House of Poetry Has Many Mansions
It's been a decade of multiple whammies for "small presses" in America - especially for small presses that specialize in publishing poetry books (for clarity's sake, I'm excluding vanity presses from this discussion).
Those whammies, which are severe enough in the best of times to choke off the revenues of many mass-market publishers, would seem to have been amplified by the Great Recession. The big publishers and big boxes are taking fewer chances on new writers and have focused on mass-market books that have built-in audiences, leaving the small presses and new writers to twist slowly in the wind.
Independent bookstores, rare birds that they are, have reduced their in-store stock and limited the books they market in-house, excluding almost completely small press poetry books. Kindle and iBooks have been nipping at - no, biting huge chunks out of - the publishing business in all its incarnations, and these days, who has the money to stock a book that might sell three copies, if that? Hey, it's tough out there.
But then it has always been tough for small presses - and that's how they've managed to survive. Small publishers never anticipate that the market will change for the better. I'm reminded of Southerners who used to say that times were so tough before the Great Depression that they never noticed that the economy had fallen off a cliff. The difference between having had nothing to eat and suddenly having nothing to eat is, well, nothing.
And at the very heart of the matter is another sad truth - small poetry presses have always had to overcome an attitude about poetry that is at best ambiguous. I figure it this way: In the American marketplace the objective is to get as much as possible from someone while offering him or her as little as possible in return (I know, it sounds a trifle too mercenary, but it's a fact).
The objective of a poet, and of most poetry presses, is to give as much as possible while expecting very little in return. If conservative talk radio and Fox News could get their swollen heads around this simple concept, they'd attack poetry as being a communist conspiracy. Which it may well be.
Add to this the problem of distributing small press books, printing costs, the continuing rise in the cost of shipping, the media's lack of interest in the genre and you've got yourself a widget that's a nonstarter. So over the years the small poetry presses that have managed to survive have adjusted to the realities of the marketplace. They are the warrior heroes of publishing.
Small poetry presses remained solvent by identifying their very special audience and catering to it on a local, one-on-one basis. The sale of every book of poems is a personal matter between the author and the buyer. It's this simple: "Here's my new book, and thanks for buying it! I'll be happy to autograph to whomever you please."
The blurbs encountered on the backs of poetry books are written by authors that mass-market readers have never heard of. The readers of poetry, on the other hand, know and appreciate the work of these blurb writers and they're likely to take a favorite writer's advice and buy a poetry book.
Moreover, the poetry community has established underground reading circuits. There's probably a poetry reading taking place every minute of every day. Poetry lovers and aspiring poets come to these readings, which are often held outside the bookstore circuit where the big name authors appear - the faithful gather at colleges and universities, bars, coffeehouses, restaurants, churches, YMCAs, etc., and they're there to listen.
Lastly, the Internet has done much to facilitate the sale of small press poetry books. Readers and poets stay in touch on Facebook and via e-mail, and there are timely reminders of new poetry selections and readings. While a public poetry reading is a gathering of 20 to 50 people, the Internet caters to the interests of thousands of poetry lovers. And these days, it's possible to download a book of poetry and enjoy it on the spot.
In short, the house of poetry has many mansions, and the genre is in no danger of disappearing.
Stephen Smith's most recent book, "A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworths," is available at The Country Bookshop. If you buy a copy, he will be happy to sign his name on the title page. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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