What’s a poor publisher to do?

I’ve just read with sadness Todd Swift’s blog posting about the situation at Eyewear Publishing. It’s sad because (a) I don’t like to see poetry publishers in difficulty, (b) I admire what they’ve achieved, and (c) one of my friends is on their 2014 list.

And yet I can’t be surprised. Without sponsorship, subsidy, a benefactor or author contributions to costs, it’s become increasingly difficult to cover the expenses of poetry publishing from sales. Readers are just not buying poetry books in sufficient quantities to justify investment in publishing. This news comes not long after Salt Publishing cut its poetry list. E-publishing isn’t taking up the slack – poetry sales are not exactly setting the heather on fire.

Publishers have to ask themselves: who are the poetry buyers, and why has their buying behaviour changed? And it has changed in the last three years or so. I’m not in a position to do any market research myself, but my feeling is that a large section of the poetry-buying public consists of poets. Maybe I’ve met a wealthy poet; I wouldn’t know, they tend to keep it hidden. The majority of poets have to look after their money, because you can’t make a living from writing poetry alone. So they’re spending less as the cost of living has risen. Again, a sensible proportion of potential buyers are on the distaff side of 50, if not yet of pension age. As a pensioner myself, I’m only too aware of the pressures that puts on people. So we’re spending less too. I still buy poetry, because I want to, and because I can, but I’m conscious that others can’t.

Calder Wood Press has run at a deficit for several years now, and it’s uncomfortable, because my pension is my major income source. The deficit is mainly the result of over-optimistic publishing decisions taken in 2010 and 2011. Sales of 2012 titles have been good, and I’m optimistic for the 2013 ones too, but there’s a long way to go. I used to do quite well from online sales from my website, but orders have dropped like a stone in recent years. Royal Mail didn’t help by having huge pre-privatisation price increases for overseas postage. It shouldn’t cost nearly four quid to post a five quid pamphlet to America, but it does. My overseas sales are now zero, and I no longer offer to supply overseas customers. I sell well at readings where Calder Wood Press authors are reading, and that’s where I have to concentrate in the year ahead.

I said earlier that I wouldn’t take on any new titles in 2014, but I’ll concentrate on marketing existing titles, through organising roadshows and showcase events for the authors I’ve already published, who are also my friends – such is the way with my kind of publishing. I’m not attracted to subsidy or asking for contributions to costs. I know it works for some, but I’d be uncomfortable. At the end of the day, I’m not a professional publisher, but a writer who loves to publish others, to create books I believe in. I just wish more of the poetry-buying public were willing and able to fork out a fiver for a pamphlet. And I wish, without much hope, for a UK government that puts its people before its financiers.

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About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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4 Responses to What’s a poor publisher to do?

  1. Thanks for this interesting perspective, Colin. I wish you a successful 2014. I’ve bought pamphlets from you, not only because you have an eye for a good poem but because of your personality which comes across through the etherwaves! . I hope others do the same.

  2. One of the reasons I love pamphlets is that they’re affordable. I am always a bit baffled by how expensive some poetry books are – I’d just very rarely spend £10 on a book, I’m afraid. (And I buy a lot of books, and quite a lot of poetry). I think of all genres, poetry does seem particularly fantastical in a way – tiny sales, yet many publishers still seem to want to charge big prices. I’d like to give a shout for anthologies, of which I wish there were more, and which I think are the perfect way to bring in new or casual readers. And while e-publishing might be a bit rubbish for poetry (I’ve bought one collection for kindle, and hated reading it), it might be worth giving out more free sample tasters electronically, etc?
    Best of luck for 2012, Colin!

  3. sunnydunny says:

    Thanks both. Nikki: It’s because the sales are so small that the prices have to be high enough to cover the costs. It’s a particular problem if a business model requires that costs are recovered within a year (quite a common model). The pricing equation involves print run, print costs, other costs (launch etc), against projected sales. And many small press publishers don’t include our own costs (time, expenses) in the equation – we do it for nothing.

    • I know, I know the reasons behind the high prices. But the simple result is that people buy far fewer books. Publishing has been a strange and poor business model for many years, it’s now coming (I think) to crisis point. A smaller audience genre like poetry might feel the worst of this commercially, although perhaps precisely because so many write (and publish) it for love it may paradoxically find itself protected at the core from the storm cutting through paper publishing.

      (I just noticed that I wished you well for 2012. It seems I’m going backwards in time. Oh dear!)

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