Don’t Panic: Poetry Books Continue

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Don’t Panic: Poetry Books
Continue to Sell and to be Read

April is National Poetry Month in the U.S. So, I thought that I’d run a newer version of a 2012 article on the state of poetry publication (and, by extension, reading). The original responded to concerns expressed in another article that we are in the midst of a decline in poetry readership and buyers of poetry (books and journals).

I’ve heard about the demise of the book since the 1960s. Commentators used to blame TV, radio, and Rock’n’Roll. Comic books caught the blame in earlier decades. Now we blame computers, the internet, and Madonna. Yet, the book remains.

I think more people should read poetry. Poetry has always been considered a “niche” market, with low sales compared to other books. Poets should read (and buy) poetry. If we believe in the value of poetry, then we should review poetry, write as critics who invite readers to read the work. But, do we need to worry about a decline in book sales? I don’t think so.

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Book sales overall are on the rise. Yet, there are cries of declines in sales and readers, especially in poetry. Book sales data do not usually break out poetry as a category. However, one blogger, Rob Mackenzie, sites record numbers of books entered in major awards as a likely indicator that more poetry books are published. He assumes that the books sell at least a few copies.

Association of American Publishers sales data [Update 2016: The old link went dead, so this is a link to other data reported by the same group.] support an increase in sales, overall. [Update 2016: The data from 2014 shows a picture more of fluctuations around the same number, with numbers of units going down less than 5% from 2012 to 2013 and back up almost to the 2012 level in 2014—within .5%. In the new data link, 2012 is described as a probably outlier with significantly more sales due to “blockbusters” that year.]

From 2002 to 2003 [Update 2016: according to the original data I read, which is no longer available at the same link], sales (e-books and print) increased a mere .05%. From 2009 to 2010, they increased 8.32%. While this data is not specifically for poetry, why would poetry sales go down as publication of poetry books increases and other book sales increase?

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So, why the perception that sales are declining?

I think that three factors feed the current frenzy of fears of the imminent demise of the (poetry) book. [Update 2016: And a fourth, that there were and probably ups and downs, without a steady rise (or decline) in the numbers for the years around the time this was written—I did not find more recent data than 2014 on a quick search I did to fix the link above.]

First, sales may be limited for individual books

Rob Mackenzie suggests in his article, “Are too many poetry books being published?” It might be that the actual market for poetry books has a cap of a certain number of sales. That is, a more or less fixed number of people buy poetry books, but only buy an average number per person, say 5. If there are more books published, that means more books to choose from. That might lead to a decline in sales per book, as the combined group of buyers will be less likely to purchase any one book.

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Second, how are the numbers of published books and their sales counted?

Does data from the American Booksellers Association and the American Association of Publishers, for example, include the expanding self-publishing market and sites such as lulu.com or CreateSpace.com? What about smaller online e-Book publishers? How many sales might the statistics leave out from the new e-commerce model of online connectivity and individuals selling from their own web sites?

A quick search at Lulu.com using only the word “poetry” garnered over 47,000 hits. Some of them were duplicates, but still, that is an impressive number, and for just one site. One directory of e-Book publishers, lists over 50 royalty paying, non-subsidy e-Book publishers. The fact that these publishers pay royalties and do not take fees from authors suggests a market. Not all publish poetry, but neither is this a list of every single publisher. These numbers simply suggest that the available “industry” statistics may miss a number of sources of book sales. Yet, it is important to remember that the industry statistics nevertheless do show increasing [Update 2016: Or at least stable] book sales, not declining.

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Third, change generates anxiety.

New technologies make new demands on “reading time” and new modes of sales eat into conventional sales models, so the changes generate fears that reading and books will decline. People in the publishing industry and outside of it don’t full understand what these changes will ultimately mean, though.

Several online articles report that e-book sales tripled and passed paper books in trade publications in early 2011. The increased presence of online media created similar panics for music sales, movie sales, and other cultural production. Yet, reports suggest that e-Book purchasers also buy paper books, sometimes the same book—just as who downloaded music often purchase CDs and concert tickets of the artists they download. And people who download movies still go to cinemas.

It might be more the case that electronic formats support and market, rather than only compete with, conventional books and markets. Still, people fear the encroachment of the new into the familiar.

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So, “Don’t panic!”

(To quote Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) Promote poetry. Figure out how to get more people to read poetry rather than bemoan the loss (that might not exist) of readers. The real goal is to celebrate and promote poetry.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The River Journal, February 10, 2012, as “Don’t Panic! Maybe the Poetry Market is Not in Decline” ©2012 Michael Dickel.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Panic: Poetry Books Continue”

  1. I don’t think that their are less poetry readers. Maybe it’s just a matter of the publishing industry catching up to the marketing of ebooks? There are so many books I would like to have that are not available as ebooks; therefore I have to settle for the real thing, but given that I’m chemically sensitive to petrochemicals in inks, I often have to wait for the ebook to come out! One case where I did not was the publication of Luke Davies Interferon Psalms; this book of poetry was worth waiting the time it took to air it out. It was fantastic! Here is a link to a review I wrote about it: http://the-labyrinth.com/2012/05/24/luke-davies/

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    1. I agree that both the publishing industry and the commentators about the “death of the book” have not caught up to—or fully accepted—eBooks. Even your comment refers to print books as “the real thing,” and it is clear that you do accept ebooks. One could imagine scribes referring to illuminated, hand-written books as “the real thing” while decrying the loss of culture brought about through the printing press and the new technology of moveable type. Plato, in The Meno, has Socrates make an argument about how writing had damaged humanity—people didn’t have to remember anymore, they could refer to the written text; and people could read and speak about a subject from a written text without understanding, or “truly” knowing, the subject. Perhaps we see this to some extent in the wild re-posting of false information in social media. However, I think the point is that humanity resists change, and historically does not understand what the actual impact of a particular technological change will be (see Neil Postman, Technopoly.

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