19.548 cautionary tales and the poetry market

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 7 Jan 2006 07:38:02 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 548.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 07 Jan 2006 07:24:16 +0000
         From: Ken Friedman <ken.friedman_at_bi.no>
         Subject: Cautionary tales and the poetry market


In response toWillard's post (19.538) and Norman's (19.541), I'd like
to suggest that both notes describe a problematic situation. Both
descriptions have merit, but the market for poetry is a strange and
specific market that work in a different way than either note suggests.

It's true as Norman notes that one segment of the poetry market
involves poets in residence, but these are not generally tenure-track
faculty. There are poetry teachers who must publish, but they tend to
be tenure-track faculty in departments of literature who also publish
criticism and scholarship. There are comparatively few positions for
poets who work as poets, teaching students how to write poetry, and
publishing only poetry.

By contrast, there are a great many more poets and small presses that
publish their work. The market for these books is quite tiny and
sporadic. Few bookstores sell poetry books, and most of those that do
maintain small poetry sections with a few dozen titles among the tens
of thousands of poetry books produced each year. Similarly, a few
universities collect poetry books, mostly buying them for the special
collections holdings, and these tend to focus on the work of some few
presses. The rest of the market seems to function in a narrow trade
among specialists or even as exchanged gifts among publisher-enthusiasts.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of these presses do not survive on
the proceeds. They are, for the most part, labors of love. They are
subsidized by publishers who work day jobs, or even by wealthy
publishers who actually pay to produce their books for markets that
do not repay the costs. Publishers and editors often contribute their
editorial, production, and marketing labor free. They publish books
by poets who want to be published. While the poets want copies of
their books, they rarely require advances or royalties. Many
publishers explicitly pay no royalties: payment is in books. Others
pay and advance and nothing more.

There is a good reason for this. As a former general manager at
Something Else Press, a distinguished small press that went defunct
in 1974, the first thing the president told me is that accounting on
our royalty checks would have cost more than the royalties we paid.
We paid in copies. And this was a successful small press, with press
runs of up to 3,000 copies of art, literature, and music books with
well over 1,000 regular library purchases per book.

We never did succeed in bookstores. Even though bookstores that
ordered our books always sold them out, our problems was developing a
good network of sales representatives who could cover the market,
surveying the shelves, and reminding the stores that it was time to
restock. We tried many companies and many solutions, and we never
solved that problem. Since mail order never really worked for us
either, our main market was university libraries, many with standing
orders for all our titles. It is difficult for a tiny publisher
without the kind of skills, capital, and staffing we had to aggregate
a large enough standing-order market to survive, let alone succeed.

Publishing is a business, and poetry publishing is the least
profitable and most difficult part of that business. Even major firms
that publish poetry subsidize their poetry books. They produce them
for many reasons, including belief, faith, love, and prestige. Money
is not among the main reasons, though a press that finds itself lucky
enough to have a poet who winds the Nobel prize or another major
prize will often reap a financial benefit after years of subsidy.

But this also suggests why John McCarthy's idea may not work. The
idea itself isn't bad. The problem is that most people don't want to
read poetry. It's not that they might pay a penny for a single poem
when don't want to pay fifteen dollars for a book. If people wanted
to read poetry, they'd be buying the books or reading poetry in the
New Yorker or even their daily newspapers. When I lived the the US
three decades ago, I would watch people read magazine like the New
York from time to time. I observed that they'd read some articles and
nearly every cartoon -- watching their eyes and the page would make
this clear. When they turned to a page with a cartoon and an article
they were not reading, they'd stop, read for a moment or two, then
move on. When they turned to a page with a poem and an article they
were not reading, they'd move on directly.

My conclusion is that there are three major markets for poetry. The
largest market for poetry is among poets. The smaller market is the
education market where institutions carry poetry in the curriculum
for students, and where scholars work with poetry for other reasons,
including research. The smallest market of all is a market in which
people who do not write poetry or work with it professionally pay to
consume it.

The web may change the dynamics of active markets. It will not
significantly change the dynamics of a market for any product people
will not otherwise buy.

I don't often buy poetry. When I have had reason to buy poetry, I've
bought books on the web. For example, I've gone to the web in recent
years to buy new translations of the Greek classics -- Homer,
Sophocles, Aeschylus -- by Robert Fagles, and a few collections of
translations and criticism. An article in the New York Times
interested me in the work of former US poet laureate Billy Collins,
so I ordered a few of his books. (I observe that most of the poet
laureates of the United States have been working as university
professors before and since holding the position.) When I discovered
that a couple of my Borges books had gone missing, I learned about a
collection of his poetry and purchased it. And then there was a
replacement for a lost copy of an excellent translation of the Elder
Edda. That's a total of less than two dozen books in ten years out of
hundreds I've bought and read, and all but four of these were updates
to old title in the form of new translations or replacement copies.
When you consider the fact that I represent a far more likely
audience for poetry than most web users, you can see why the
micro-market in poetry will not likely free up the kind of wealth
that John McCarthy thinks it will.

As that old poet Koholeth once said,

"Of making many books there is no end,
and much study wearies the body." (Eccles. 12:12)

I've always thought A. E. Houseman's comment on poetry an apt response,

"... malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:"

There are many wonderful poetry resources on the web. I just can't
imagine people paying to use them. Rather, like much else on the web,
they form a library of resources for the already literate who might
want to check a poem or a poet or find something when a book is not to hand.



Ken Friedman
Professor of Leadership and Strategic Design
Institute for Communication, Culture, and Language
Norwegian School of Management
Design Research Center
Denmark's Design School
email: ken.friedman_at_bi.no
Received on Sat Jan 07 2006 - 03:22:48 EST

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