POETRY PUBLISHING: A MORONIC OXYMORON
I go next week to U.C. Berkeley to visit a class using Moi's The Light...as one of its texts. I'm always grateful, of course, when any of my books are used in classrooms -- especially of late when the relative thickness of my poetry books price them out of the normal poetry text market (at least, according to several profs who've noted this to me over the past several years -- ever since I came out in 2005 with the BRICK defined as 500-page plus). But, anyway, this coming class visit occurs while several things have happened recently that prove, yet again, just what a moronic structure poetry bidness is. To wit:
First, I've been hearing from a number of poet-pals that they have these books that have gotten rave editorial reviews from various publishers, but said publishers passed because they felt they couldn't sell enough of them to earn back "decent" money. Not surprisingly, at least one of these manuscripts is brick-length.
Then, I get a call from a respected poetry publisher who wanted my opinion on a poet whose manuscript they were considering. I would have been happy, of course, to promote that poet and was looking forward to doing so. But do they ask me anything about the (aesthetic) merits of the poet's work? Nope. Said publisher was under the impression I knew something about the sales record of this poet's prior books and wanted to know the numbers, so they can figure out if the poet was a good economic investment.
Well, listen up ye idiot publishers; I say "idiot" because if you don't yet know what I'm about to say -- then you suck at your job. To wit, for the distinct majority of poetry collections, volume sales occur through one source: textbook sales. And, duh, it helps if the poet happens to be part of academia or has won a major prize to garner such textbook sales (and, by the way, as one who's a farmer and who doesn't traffick much in the poetry prize infrastructure unless it involves a wine bottle as a prize, this is another reason I'm truly grateful when a teacher thinks to assign one of my books).
What this means, though, is that some of the most fabulous contemporary poetry out there are not likely to pass your threshold for publishing-acceptability because, duh, something usually pushing the edges of an art form takes time to cultivate an audience.
Relatedly, this is why one of the goals I have solely to amuse moiself is to see if I can get the record one day for most publishers of my poetry books (yeah, my slip is showing). Obviously, I'm referring mostly to so-called "indie" presses because most of these indie presses have the advantage of choosing to publish a book more likely on its aesthetic merits rather than its commercial possibilities.
A visual artist once told me that she considers her collectors "very special". She wasn't saying that because said collectors collected her works. She was saying that because by collecting the works of someone like her who wasn't in the stables of, say, Gagosian, Mary Boone, et al, (thus receiving the imprimatur of the art establishment, a not insignificant factor in a world where collectors see as much with their ears as their eyes) those collectors were showing they had the guts to stand by their eye. Similarly, when this highly-respected (yawn) publisher queried me about this other poet, what I truly wanted to say was, If you think hir manuscript is so good, why isn't that enough reason to publish it?
But, hey, I'm too old to be naive, yah?
I don't know. I don't know what the point of this "rant" is. All I can tell you is that, as a publisher myself, I couldn't care less how many books sell of those I publish. Of course I do what I can to promote them etcetera etcetera. But if a book I sell ends up selling, say, no more than 25 books in its lifetime -- that's good enough for me. Because those 25 purchasing readers are "very special" (in choosing to purchase a book because they're interested, and not simply because they were, say, assigned to do so....not to say it's always a binary, of course).
On one level, I miss the so-called good old days when publishers published poetry fully aware they'll never make money (and poetry publishing was subsidized internally by the sales of other genres like novels). I don't know if this was the case (as perhaps other forces, like coterie-thinking, came into play) but it seems to me -- in theory anyway -- that this structure allowed poetry manuscripts to be judged more based on aesthetic merit. At a minimum, such a structure dilutes, doesn't it?, the power of academia or pedagogy on the determination of which poetry manuscripts to publish?
Sheee...et al, I don't know. I just sit on a mountain with a growing fat ass. All I can say to certain poetry publishers is the same thing I would say to children: Learn to have the fortitude of your convictions. Grow up, will you!