The poetry boom, and how to tackle the fear factor

The poetry boom

This is a guest post by Anne Nolan. Anne is a freelance publishing consultant, working with small independent and scholarly publishers. She is a board member of the Reading-based arts, history and poetry publisher Two Rivers Press, and consultant Marketing Director for Arc Humanities Press.

The Poetry Corner at this year’s London Book Fair was buzzing, and there were lots of useful nuggets for publishers. If you can get over the fear factor, most people love a poem. Asked to define what makes a poem good, one speaker came up with a phrase that I loved: “Good poetry is words working hard – the fewest words doing the most work”.

Poetry is booming

Non-fiction sales are flat in the UK, but two areas are bucking this trend: both poetry and politics books have shown increased sales over the past year. Poetry now is a movement.

Don Paterson (Picador Poetry Editor and poet) spoke at the session Poetry for a Change: Why Poetry is Booming. Is the current boom sustainable? The clue is in the word “boom” – it will pass, but there are more women and working-class writers coming through and this should help to sustain the market. It is Don’s view that the long-term sustainability of the imprint is a moral imperative for the publisher. Word of mouth is the key driver of sales, and in the spoken word scene the poet is the point of sale. Hearing a reading can be a lightbulb moment which brings a poem alive. And a lot of the poetry market is poets themselves (they buy each other’s work).

Anthologies – democracies of ideas

Anthologies are very popular with readers. They can be thought of as a democracy of ideas, representing a wide range of views. Anthologies can give an outlet to voices which might not usually be heard (a new or untried writer who might not normally be considered for publication can be easily included in an anthology). And good curation results in something that is more than the sum of its parts. Individually stories might be dull but when properly curated these stories become alive.

Are you scared of poems?

Many people are scared of poetry, and feel they have to analyse it like they did at school. Publishers and poets need to find a way to remove the fear. I caught part of the Poetry for a Change: Health and Happiness session where William Sieghart, the author of The Poetry Pharmacy, was speaking. His book springs from the idea that poetry can be a comfort to people, and it’s structured so that a problem is outlined on one page, then a poem appropriate for the problem is “prescribed” and printed on the opposite page. He has done poetry prescription sessions at literary festivals and has been amazed at how many people want a poem prescribed. He spoke about one session lasting many hours instead of the scheduled one. People really respond to poetry when it’s made relevant for them.

Tips for drawing readers in

A useful concept for publishers is “I love this poem because…”. Context is everything. You need a way to remove the fear, to connect with people. Stories sell stories. An introductory “why I wrote these poems” foreword from poets can draw people into a collection. And buddy systems for promotion are useful – “If you like X, you will like Y”.

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