The Tree gang is doing something new, at least new to me, by inviting a publisher to come and talk. Last night John Buschek spoke about the state of Canadian poetry publishing. Buschek Books started in 1996 with awards right off the bat for its authors. Apostrophes: woman at a window by E.D. Blodgett,the first poetry book published, won the Governor General’s award and sold 2,000 copies. Unfortunately that’s unusual rather than the norm for poetry.
He talked about the need to increase readership, about signs that even in the literary community, current poetry is being given short shrift. The audience participated in an impromptu discussion. I’d like to see more discussions with publishers at Tree, but more of a Q & A thing. As someone who has vague ideas about one day getting a manuscript published, (although I wonder why) it would be more interesting to hear about the details of that.
One of the things I’m learning about poetry publishing in Canada is how much it has to rely on the authors to purchase copies (at discount prices), since it’s difficult to make sales required by the Canada Council, which requires 500 copies be sold; although according to Buschek this number might be lowered. In some cases, if a publisher can’t get the author to purchase something like 200 copies, he won’t publish. That to me is quite inappropriate; although I understand where the need comes from.
I find it hard to understand why anyone would become a poetry publisher. I don’t mind a labour of love where you can’t make a significant return on your investment, but I think you have to at least break even, and I don’t hear a lot of publishers saying this is the case. Or are they? If they at least break even, then poetry would be getting in to the hands of those who wanted it, writers would be getting their stuff published. Seems ok, just barely, but ok for those who have the money and time to take this white elephant on.
I understand the notion that poetry needs new readers, but this is an old song I’ve heard too many times before. That isn’t going to happen on a large scale. You can’t change the world. Outside of the small literary community I’m in, when I suggest to anyone they might like to try reading modern poetry, say…sometime after the 19th century, they look at me as if I’m advising them to eat paste. You aren’t going to succeed in getting the Da Vinci Code reading public to like and purchase poetry.
As a former business person in a profitable but niche business with a small market, I learned that you have to market to your current customers, sell them fries with their burgers, then get them to act as emissaries to others they think might appreciate the product also.
I like what I’ve seen publishers like Brick Books, Greenboathouse Books and Bookthug doing of late: selling annual subscriptions. It’s something above/ground press has being doing for years, since the beginning I think. I don’t know whether this would be a profitable market model or not, but if it does succeed, it would provide a steady inflow of revenue and advance sales.
Distributors take 40%. Bookstores take their cut. So what’s left for the author and the publisher? Readers of today’s poetry purchase stuff on line, they read websites and blogs. They buy poetry from Abebooks and other sources. It’s still important to get books into bookstores, but if you can bypass the distributor, do so. I have a pal who ran a small magazine. His US distributor went bankrupt and poof: a bunch of money owing and sales into the States completely ruined. That was all it took for his small magazine to tank.
I wonder how the small literary community can help support our publishers. Yes, we can buy books and we can make sure our literary loving brothers and sisters know about what’s going on. But what else? I think one thing is to talk it up. If you like a book, write a review. If you go to a reading, blog about it, tell your friends.
If your friends have kids, get them to lobby to put Canadian poetry on the curriculum. I was astounded to learn that in 2006 schools are still teaching secondary school students to memorize the Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. They need to hear stuff from their time. Until I was in my twenties, I didn’t even know a thing about any poetry except dusty old tomes written in the stone age.
Other than that I’m a firm believer in the Internet to get a buzz going about books. There’s this crazy book called House of Leaves. It was first published gradually over the Internet where it developed a cult following. Once it was published as a book it became a best seller immediately. There have been similar phenomena in Canadian poetry, think Eunoia by Christian Bök. Apparentlly the book sold more than 15,000 copies in less than twelve months, but this is an anomoly, isn't it?
I think poetry has a respectable following by a small segment of the population and I just can’t see it growing significantly. I do worry about the survival of publishers who are somehow philanthropic and altruistic enough to bother publishing this stuff and I wonder whether new publishers will bother getting in to it. I don’t have any answers to this, only…this is an age old conundrum, yet poetry keeps on keeping on. John Buschek's company has been around for ten years and others too. That says something to me.
If you’re crazy enough or committed enough to get into publishing poetry, you need to be very innovative and you need pals with deep pockets. If you are in publishing to make large sums of money, think again. If you want to make money, go into the parking lot business. It’s a guaranteed moneymaker.
I should mention that Jan Allen, the feature last night, was excellent. She read from Personal Peripherals (Buschek Books, 2006) and also her latest stuff, which was vivid, full of imagination, sound play, gorgeous language…I enjoyed the open mic too. It was great to hear Stephen Brockwell read some new work. One of his poems, Whip Lightning, was enthralling and stayed with me this morning.
Next Tree reading on August 22 features Andrew Steinmetz. Be there or be square.