June 4, 2013

Silver Linings Chapbook: things looking up for poetry


Billy Mills

Last week, indie UK publisher Salt announced it would no longer publish single-author poetry collections, as poetry sales have fallen by 25% this past year. Every few weeks, it seems, a new pundit proclaims the death of poetry, and certainly from a commercial perspective, they’re right. But before you reach for your violin and start stage one of the grieving process, hear what Billy Mills has to say on the subject over at The Guardian.

First, the bad news. “The stark truth is that poetry publishing is not going to be particularly commercially viable, given that the total value of UK poetry sales has gone from £8.4m in 2009 to £6.7m last year,” Mills wrote. And, as I said, Salt’s cutting back on verse. But wait:

It would be a serious error to equate the demise of a single publisher with the overall state of health of poetry. Even Salt director Chris Hamilton-Emery has noted the “massive increase in the number of poetry publications coming out”, and he’s right. Jim Bennet’s extremely useful Poetry Kit website lists more than 400 UK poetry publishers, and while the list is broad…it shows the range of publishers around.

Plus, the revived oral tradition is thriving. Spoken poetry is so successful, hardcore print fans might feel understandably threatened:

There are more than 250 open mic events listed in the UK alone, not counting festivals and one-off readings. For many younger poets, open mics and poetry slams represent their first interaction with an audience – their first “publication”. In fact, some on both sides of the spoken word/print divide see the oral poetry movement as one of the biggest threats to print publication. After all, who needs to have a book out when you can perform to enthusiastic live audiences every week of the year? It’s enough to dismay the lovers of the printed artifact.

Poetry is very much alive, thanks to its inherant adaptability:

Where some see poetry as a dying art, I see it as an early and enthusiastic adopter of new technologies, partly because it has to be. Why? Well, if selling what you’re making isn’t going to make anyone rich, but you want to share it with those people who are interested, then you have to work out the cheapest way to do so. And right now it looks like that way is a mix of online, performance and print, with each supporting the other in a new model of publishing, one in which the printed collection is no longer the only accepted mode of publishing but remains a key part of the package. And given the apparent reluctance of most bookshops to stock verse, they’ll be sold mainly online and at events. It may not be big business, but that’s not what it’s setting out to be.

So if you love bottom lines, don’t invest in verse. But for those of us already invested—the world of poetry isn’t ending anytime soon, either with a bang or a wimper.


Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.