Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Shrill Sound of Poetry Sales Descending into Sound Bites

Sales of poetry books are down

screamed the BBC news website on Wednesday last week, before exhorting us all:

but one way to reinvigorate this traditional art form could be to make it functional

and going on to suggest that we could re-engage the public with the art of poetry by turning the instructions on how to wire a plug into poetry. Give me a break. Not that I'm against using anything as the material for a poem, but I just can't help groan at this kind of stuff. I mean, poetry does have functions, for goodness sake.


In recent years, there has been a sharp fall in sales - from £12m spent in 2005 to £8.6m in 2008, according to Book Marketing Ltd.

How peculiar, then, that Jill Pattle, who runs The Linlithgow Bookshop, should be telling me on the platform at Waverley station today that their poetry sales have "risen exponentially" and she is now revamping the poetry shelf to make more space for poetry books. The last time I looked, the space that the shop devotes to poetry would probably, as a proportion of the shelving, equate to something like three whole floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in any of the Edinburgh Waterstones stores. That's an extremely rough estimate, but you get the picture; when was the last time those Waterstones stores had one such shelf full of poetry? Jill's poetry section is also at the front of the shop.

Likewise, when I was in Eyemouth last week, I was delighted to see that the wonderful wee bookshop Crossing the Bar had a small poetry shelf, with an unusual selection of books, including a beautiful Michael Longley book, Out of the Cold, illustrated by his daughter that I came that close to buying.

Is there a lesson here? What would happen to poetry book sales if, instead of hiding the poetry sections away at the back of the basement and shaving stock from it like a döner kebab, the big shops were to put it out front, with offers, staff recommendations and displays? Will we ever find out?


Claire A said...

Great points! I agree wholeheartedly, and hate it when I hear journalists say things like "poetry is DEAD! We have to do something REVOLUTIONARY to revive it!" -- it's just not true. Do bookstores want to sell poetry? It certainly doesn't look like it...

My friend Struan, a poet (who I may be mentioning at Sunday's meeting), spent a good while working in Waterstones in Aberdeen, and while he was there, was hellbent on revamping their poetry section. He never quite convinced them to move it to a more prominent place, sadly, but he did get them to order in poets they had "never stocked before" -- Bukowski was one! Apparently when he arrived it was all very traditional Scottish stuff: Burns, MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith -- which is fine, but as Struan pointed out, that's what people read in school, and have done for decades. They've seen that stuff before. By getting Waterstones to buy in contemporary work from the States and elsewhere, he boosted the poetry numbers and the sales. He also single-handedly wrote loads of enthusiastic staff recommendations. He doesn't know if they still keep up these habits, but while he was there he said he saw a definite change. Just goes to show what little actions can do... but how do you make them happen, without devoting your life to being a Waterstones shelf-stacker?!

Andrew Philip said...

Great to hear that about your friend Stuan and his efforts in the Aberdeen branch. Here's hoping he did effect a change that lasted beyond his time there.

Perhaps Waterstones shelf stacker is as much a vocation as poetry. Jen Hadfield worked in Waterstones or another big store at one point and used to tuck her Rogue Seeds bookmarks into the stock.

Roddy said...

I've related this story before, but it bears repeating. When my first book came out, I did a reading with Don P at the Assembly Rooms. Wateratone's organised it - and they bought 50 or so copies of my book and sold only a dozen or so. Waterstone's East End were left with 40 copies and so they put it in the window and actually rigged up a stand near the poetry section, with my books on it. They all went in a week or two.

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