert. I’m sure that’s a common experience for poets.

    I was reading Saturday’s The Herald (a Scottish national newspaper). There was an article in it about Scottish poetry, which included this quote from Robin Robertson, a fine poet himself, of course, and also poetry editor at Cape:

    “There’s too much bad poetry being published, polluting the pool.”

    What he means, I think (the article is a little unclear), is that you have this pure pool of good poetry and then so much other stuff gets through that the water gets murky and it’s hard to find the good stuff. Newspaper broadsheets, he says, which used to back new poets and showcase new poetry, “have a lack of knowledge or interest in poets being important to its pages” – so little critical focus on poets is being given to readers from outside the core poetry audience. New prospective readers, faced with all the choice, don’t know where to start, and there’s no one to guide them. In many cases, he adds, “even the ‘gatekeepers’ are waving people through” (surely an exaggeration, at the very least…).

    Now, I’m mulling all these arguments around in my mind. I certainly lean towards choice and variety for readers, as these are qualities I value when chooosing what to read. I guess the answer is, as Kona and Noel suggested earlier, to reach far more readers rather than worry about how many books are being published. But easier said than done…

  25. Great quote by George Gissing, very pertinent to all this, from Don Share’s blog, Squandermania – :

    “And why should any man who writes, even if he write things immortal, nurse anger at the world’s neglect? Who asked him to publish? Who promised him a hearing? Who has broken faith with him? If my shoemaker turn me out an excellent pair of boots and I, in some mood of cantankerous unreason, throw them back upon his hands, the man has just cause of complaint. But your poem, your novel, who bargained with you for it?”

  26. People read poetry in such a different way to, say, novels that thinking about how much poetry is in a bookshop (compared to the prose) is a bit of a distraction, isn’t it? Readers can and often do tear through novels (especially the more popular end of the wedge) but I don’t think anyone (apart from a very small minority…maybe some regulars here) reads poetry like that. One very good poetry book can (at a push) keep a reader going for a year or more…they just don’t need to buy so many . And in some ways that’s how it should be, isn’t it? It’s not good for business but isn’t there a saying about poetry and making money (that they don’t go together).

    Maybe what’s needed is a whole new way of thinking about selling poetry full stop. I would never complain about there being too much about (and I don’t think anyone who has a book of their own…no matter who published it…should really ever think about that kind of suggestion…so what – it’s OK for you but not anyone else..?). The more poetry is published the more choice there is and tastes in poetry are so different that this shouldn’t be a problem. There does seem to be a bit of tsunami of poetry books just now but all that means is that poetry is (bizarrely) fashionable again. It will pass. Fashions do that. So I’m told.

  27. I imagine part of Rob’s impetus for this devil’s advocate post was a comment I made elsewhere on this topic, and the fact that we now have a full debut collection being published every three days or so in the UK – maybe 60% more than 20 years ago and probably well over 100% more than in the 1970s. Now of course, as Robin R points out, a lot of it is not that good, though I’m not sure it really ‘pollutes’ in any way. The numbers though do mean that again and again, I encounter friends and acquaintances who after so much striving get a collection out, only to find they barely sell, get few if any reviews and lead to few if any readings. In the midst of this, fine books are going missing, unnoticed, unrewarded. And – to play this stuck record again – the numbers are getting so high that the prize judges are simply not able to read all the eligible books and are simply selecting from the poets they are already familiar with.

  28. Roddy, is there evidence for your statement that “the numbers are getting so high that the prize judges are simply not able to read all the eligible books and are simply selecting from the poets they are already familiar with” ?

    If this is the case, the matter should be referred to the authorities as each entrant pays a hefty sum to have his/her book read; if not read, the fee should be returned, not kept.

    A couple of years ago a website, Foetry, exposed the dishonest judging of book competitions in the US (awards going to judges’ friends or students), resulting in a voluntary code of ethics each competition is expected to sign on to. Does a similar code exist in UK?

  29. Does Nicholas Wroe (a judge in this year’s Forward Prize) hint at the first half of Roddy’s assertion in this post from the Guardian blog:?

    “Firstly, be aware that the initial trawl is essentially a negative one as books have to be excluded much more urgently than included. Few poems, and even fewer books, are faultless, but how many chances do you give? Not many. A broken phrase, an absurd metaphor, a cliche, a wrong note can all be fatal. Especially if they crop up early in a book. The judge is on notice for the next one and three-strikes-and-you’re-out suddenly seems a dangerously liberal policy.”

  30. Bert, we’re mixing up two things here – competitions where a first book is the prize are few and far between here, as opposed to the US. I’m talking about prizes for best books of the year. As I’ve said elsewhere (complete with the arithmetic), it would take a judge up to 8 weeks’ full-time work to properly read all the books entered for the big prizes – that’s reading five books a day and only re-reading twenty or so plus the shortlist again. And they get paid just a few hundred pounds, so what are they to do? Well, they do as above and push them back into the box if there’s a phrase they take against. Or they don’t take them out of the box unless they know the poet’s name (or the publisher’s).

  31. “And they get paid just a few hundred pounds, so what are they to do? Well, they do as above and push them back into the box if there’s a phrase they take against. Or they don’t take them out of the box unless they know the poet’s name (or the publisher’s).”

    The first option – ruthlessly discarding because there is something they have read and disliked – is arguably legitimate though not ideal. But the second, ” they don’t take them out of the box unless they know the poet’s name (or the publisher’s)” is nothing short of taking money under false pretences, and since there is an entrance fee involved, it also amounts to small-scale fraud against the entrants. If the judges can’t do the work they contracted for in exchange for the money agreed, the only honest thing they can do is say so and turn the job down.

    For the record, I have judged comps involving both individual poems and whole books (the Welsh Book of the Year competition). For that, I read at least a reasonable amount of everything that was sent to me. In competitions involving individual poems I read the lot. Twice, unless they contained a “’tis” or “’twas”.

  32. Just to qualify re fees – I know poets themselves don’t pay an entrance fee for consideration in the big book-of-the-year competitions, but I’ve heard from publishers that it does cost the publisher to enter them, though I don’t know whether this is in terms of money or an unreasonable number of book copies.

  33. The only book prize including poetry I know that involves fees / large number of copies is the Dylan Thomas Prize. I don’t think the TSE or Forward Prizes charge – or the Jerwood / Aldeburgh… not sure about the Costa.

  34. I do know I’ve heard more than one small publisher complain about the TSE. My own is fairly sour even about his books being chosen as PBS recs because, according to him, it doesn’t increase sales and costs him a mint because the PBS, like Amazon, demands a ruinous discount on copies. If that’s so, it would tend to increase the stranglehold of the big publishers on these things, particularly on small publishers who, unlike mine, don’t get a block grant from public funds.

    But my main gripe is with anyone who accepts a fee for reading something and then “doesn’t take it out of the box”. If the fee offered was too little for the work involved, they should say so when refusing the job. Any other course is dishonest.

  35. I guess the problem, Sheenagh, is that no one could read five poetry books every day for eight weeks and remain sane, and no one would be able to judge these competitions if that was genuinely expected (unless they were being paid a huge amount more money). Not taking a book out of the box because you don’t recognise a name or publisher seems all wrong, mind you – if there are judges who take that approach. Maybe the whole competition/prize system needs revamped, but I can’t see that happening.

  36. We’ve been speaking all along, I see, about competitions for ‘best books’ already published. What I wondered was whether entries to contests of unpublished manuscripts were similarly scanted.

  37. Norbert, there aren’t many such competitions, are there? There are best book awards; there are individual poem competitions, and also a few for potential booklets or chapbooks; is that what you’re thinking of? Ones like the Poetry Business comp – I can’t imagine the judges don’t read all the entries there, because they’re looking for the most publishable and AFAIR, the entry fee probably keeps the numbers down to a manageable level.

    With individual poem comps, the trend seems to be toward having a sift judge or judges who does the initial read and then passes a certain number to the named judge(s). I don’t think that’s ideal but as long as it’s openly stated on the entry form it is at least honest. Of course the problem of extending that system to best-book comps is still the amount of reading involved. But I still think it’s possible to at least give each book a chance, because be fair, you really aren’t going to have to read very far into some of them before you know they are no-hopers.

  38. When I was preparing this forthcoming anthology for Bloodaxe, I eventually developed a ’25 page rule’ – if I reached that page in a book and hadn’t found a poem I’d be happy to have in the anthology, I put it aside. However, I did this by book and not by author – I got all the way through one poet’s first book nonplussed and it was only reading their next that I relaised they were a poet I wanted to include.

    I’ve come up with various ways of improving the selection process for the Forward and TSE – sifters etc – but the judges, given one book on the whole to champion, will generally choose one by a poet they already know, generally a friend – and who they genuinely rate. No judging system is likely to change that.

  39. OK, here’s a plan which, unlike Gaul, is divided into two parts:

    1. Publishers do not initially submit the whole book, but a representative sample of it – say 15 pages for a full book. True, some collections are more an integral whole than others but a book that can’t at least partly convince in 15 pages has summat wrong with it. At a later judging stage the surviving books could be read in full.

    But, says you, some judges will be friends or admirers of some poets and will already have bought and read their books in full. Arr, says I, but I have a plan for that too:

    2. try choosing the judges from somewhere English-speaking that isn’t the UK – Canada, Australia, NZ, the States, the West Indies? There are plenty of qualified people who are less likely to be personal friends of the entrants and may also have a refreshing new take on what’s good. They could try it for a year, anyway.

  40. My poetry tutor at university once said getting into the poetry world was a bit like trying to climb the North face of the Eiger without crampons….an opinion confimed by the this ongoing correspondence.

  41. Even leaving aside concerns about conscious prejudice and conspiracy, unconscious bias has large effects, often *despite* people’s conscious efforts to resist it (see e.g. Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”).

    The names of the poets under consideration (and, perhaps, the names of the publishers) are an obvious source of unconscious bias, even if judges are trying their best to be even-handed.

    In a fair world, magazine submissions and poetry prizes would all be assessed anonymously. (Kudos to mags like Anon and Iota that have anonymised submission processes – Magma, want to take the challenge? 😉 ). Obviously this is near-impossible to achieve for poetry book prizes, since – even if books were submitted prior to publication and with names removed – many of the poems in a poetry collection will already have appeared in magazines etc. (Sheenagh’s suggestion of “non-native” judges is a rather elegant way to mitigate the problem, though.)

    Frances-Anne, it might sound gloomy, but it’s easy to forget that every poet starts out as an unpublished writer. It’s still quite possible to be published, and to find a niche in the poetry world, without having an Oxbridge English degree or a well-connected literary mentor. Certainly there’s a big element of luck and/or serendipity, but good writing can still speak for itself.

  42. I think it depends what one means by “getting into the poetry world”. Getting magazine-published isn’t that hard, given some talent. Getting book-published is harder, but good writers do usually make it through in the end. Getting known as a writer and reader in one’s own locailty means finding out where the local scene is and what it’s up to. None of that is difficult. What may be another matter is getting known among yer actual movers and shakers in London; I daresay that means being prepared to live in the place, which has always struck me as way too big a sacrifice to make. But luckily it isn’t necessary. If you just want to *be* a writer, rather than make a name as one, you can do it anywhere.

  43. I agree with Sheenagh’s post, apart from the London thing – a quick survey of poets who have become established / acclaimed / whatever verb we’re happy with in the past decade or so shows poets are as likely to be in Devon, Shetland, Belfast, Aberystwyth, Aberdeenshire, Liverpool, Northumberland as London – of course, London has a sway, and poets can get more chances to read aloud here – but the ‘movers and shakers’ wotrh their salt are aware of what’s happening elsewhere.

  44. Just to put this into perspective: it is still easier to get a poem published than it is to get a film script made, a novel published or a play staged. Whatever people might say about the difficulty of getting published in the world of poetry, it is more democratic and easier than any other medium. There are so many outlets, although of course the audience is smaller. And a poem doesn’t take up much space. Money has a lot to do with it; poetry can be written and published on a shoestring budget and there is always the performance aspect if you want an audience. Most of us who are engaged in the process of editing, publishing or running events are doing it for the love of the medium. And in what other genre would you be able to meet the finest poets of our generation and have a chat with them? Imagine if Martin Scorsese ran small seminars, or you could have a one to one script surgery with Deborah Warner? Or meet Michael Caine at a festival and have a drink with him? Or spend a week in a house in Devon with Sam Mendes working on a film script?

    The democratic nature of the poetry world is both its blessing and its curse. There are thousands of people out there clamouring to be heard, and anyone can set themselves up as a publisher or promoter, however sound or unsound their judgement. The mediocre and bad are published alongside the great and transcendent, but we can’t change that. All we can do is make our choices as informed as possible and keep buying the books.

  45. I think Jacqueline’s point about the variety of doors now open to the poet is a very good (and unusually optimistic) one. I have often thought that I would hate to be an unfashionable playwright, with a pile of scripts which had never made it into the bright light of performance!

  46. That’s very true re playwrights and you don’t need to be unfashionable, just not quite young enough… there are a lot of nurturing schemes for new playwrights under 25, but I know a coplue of people who left it until their late twenties before deciding they wanted to write plays, and frankly you can forget it – it’s really hard to break in at that age. Of course there is some obsessing about Yoof among commentators on the poetry scene – as if any writer weren’t liable to get better with more experience of both life and handling words – but it isn’t near as bad as in drama.

  47. Yes, some good points there. Best not to get too depressed about it all.

    Sheeagh’s point about writers being liable to get better as they age deserves a thread of its own. I might try writing one for this blog, maybe in the New Year.

  48. Goodness, it’s refreshing to hear an optimistic perspective on the poetryverse – thanks Jacqueline! There’s so much doom, gloom, spleen and paranoia in our little microcosm; it regularly makes me go and hide under the duvet with a nice fat SF novel.

    If there’s one psychological given throughout human history, it’s our tendency to apocalyptic anxieties coupled with a pervasive sense that everything is going to hell in a handbasket anyway…

  49. Bookscan responded for a recent poetry summit meeting that there were roughly 10,500 active poetry ISBNs in 2008, 36% more than in 2007. The market increased by 1%, though the retail market continues to contract each — 10% down on 2007. average poetry sales are 98 copies per ISBN, though the variances are huge. One senior bookseller remarked to me recently that only six poets really mattered for retail sales and that you can’t sell things to people that they don’t want.

    However, my own business’s turnover increased by 300% over the past three and a half years, though admittedly from a very small base! Like Neil I suspect the growth is not happening in bookshops. The future has to lie in diversity and growth and there are many competitive forces acting against that for complex reasons. I honestly don’t know a tougher sector of publishing: it’s fiercely competitive. We so need more readers and wider audiences and that involves finding techniques to take poets to readers and for poets to engage with readers. I think there are two key issues to tackle: visibility and relevance.

  50. And here’s yet another blog topic for the New Year – visibility and relevance. How do we make poetry more visible? How can poets (of diverese styles) engage with audiences in ways that make their work relevant to more people? We have a lot to talk about, come January.

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