An Open Letter to Poetry Publishers and Magazines

Hello, my name is Paul McMenemy, I edit a magazine called Lunar Poetry, and I want to open a dedicated poetry bookshop in London. We are currently running a crowdfunding campaign at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-lunar-poetry-bookshop, which runs till Friday, 5th June. Please do spread the word, and contribute if you can, but the point of this letter is more to persuade you to let us stock your publications, than to give us your money (although, by all means, do both if you like). To this end, I am going to address three questions: what exactly we want to do, how we are going to do it, and why it is worth doing.

Naively, perhaps, I think that the “why” ought to be fairly obvious to people involved in the promotion of poetry, so I will start with the “what” and the “how”. Those of you who are not yet convinced that a poetry bookshop is a necessary thing can skip down a few paragraphs to where I explain that point, if you wish, and rejoin the rest of us here later.

What

I’klectik Artlab in Waterloo, London have agreed to let us have part of their gallery/café/performance venue at a low rent to use as a permanent physical poetry bookshop. Staff will be paid the London living wage. Lunar Poetry Podcast Editor, poet, and actual real-life carpenter, David Turner, has agreed to knock us up some shelves. We aim to fill these with the largest selection of poetry we can, focussing on, but not limited to, contemporary UK poetry – this stock is our main initial outlay, and the reason for the crowdfunding appeal.

We intend to use this physical space not just to sell print poetry, but to act as a centre for poetry in as many forms as possible, holding readings, performances, book launches, workshops, book clubs, reading groups, writing groups, collaborative projects, exhibitions and anything else we can think of. In addition to this physical space we intend to have a web analogue of the bookshop through which poetry can be ordered and explored with greater convenience than is currently the case. Finally, we are going to use the bookshop as a base from which to launch poetry bookselling into the wider world, bringing poetry for sale to markets, book fairs, readings, spoken word nights, etc.

How (The Money Bit – if you’re not a publisher, you probably want to skip this)

The best way for us to buy your stock will differ from publisher to publisher, but there are three main options.

  1. We buy stock from you up front at a trade discount and resell it at the cover price (or at any discounted price we choose). This involves the highest risk for us – as we may end up with stock which won’t sell – and may not be the best thing for you, as you may end up selling out of copies of an item while there is still demand for it, knowing copies are lying unsold in our shop. As such, this is the option which would offer the lowest profit margin for you.
  1. The simplest form of sale or return: giving us the stock for a limited period of time at no cost, at the end of which we pay you an agreed percentage of the profits of any copies sold, and return the unsold copies. While this is obviously good for the bookshop, in that we have no initial outlay, it is not necessarily so good for you. As such, this option would be the one which offers the highest profit margin for you.
  1. The preferred option for us – and the most mutually beneficial – is a median arrangement between the first two options, wherein we pay a certain percentage of the cover price up front, in order to stock an item for a certain period of time, on the agreement that we pay a higher percentage per copy sold at the end of the period, and that the initial fee per unsold copy would be returnable to us in exchange for those unsold copies. This means that you get something up front, and a higher margin per copy sold, and if we are unable to sell some of the copies, those copies would be returnable to you, in return for the initial fee per unsold copy.

I hope these options are clear; if not they will become clearer once we start negotiating figures. [Edit: for some examples with hypothetical figures, click here.] I want to be as open about this process as possible, but there is no point in setting hard and fast numbers here when the circumstances of individual publishers differ greatly. I realise that most poetry publishers work on very small margins (those that actually make a profit at all) and as such am willing to do my best to accommodate this. I’m not expecting to become a poetry millionaire out of this, but I do need to eat, pay rent, pay wages, and continue to stock the shop – if I can do that, I will be happy.

This brings us back to the “why”. Even those of you who fully approve of the notion of a poetry bookshop in principle may be wondering why you should cut your already slim to non-existent margins in order to subsidise my selfish desire not to get a proper job.

Why

There are two reasons, one which I am not embarrassed to call moral, and the other practical. One leads on from the other.

Pragmatism first. To put it bluntly: whilst you may make more money per copy sold without a middle-man, no one is going to buy your books if they’ve never heard of them. According to the website of the Saison Poetry Library, which provides the most up-to-date listings I know of, there are currently well over one hundred poetry presses and magazines active in the UK. Of these, 1% or so actually get their stuff into mainstream bookshops with any regularity; of the rest, far fewer than half sell their publications through Amazon, either for ethical reasons or because it is simply too much faff. Some use Inpress, but, again, it is a pretty small percentage, which means that it is unlikely to be the first place someone would look for a specific poetry book (and the fact that Inpress covers small presses in general, rather than just poetry, means that they are not specifically associated with poetry in most readers’ minds). As for the rest – probably closer to three quarters than half – their publications are only available through their own websites and at readings.

As a poetry reader, I ain’t got time for that shit.

As a publisher, neither do you. Even supposing someone does find their way to your website – what are they going to buy? The exact item they were looking for, and most likely nothing else. Even if you have cover art and sample poems for each one of the publications on your site (and very many publishers’ websites don’t: often the best the reader can get is a couple of determinedly uninformative puff-quotes), it is unlikely that the reader who has come specifically to buy one thing only is going to have the time and inclination (even if they do have the spare cash at that exact moment – which is not guaranteed) to click on every one of your other books and decide that any of these is worth chancing a tenner on, sight unseen.

Those of you who attended last year’s Free Verse Poetry Book Fair, or any similar event, know the advantages of having physical copies of your books, in a physical room, with physical punters, and a whole load of other books, pamphlets and magazines by other publishers. I volunteered at the last Free Verse – hundreds of people attended, and I’m pretty sure most of them spent more money than they intended. You are far more likely to buy something that you have never heard of – or even something you have – if you can actually pick up a copy and have a look at it – and having someone who knows what they’re talking about to discuss it with doesn’t hurt either.

Like most of the other people there, I spent more than I meant to at Free Verse. But that didn’t amount to any great figure, because it was a bit too far to my next payday to do so. Like, I suspect, most people, I don’t have a poetry ISA accumulating somewhere to be splashed at an annual book fair, or on a trip to Hay. I do, though, occasionally have a spare ten or twenty quid to spend on a couple of pamphlets or magazines, but then I have the whole palaver of trying to find whatever the most recent thing I happen to recall thinking I might want to buy was online, and then looking at the tiny jpeg cover, the two puff-quotes, and, if I’m lucky, the sample poem on the publisher’s website and working out whether I really do want to spend four meals’/three pints’/a packet and a half of fags’ worth of my limited funds on this product about which the publisher hasn’t really bothered to give me any useful information.

To be clear, I am definitely one of the – let’s be optimistic here – five to ten thousand people in the country who keep the UK poetry industry (if we can call it that) going. Not by editing and publishing a magazine, or by writing the stuff, but by actually buying and reading it. I care about poetry; I want to read as much of it as I can; I spend a probably unhealthy amount of time trying to find and find out about it. I’m not an expert – who can be in this disparate and discretely scattered a milieu? – but I am more than averagely knowledgeable and interested. The point is, if I find it a discouraging chore to try to buy poetry, then how is someone who is trying to jump into poetry from a standing start likely to feel?

And this is what I have called the moral argument. Those of us who care about poetry and its continuation as an artform – and by definition I am assuming that includes all of you, publishers, since you certainly aren’t in it for the money – need to do far more to try and reintroduce it into the mainstream of everyday life. Printing the stuff isn’t enough: we need to get people to read it. And that starts with making them aware that it even exists. If you asked your average English-speaking adult to name ten living poets, 99.9% of them would not be able to. If you asked them when they last read or heard something by a living poet, they’d probably go blank for five minutes before mumbling something about Poetry on the Underground, or asking if Ted Hughes was still alive, or saying “I think there was something on Radio 4 the other day, I forget the chap’s name, I wasn’t really paying attention…”. And I don’t just mean whatever amorphous blob comes into your mind when you think of “your average English-speaking adult” – I mean intelligent, well-read people who could, unprompted, give you 1,000 words on what they think about Amélie Nothomb or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o – English graduates, English professors, even – if we’re honest – not a few poets.

Like most poetry people, I was briefly enraged by Jeremy Paxman’s comments last year about poets only speaking to other poets. I read it as a variation on Adrian Mitchell’s old quip about most poetry ignoring most people, and I read more than one article by a disgruntled publisher in the aftermath saying, “well, if Paxman had read what I publish, he wouldn’t think that” – the implication being that Paxo ought to bloody well educate himself.

What on earth for? I don’t suppose Paxman has ever heard of your imprint – and why should he have? He seems like a pretty intelligent, widely read and well-informed guy: if 90% of modern poetry hasn’t entered his purview, whose fault is that? I was at a poetry discussion in the British Library the other day, and one of the panellists – a well-known journalist – considered herself pretty well-up on Spoken Word because she had heard of Kate Tempest and had once seen Linton Kwesi Johnson. The thing is, by most standards, she is – certainly she is as well-informed about Spoken Word as the vast majority of people who publish poetry; so why should we expect Paxman or anyone else to be any better informed about modern poetry when most of it has a fraction of the public profile of Tempest or LKJ?

We need to push poetry – in the current political fug we can’t expect arts bodies or educators to do it for us. Here is an interesting article by Ian McLachlan about what happened when he tried to sell his poetry to actual real-life poetry-dodging punters. It can be done – and it starts by acknowledging that poetry is no more necessary to life than the plesiosaur; that while we would feel that something irreplaceable had been lost if poetry disappeared from the world, an overwhelming majority of people wouldn’t feel a thing. Poetry needs to be treated not as something unique, fragile, special, eternal and ethereal, but as something which exists in the real world of internet porn, intestinal discomfort and Iain Duncan Smith. Poets already know this – hence the outcry over Paxman’s comments – but do publishers?

The point of this bookshop is to help begin the reintroduction of poetry into the public consciousness. Arts initiatives whose goals are engagement and education are good, but if we can do something that exists outside of the academy and the subsidised arts centre then we really ought to, because that is not where the people are. I want poetry to engage and educate people simply by existing in their world: by telling people “I have something you ought to want, something that is worth your time, attention and, yes, money”. I want to sell the shit out of poetry.

Finally, if you are wondering, this initiative is not undertaken entirely without self-interest on my part: I am a poet; I do not want to write for other poets, baffled family-members, and an ever-ageing, ever-dwindling, ever more middle class rump of habitual poetry readers. I want to write for everyone. They can choose to ignore my writing if they wish, but I’d like to give them the option.

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12 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Poetry Publishers and Magazines

  1. OK. I run a small press and we have some amazing books and more on the way.
    Your option 3 sounds a mite complicated, but I’d be willing to try it out. Ony problem is, I’m not in London and postage costs.
    Jane

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  2. Briony Bax from Ambit here. Delighted you are doing this and we are in. Have you considered Central Books? We use them and it means you can get Ambit on a sale or return basis with minimum of hassle. Also interested in the performance space. Please get in touch at contact@ambitmagazine.co.uk
    Good luck.

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  3. Pingback: Addendum to Open Letter, The Money Bit | Lunar Poetry

  4. Pingback: Lunar Poetry Newsletter #3 | Lunar Poetry

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