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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 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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…

  5. 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.

  6. 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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