Many of these short pieces refine views I’ve already aired, either here or on other forums.
Last week, Salt announced they would no longer be publishing single author collections of poetry. This decision should be understood as commercially sensible at least: over their 13 years of poetry publishing, Salt barely made a dent in the major prize shortlists, one of the few known routes to respectable sales for poetry collections. Last year, however, one of their novels was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, proving that in the world of fiction at least there’s still room left for independent presses. As the publishing industry leans more and more heavily on break-out success stories, it would certainly be risky for Salt to continue to pin its hopes on a medium whose major prizes might be said to be almost entirely culturally and critically aligned with the lists of older, more established presses.
But Salt authors (including myself and Kirsty) still have reason to feel gipped. Salt were generous when it came to making room on their list; even in recent years, they courted young and new poets through the Crashaw Prize. This meant they stood out as one of – if not the – main delivery mechanisms for a major new wave of poetry, characterised by writers like Luke Kennard, Chris McCabe, Sophie Mayer and Mark Waldron. At their best, the quality of book production also outshone their heavyweight contemporaries. The flipside of this was no author advance, an often-strained system of promotional support, and the perennial instability of the press itself.
Some poets will almost certainly have opted for Salt when the possibility of a more secure deal with a bigger press was not entirely distant, and done so in the spirit of joining in a mutual endeavour to challenge the existing hegemony, or at least join a fresher stable. An adventure in parallel with one’s contemporaries, rather than in competition. Faith in the quality of work over faith in marketing weight. They may have done so in the full knowledge that Salt might fail, that all would go down together. What they won’t necessarily have expected is for Salt to take off in a newly discovered lifeboat, leaving them stranded. It’s the non-transference of the publisher’s good fortune to its authors that is most disappointing.
The most cynical commentators could accuse Salt of harvesting an optimistic and richly talented generation for the sake of finding what they eventually found in Alison Moore – an unexpected overnight success – the kind of behaviour that mainstream publishers are often charged with. This would, however, be to forget the genuine and infectious enthusiasm with which Salt’s Chris Hamilton-Emery publicly spoke of his list and the consistent quality of his selections.
What the move appears to be symptomatic of, however, is a literary culture which struggles to contend with that greater part of the writing spectrum between established seniority and hot young thing. It’s no surprise that, as Clare Pollard astutely observes in her post on the subject, the notion of ‘emerging talent’ has grown more and more elastic, as this is where the bulk of funding is targeted and where money is to be made from courses, academies and ‘sensational’ debuts. Ultimately, Salt, in taking on so many such debuts, put itself in a situation where it would have to market second and third collections by poets who were not heavyweight prize-fighters, a daunting challenge for any press.
Here’s a quote from that same post by Clare Pollard:
It seems to me there are choices to be made. One option is for arts bodies to start supporting ‘emerged’ poets as actively as those who are ‘emerging’. Another might be to accept that the days of the physical, 60-page collection are over and find a different model of poetic success.
Marketing poetry books is difficult. This is especially true of the slim single-author collection, a medium whose main role is arguably to confer an illusory status on the author (this is true of prizes even more so, but that’s another matter). It doesn’t help that so many are sold as if they were almost the same book with a different name: a significant poet’s debut or latest collection, breaking new territory while remaining grounded in human (ie. relatable) experiences. An intimate connection with history/the past, a gift for words that resonate, and so on. This is not because poetry publishers are so much less imaginative than fiction or non-fiction publishers; it’s because reflecting the individuality of a book of poetry in blurb and cover image is a mystical art in itself. Style and voice do not lend themselves to summary the way plot and subject matter do.
Faber’s block-colour approach serves them well. Colours carry associations of mood and temperament that aid us in intuiting character and making personal choices. Display seven block-colour books in a row, innocuously titled, by equally unknown authors, and the reader will still likely be drawn to one or two over the others. Their copy, however, is no better than anyone else’s, and whatever your promotional tack, you will almost certainly be relying, at some point, on the copy.
Put simply, as I’ve noted before, poetry is difficult to talk about, and that is as true for its publishers as it is for its audience. This is not how it has to be – it’s partially the result of publishers and promoters (including, manifestly, poets themselves) circling the same expressional formulae, those that have served poets well in the past. The unspoken assumption here is that describing poetry is not itself a creative process but an analytical one, a matter of judiciousness. Supposedly, the tools are in the box and it’s a matter of using them appropriately. In fact, what we need are new tools. And lots of them.
I suggested in the previous set of micro-essays that the sheer abundance of new poetry being written is a positive thing. Where there is, perhaps, a failing is that instead of this abundance of poetry striking out in many different directions, much of it ends up advancing on the same spot, promoting itself to the same slowly shrinking audience – the known rather than the unknown. I don’t want to be absolute about this – clearly, there is considerable effort to do otherwise, at grassroots level at least. I also don’t wish to suggest that there is some obvious alternative tack that is being unaccountably missed – who knows what other audiences truly exist? But I would suggest that it’s this predominantly conservative (commercially sensible?) approach that has led in itself to a lack of marketing options and to the difficulty we now collectively experience in finding ways to individualise poets in the eyes of potential consumers.
Why do I suggest, earlier on, that there should be a particular problem marketing second or third collections? Partly it is the funding situation with its emphasis on ‘emergence’, which itself seems to be founded on the myth that a first collection represents the final stage of a poet’s journey towards his or her appreciative audience. Funding is tight across the board, but see if you can find anything anywhere earmarked for nurturing writers who are just past the point of their first collection.
Partly, however, it’s an issue of individualisation. Poets (with the help of their publishers) aim, one way or another, to project an identity, and a successful first collection will usually evince that identity. The title, cover and copy all play their part in setting out the poet’s stall. If all the elements work well together, they will imbue the work with a sense of supreme freshness and individuality. Here he/she is, like nothing you’ve ever read before!
Second and third collections inevitably risk coming across as a repeat. They can’t reset the poet’s identity, and so they fall to reemphasising it or attempting to convince the audience of some meandering ‘evolution’. Fiction has a double advantage here: the plot, at least, is always new, and, more importantly, fiction is easily spent. Once the story is exhausted, the only way to get more of the same is to buy the author’s next book. But poetry boasts depth. It has a far longer half-life. It releases its secrets and its flavour slowly at first, and always seems to keep some held back. Very often, therefore, readers who want more from the same well can return to it and keep drawing. The second or third collection is not just a repeat but a surfeit.
It’s therefore far more urgent for publishers to individualise not just every poet, but every book of poetry, in order to appeal to the widest range of tastes and partialities imaginable. That is, unless they have that most unlikely of things: a cash cow or runaway success, for which no surefire formula exists.