I came across a link on a poetry group announcing the news that Salt Publishing was discontinuing its single-poet publications. Chris Hamilton-Emery says, "We have tried to commit to single-author collections by funding them ourselves, but as they have become increasingly unprofitable, we can't sustain it." I agree, this is sad news when a publisher gives up selling these types of books.
Many business owners all over the world agonize over compromises they are asked to make between what they want to sell, what customers want to buy and how to bridge the gap with marketing. I responded to the poster, saying
"Poets need to market, I hate to even say the words, outside of the box. I've been working on speaking in front of academics in science and other fields to show the value of poetry as a part of their overall scheme of research. We are living in such a practical-based world where (a) people seek practical enlightenment in their free time and (b) they are buying all their books online. Poets need to make their books appeal to this practicality and make sure poetry books can be found via online searches. It's a challenge but I won't give up hope...
I've blogged about:
- Using Poetry for Research
- Supporting poetry-based projects on Kickstarter
- Tagging to Serve Poetry: I also feel we can help each other out but tagging our favorite poetry books on Amazon and other online storefronts so someone searching for a topic like PTSD or motherhood or whatever will find books of poetry on that subject and possibly get hooked.
Again, traditional methods won't solve the situation."
The poster responded thusly:
"i think the situation is very complex and not merely a matter of sales and marketing but lies at in the changing fabric of cultural importance and the role of art in a totally commoditised environment. The questions that need to be asked are not just of poets or even publishers, but of educators and society as a whole."
I get a shudder down my spine reading this. This argument is basically that it's the customer's problem, not ours. You recognize it instantly if you're ever watched an episode of Kitchen Nightmares where Gordon Ramsay goes into a failing restaurant to try to help the owners turn things around. Invariably the owner states to Ramsay that the restaurant's problem is not their food quality, is not their decor, is not their levels of service or their menu selections.
Their ego can never take the next step of logic: you have no customers because...(your food sucks, your decor is outdated, your service is slow and your menus are uninspiring). Customers are not stupid. It just makes you feel better to believe they are.
"The questions that need to be asked are not just of poets or even publishers, but of educators and society as a whole" is another way of blaming the customer. And contempt for the customer never works in turning a business around. Like...never.
And selling books, reality check, is a business.
We must question a phrase like "the role of art in a totally commoditised environment" because both art and books are commodities...unless you give your books away for free or strap them up on a public monument. In fact, some would argue that books and poetry are part of the whole art/information/entertainment glut of trash we produce in this world. So if we could stop pretending and pretentiously sanctifying what we do for a moment, we might relate more effectively with our customers. Or at least be in a position to listen to them.
The paradigm of publishing is transforming just like the sales of music transformed a decade ago. And it's transforming similarly because publishers haven't been listening to their customers or serving their authors (my husband is at this moment reading a University of Oklahoma Press book full of confusing typos and grammatical errors).
The poetry biz is a long shot of long shots, especially considering even new novelists are struggling to find an audience. Actors, producers and directors are struggling to get an audience. Poets for years have been only marketing to other poets who cry poor and don't buy books of poetry. Meanwhile, in the outside world poetry has lost its moral authority and barely retains any intellectual authority. How does any business turn around a slump or a bad reputation: marketing.
It's all about marketing for everybody. And if you keep on denying reality and stubbornly adhere to the techniques that have been failing for the last 20-30 years, the same lame excuses about how society doesn't value poetry, you will sink.
I've been watching old episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show this week on DVD. Even in the first season's episodes from the early 1970s, the characters were complaining about the same things we complain about today: nobody watches the news, insurance companies are a racket, it's hard to find time for our heart's pursuits. Not much has changed in all these years. New technology just provides new ways for us to be who we already were. And even technologies are failing to better technologies. Cable TV has ignored and gouged their customers so long, Hulu is threatening them. Amazon has finally crushed the big book superstores who once crushed your small, independent, local bookstores. Nothing has changed fundamentally, including all the hand-wringing from the complainers and excuse-givers.
"They have bad taste and it's not my fault."
That's okay to believe if you want an empty restaurant.
Listen poetry peoples, you took this boat out on the bay and you've been sinking for years. Stop blaming the water.