Nor any drop to drink (but the glass is full)
Can a 'market model' for poetry work - creating significant profit then
growth for a publisher, producing poetry they consider of artistic value?
By 'significant' I mean enough to live on, without being in poverty.
'Artistic value' is impossible to define at the time, but it clearly means something, to all poetry publishers. None of them would
sideline in birthday card or Xmas cracker ditties.
Of course, I'm writing in response to Salt's exit from publishing individual
It's particularly important, since they worked tirelessly, on the assumption
that a market model was sustainable. Salt is a small business (the real
heroes of a free economy) for whom making money is essential. And, in the
process, they have published a huge amount of excellent work, some of which
will survive and make this discussion irrelevant then (but not - perhaps -
Who needs persuading now not to trust it, in determining (rather than just
delivering) value? Entire industries - and fortunes - are made and lost, by
guessing or manipulating its value indicators. And no one involved goes back
to reassess actual value. The point is to make money at the time, which
frequently occurs. Not coincidentally, those who admire markets per se are in
that position, or assume they will be.
Market value is a supposed value - what someone (maybe everyone) says it is,
until enough people say it isn't, or hear and fear so. Whatever empirical
data goes into initial value calculations, once trading starts, that's what
happens. Some economists claim market corrections prove how effective the
market is - the 'efficient/intelligent' market paradigm. That seems like
giving credit to a bath for overflowing.
I saw this first hand, in a previous life as commercial negotiator. We'd use
risk analysis and genius modellers, to predict 'net present values' against
market price projections. And that was that, no backward glances. This was
when Enron were doing the same, with record breaking bankruptcy as the
A few years ago, there was a 'Poets on Fire' thread in which Chris Emery
discussed how the market for experimental poetry had dropped badly (he may
have used the term late modernist or even non-mainstream). Consequently, his
business was realigning. This was hugely significant, given Salt's historical
position as a publisher of experimental work. And now, his recent statements suggest this has happened
to almost all of their poetry sales.
One obvious point is that a poetry market barely exists, in sales terms. When
the biggest sellers manage tens of thousands, then speaking statistically
about a market's movements must be highly questionable. In technical terms,
the market is illiquid. But Emery seemed to be claiming that the market had
made its value judgement, and like any business, he would have to follow.
Significantly, he has many times asserted that the only 'authority' or
'establishment' in British poetry is the readership. They make the decisions.
This is the 'intelligent market' paradigm. It has the attraction of appearing
to be inclusive and diverse, whilst allowing for all sorts of marketing
It also seems preposterous. Whilst it is true that some canonical poets sold
significantly, even a quick glance shows that figures such as Blake, Rimbaud
(or, for the 'mainstream', Emily Dickinson) were valued at 'junk bond' status
- or not even 'floated' - when alive.
And in contemporary terms, where are these discerning readers? Presumably
reading (the excellent) Alan Halsey, then sensing a change in the waters and
switching to Su Tenderdrake, with her 'harrowing accounts of childbirth in
As to the denial of an any 'authority' or 'establishment', there is a
terrible twist to it. Salt were quite clearly (and rightly) piqued at their
poor returns, in terms of winning major awards. These are an obvious 'price
fixing' event, by an establishment cartel of a few publishing houses.
All of these publishers promote the lyrical epiphany mode, with diminishing
returns, from an exhausted team of poet-seers. Their dominant authority is
closely linked to the left-liberal intelligentsia's cultural stranglehold.
This is weakening, although not without a fight: global events, post-2008 and
- especially - the collapse of paternalistic 'gate keepers' (via the
internet) - are eroding their power and cultural reach.
Bloodaxe provide a blatant example of this. No publisher has more courted the
new orthodoxies of identity politics, nor more cynically posed as a champion of excluded
readers, alienated by 'inaccessible' hierophantic poetry, that is
uninterested in 'real people' (whoever those much patronised creatures are).
Their execrable anthologies, with flares and Cuban heel titles, assume a
bovine audience of dullards, awaiting liberation.
If I was reading this, I'd be saying: what are you proposing?
The first thing is to be grateful.
Grateful to be forgetting ill-understood - and brutally crude - ideas of
markets and sales. Get stuff online, in places where it will be read. Ignore
all prizes but buy and read as much as you can, from the small publishers
(and Salt was one), especially looking outside the UK.
Ignore all reviews and puff pieces in the dying broadsheets - restrict
yourself to reading 'Let's Move to...' in Saturday's Guardian -
it showcases the snobbish and colonial mindset of an elite whose time is
© Paul Sutton 2013