Poetry marketing

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the business side of the poetry business. I’m lucky: I don’t have to make a living from publishing. I’m unsubsidised, and will remain so – I make the decisions and I take the commercial risks. I publish poetry with the aim of selling it to people I hope will enjoy it. I aim to have books cover their costs within a year, and any additional income is re-invested in future books. All but one of my titles is in positive figures just now, and I’m confident that one will soon be in the black.

It’s my strong view that my relationship with authors should be an ongoing one. My responsibility to them doesn’t end with their launches, and marketing continues until stocks are exhausted. However, I’m a one-man band; I can’t do it all myself. When I take on an author I give them a copy of my business arrangements, which includes a statement that I expect them to be part of the sales force. So I organise launches and try to arrange readings, encourage poets to submit to magazines, I take part in pamphlet fairs, promote through blogs and websites, and do everything else I can to raise that author’s profile, and to convince people to buy their publications. I can’t publish poets who won’t take part in these activities, because my experience is that readings very often help to sell, and always increase public interest in the poets. I won’t publish any book I don’t think will cover its costs, because it’s me that pays the bills, not the taxpayer.

So, if I can set this in some kind of humorous context: I wouldn’t have published Philip Larkin (even if I liked his poetry), because he was notoriously reluctant to take part in public readings. I would have published Hugh MacDiarmid (although I think a pamphlet would cover his best work), because he was a notorious self-publicist. I wouldn’t have published Emily Dickinson (although I love her poetry), but I would have published Robert Burns – his contact list was fantastic. I could draw up a table, but you get the idea.

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About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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10 Responses to Poetry marketing

  1. deemikay says:

    And there's the problem: if it don't make money*, it won't get published; if it ain't published, it's seen to be no good…

    *or "isn't marketable", same thing.

  2. deemikay says:

    And it doesn't bode well for good unpublished poets who have the indecency to go and die! Unless they give readigns at seances ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Cadwallender says:

    I understand the problem Colin all too well. A couple of poets that I published in the past wouldn't do readings and what do you do if they won't sell their books? It took ages to shift their work and if it is crucial for cash flow and continued publication it can be devastating to small publishers.
    So poets kill off publishers quite often, which is never good. I used to grab a bunch of readers and launch books without the poets but ultimately it's about getting the books read and a poet who doesn't want their poems read is a rare beast. Larkin as I understand it didn't read for the same reason that he turned down the poet laureateship, because he no longer wrote. Fair enough.
    Your way of publishing is fantastic. No tricky contracts which aren't worth much anyway and a publisher that is honest, straightforward and not ripping off poets for imagined royalties.
    You do a fine job within logical limitations and I think you are admirable and a good role model for any would be small press publisher.

  4. Colin Will says:

    deemikay: The heavily subsidised major publishers do a great job in publishing dead poets and shy poets, and I'm glad they do. I'm not going to compete – it's a different part of the marketplace.

    Cadwallender: The cash flow issue is a crucial one for the small publisher, as we both know. Any time I've spoken to financial advisers they tell me I'm 'risk averse', but it's just my version of common sense.

  5. deemikay says:

    Sorry Colin, Iwasn't meaning to have a go at you. I was just meaning that in a society where marketability is increasingly becoming the main factor, only those who are marketable will be construed as "quality". Hence why 99% of "pop music" is full of uninteresting sound-a-likes. But there are still small independent labels who keep things interesting (if not "pop").

    Independent labels and publishers do good work. But when the big ones only start thinking about marketability, well…

    (sorry if I didn't make myself clear…)

  6. Colin Will says:

    deemikay: I didn't read it as having a go at me, so it's perfectly all right. It's just that the priorities of the small independent publisher are different from the biggies. The large publisher can afford to take the long view, knowing that it can take years for a less popular writer of quality to make a return, and sometimes that writer may have to be cross-subsidised by the sales of really popular titles. I'm glad that most of them take that approach. That's a situation we small publishers can't afford – we have to have a positive cash flow. That's not to say we can't take a punt on an unknown writer we believe in – I do that a lot. It's just that when I do that I have to create the demand for the book, and I can't do it without the active participation of the writer. That's part of the joy and excitement of publishing – helping new writers to blossom.

  7. deemikay says:

    Phew… good. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I don't envy you, it must be a tricky situation. But I'm very impressed that all but one have broken even (so far!). And the word "cashflow" makes me shudder… that's all I've been doing at work recently. :os

    However I *do* envy your obvious passion and drive to get these poets out – I mean, it's not as if you have to!

  8. Ms Baroque says:

    Well, what are these ivory towers without doors on them? I'm thinking of John Clare, going around raising subscriptions for his first volume… in other words, the publisher was never going to take all the risk.

    Different day, same dollar.

    (And Colin, here's a celestial sign for all of urs: the word recognition is "flabbem")

  9. C. E. Chaffin says:

    To break even while publishing poets speaks very well of you, Colin. Kudos!

  10. deemikay says:

    Ivory towers with no doors? Drafty… ๐Ÿ˜‰

    But as the worldwide ivory trade has gone pear-shaped over the past couple of decades (with very, very limited imports/exports) where are we to get out new ivory towers?

    Shocking state of affairs, shocking…

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