Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On the death of print and... too many poetry books?

Neil Astley, of the estimable Bloodaxe Books, in answer to a question posted on the Magma Poetry blog about whether there are too many poetry books being published, gives us some perspective:

"[The following] 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!"

But surely there's nothing new here, no death-of-print following on the heels of the death-of-the-author.  Anyhow, is there a problem?  As George Gissing (he of New Grub Street fame) put it in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft:

"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?"

Well, films - nobody says there are too many of those.  I blogged my resistance to Bright Star a while ago, and can now add even more about what Christopher Ricks, whose love of Keats and movies is profound, feels about the thing:  "The film is mistaken to the point of perversity about the nature of imagination when it comes to a poet and especially to this poet." He makes quite a case for this in the New York Review of Books, exploring the difference between showing pictures (which is what films do) and visualization:

"To visualize is not the same as to see; more, it is incompatible with seeing.  It is to form a mental picture of something not visible, perhaps not present, perhaps not even possible.  There isn't a counterpart to the word 'visualize' for any of the other sense, for hearing or touching or tasting or smelling.  Though we can perfectly well imagine hearing something, touching something, tasting something, or smelling something, we don't have a word for doing so: we don't audibilize, tactilize, gustatize, or olfactorize, any more than we have a counterpart in the other sense for what it is to picture something."

And he wonderfully quotes Ruskin -

"It might be at first thought that the whole kingdom of imagination was one of deception also.  Not so: the action of the imagination is a voluntary summoning of the conceptions of things absent or impossible; and the pleasure and nobility of the imagination partly consist in its knowledge and contemplation of them as such, i.e. in the knowledge of their actual absence or impossibility at the moment of their apparent presence or reality....  It is necessary to our rank as spiritual creatures, that we should be able to invent and to behold what is not; and to our rank as moral creatures, that we should know and confess at the same time that it is not."

I'm heartened that Ruskin can be quoted and valued in the twenty first century - not just by Ricks, but by the formidable Mark Scroggins!  Anyway, the sentences above, from "The Lamp of Truth" (one of the Seven Lamps of Architecture) contain what could constitute a devastating critique of contemporary American poetics.  But maybe we're all just too busy trying to get published, or going to the movies, to behave as spiritual or moral creatures.


Steven Fama said...

The figures from BookScan (e.g., only 1 in 10,000 books sold is poetry) are mighty interesting. However, They probably don't include the entirety of small presses or any of the small press direct sales.

No doubt though, the number of poetry titles sold is relatively small.

Another key phrase in the post, I think, "Every [poetry] book has its particular readership, however small or specialised or locally based." I agree completely.

Maybe also worth considering, and discussing, is the relative abilities and desires of particular poets to develop or cultivate a readership. Like many others engaged in creative work (for example, artists), poets range widely in their ability to understand and act with regard to finding and relating to their audience. Of course, this concerns only those who deem it important to have an audience or readers. Some -- and its a legitimate creative approach -- write only for themselves, and have little or no need for an audience.

Don Share said...

That's all extremely well put, Steven. Thank you.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Thanks for the George Gissing quote, Don. As the gist of your post indicates, it should be comforting to many.

Mark Scroggins said...

I like that Gissing quote, too. Dovetails nicely with Thoreau's parable of the Indian & his basket in Walden, which I quote some ages ago --

I'm considering legally adding "The Formidable" to my name.