As I sit down with a cup of tea in my favourite mug (pictured above – just an excuse to feature it, really! I inherited it from my mum, it used to be one of pair but the other got broken, and I’m so attached to this one I dread anything happening to it. It’s not as if I’m a raving royalist but I love the kitsch of it, so wonderfully lacking in irony, plus there’s just something touching about this reminder of Charles and Di in their youth, before all that stuff happened…) erm, where was I?
Anyway, I was just thinking about my fellow book group members who I’ll be seeing tonight, and how popular book groups seem to be, and why more people don’t read poetry .. the perennial question! I was also thinking of a conversation I had earlier this week with Margaret Wilmot about her new pamphlet, published by the highly respected Michael Laskey at Smith’s Knoll, and the challenge of distribution and sales. I was also thinking of a blog post I read yesterday at Rack Press Poetry about Amazon listing pamphlets as ‘unavailable’ when they actually are (but not from Amazon).
There is so much intelligent debate around the issue of how to get more people reading and buying poetry. I enjoyed this recent post by Judi Sutherland, for example, and her ideas of what she would do if she were the ‘marketing manager for UK Poetry plc’.
Of course, the distribution issue is classic chicken-and-egg. Bookshops won’t stock poetry from publishers or authors they’ve never heard of – not just because they fear they won’t sell (they can always send them back) but because the valuable retail space they would occupy is more profitably allocated to yet more copies of the latest E L James or whatever. So bookshop browsers never come across any poetry books, don’t know even the names of any poets and therefore are never going to ask for poetry or poets.
I know this argument well, from my experience in the sports industry. In the 1990s, UK sports retailers were notoriously male-sport-oriented. Independent stores in particular were owned and managed by men. They refused to stock a decent range of women’s sports shoes, their argument being that ‘women won’t pay more than £30 for a paid of trainers’ or even that ‘women buy kids trainers because they go up to their size and are cheaper.’ It didn’t seem to occur to them that women were only buying those products because they had no choice, and didn’t know what else was available. Retailers wouldn’t take the risk, didn’t understand what female customers wanted and didn’t care about the product except in terms of SKUs (stock keeping units) and getting the highest turnover per-square-foot.
Getting retailers to stock women’s sports shoes took an awful lot of work: sales reps had to be educated and incentivised, demand had to be generated and demonstrated, point-of-sale material had to be funded together with other shared-risk schemes and special conditions, favours had to be called in. The manufacturer had to put their shoes on high-profile female athletes and use them in advertising. All before retailers would take a chance on women’s shoes. And we’re not talking about a tiny shoe manufacturer that the retailer had never heard of. This was Nike. (You may think things aren’t much different today but trust me, it’s better than it was.)
I don’t see how it can be any easier for a publishing niche such as poetry, especially considering the tragic state of retail in general right now. The excellent Inpress appears to do a great job on behalf of independent presses, getting poetry books into bookshops. But in general, retail does not take risks, and if I ever have a pamphlet to sell I won’t hold my breath for Waterstones or Foyles to stock it.
So can anything be done to stimulate demand? I think we have to devise more ways to get poetry onto the radar of what Judi Sutherland calls the ‘nearly theres’. I’ve always loved Poems on the Underground, for example. I’m not so keen on the watering down of poetry by harnessing it to something else ‘more popular’, such as bringing out a poet or two at a music festival. I worry that it may reinforce the association between poetry and song lyrics, when it would be nice to see them have an argument occasionally. But maybe that’s just me.
Perhaps all of us who are in a book group should introduce a volume of poetry when it’s our turn to choose, rather than a novel. Perhaps we can help get poetry into more public spaces – shop windows, noticeboards, on the backs of bar menus, on buses, on mugs. Perhaps we should think like old-style ‘interruption’ advertisers. A poetry short in place of one of those endless trailers before a film. How about some guerrilla poems left around town on tables or in shops – the knitters and crochet people do this very well! We need more (some!) poetry on TV – come on, film-makers, I can think of half a dozen ideas for a compelling poetry-themed programme.
OK my tea’s cold now, so rant over. Let me know your thoughts. Have we really tried everything? Is poetry destined to be forever a teeny drop in the publishing ocean?