Poetry Publishing Heads Back to the Future
(Article written for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2000)
The popularity of bush ballads at the beginning of the 20th-century suggests a history of poetry consumption in Australia. A.B. Paterson’s The Man From Snowy River and Other Verses sold out within a week of its appearance, went into four editions in the next six months in the UK and still out-sells any other Australian poetry collection. Although a more difficult contemporary poet, the symbolist Christopher Brennan did not enjoy such acclaim his poetry was published and read. As were Mary Gilmore, Hugh McCrae, John Shaw Neilson, Bernard O’Dowd and others. In those earlier times even the skimpiest education involved reading some poetry.
As this new century begins there is a veritable plethora of interesting and reputable practising poets, yet, sadly, only two of them - Les Murray and Dorothy Porter – can enjoy an expectation of their poetry being published and Porter has worked tirelessly to publicise herself in order to achieve that status. But generally, the language art that contains a remarkable diversity of race, age, class, gender, ideology, philosophy and aesthetics, and that possibly most reflects the speed at which we absorb ideas, information and imagery, is being neglected by corporate publishing houses.
Last year, when Overland magazine was putting together a special issue on poetry we phoned publishers and booksellers to offer them generous advertising space in the magazine for a mere $150 fee. The extra revenue would fund supplementary pages for that issue. Every corporate publisher declined - small presses and independent bookshops contributed willingly.
This year, I telephoned every major publisher to ask whether they were continuing a poetry list and all replied "no". Except Oxford University Press whose poetry editor didn’t return my call - but the receptionist said she didn’t think they’d be doing any more poetry. Today, it would be easier to buy a book on basic archery, quilting or tyre-changing than poetry and although these are worthwhile pursuits, in the face of this fact, I am compelled to ask "how has poetry publication arrived at this unwarranted demise ?"
In the 1970’s there was an energetic flurry of DIY poetic activity. Groups of poets (friends and rivals) walked around and around kitchen tables or shed benches collating piles of single printed pages into books. Someone at the table’s end would score and fold them, someone else would be crashing a foot down on the stapling machine, someone screen-printing the cover, another pouring a glass of flagon wine or passing a joint along the line. This occurred not only because there were no corporate publishing houses interested in publishing any poetry other than school anthologies or, perhaps, Judith Wright or A.D. Hope (a 1970 Sun Books survey anthology being the exception) but it was also part of the politics of the times. Poetry left the classroom and moved onto the streets. Gestetners and small offset-printing presses were in high demand.
In the late ‘70’s, partly aided by Womens’ Liberation’s generation of writers (leading, to this day, to women readers) the Great Australian Novel Boom took off. A publishing “industry” went into full swing and, riding on the economy of the novel, in the 1980’s publishers like Penguin (at Susan Ryan’s trendsetting instigation), Heinemann, Angus & Robertson, and Picador started to publish poetry. The idea was that some of the profits from fiction and other sales were to be put aside for work of literary and cultural significance. Recently, this notion vanished entirely.
Economic rationalism grabbed hold in the late ‘80’s and publishing company takeovers began. For example, Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited merged Angus & Robertson, Harper & Row (USA) and William Collins (UK) to create a global group. With publishers often not gauging appropriate print-runs, charging excessive retail prices to cover high production costs and not putting any effort into publicising poets in the manner of novelists or, say, cookery writers, poetry publishing was declared "uneconomic". One publisher (UQP) cites, as a contributing factor to poetry’s failure as a commodity, the old malarkey that poets don’t buy each others’ books. However, if you actually go to a poetry book launch you’ll find many poets in attendance, all with purchased copies of the book under an arm. Launches are, so far, the best method of selling poetry and getting the word out. Poets are, by necessity, supportive of one another.
Heinemann, part of Reed Books, gave up their poetry list around the time the company was sold to Random Books, itself acquired in 1998 by the monolithic transnational Bertelsmann AG. A Reed editor says that poetry was never economically viable even with Australia Council subsidies and small runs of 500 copies. Oxford University Press, the publisher of expatriate luminary Peter Porter and many thematic anthologies, stopped their list last year. There’s the tired old catchcry “nobody reads poetry” – well, perhaps that’s partly the case, and fewer people read books of any kind. But then, would anyone read sociological or historical non-fiction or collections of essays (Hugh Mackay, Tim Flannery, Drusilla Modjeska etc etc) if the books weren’t promoted as being absolutely vital accessories to summer at the beach or cosy winters by the guest-house fire?
You can’t blame poets for being a bit sceptical. One prominent publishing house (UQP) remainders every new poetry title as a matter of course approximately 18 months after publication. This, after collecting a subsidy of $1500 per book from the Australia Council’s Literature Fund to assist costs in the first place. One could surmise that poetry publishing, in that instance, serves as a tax write-off rather than a genuine literary pursuit. This publisher does very little to publicise their poetry titles and, as one poet observed, another of their drawbacks is that they don’t have a warehouse. Implying that they don’t accept the fact that poetry usually has a longer shelf-life than best-selling blockbusters from writers of stature like Peter Carey. Another problem, say Brandl & Schlesinger, is that book sales-representatives don’t like showing poetry titles to bookshops and as booksellers see shelf space in terms of financial return they’re unlikely to take more than one copy of a poetry book and, even then, they’ll usually place it somewhere at the back of the shop. So, in Sydney a poetry title might be available at the rear of six shops, maybe two in Brisbane, a few in Melbourne (apart from the poetry specialist – Collected Works Bookshop), two in Adelaide and so on. That’s around ten copies nationally from a print run of anything from 500 to a 1000.
There are provincial publishers like Wakefield in SA and Fremantle Arts Centre Press in WA but a poet needs to be resident in or originally from those states. Commercial publishers that will be doing two titles this year are Hale & Iremonger and UQP (one UQP book being by a local Queensland poet). UQP will also publish the winning David Unaipon entry for indigenous poetry, a guaranteed condition of the annual prize.
For the moment, some larger independent presses will continue. Paper Bark Press (which has an arrangement with Craftsman House) will be doing five titles and Brandl & Schlesinger which, after producing five poetry titles this year, is intending to reduce its poetry list. It’s quite common for independent publishers to ask the poet to contribute some money towards production costs and in most cases this is what happens. But Brandl & Schlesinger say that it’s amazing how many prospective manuscript touters are offended by the suggestion of contributing and put the phone down or storm out in disgust.
Five Islands Press has given many poets their first audiences with its annual five new poets series – producing vibrant up-to-date design at affordable prices. ETT (Editions Tom Thompson) has an abiding interest in Australian poetry and occasionally publishes titles but more often admirably rescues "live" titles from the remainderers’ bins by purchasing the books & recontracting the authors.
So, it seems, it remains the resilient task of the truly small and independent presses to fill the gap in the culture at large with the complexities, beauties, jokes, resonance and realism of Australian poetry’s realms - Folio/Salt (fortunately affiliated with FACP), Black Pepper, Textbase, Little Esther, Split, Interactive, Soup, Never-Never, polonius, Mighty Thin, Cerberus, Collective Effort, monogene, Kardoorair and others.
The aim is, unquestionably, to have the poems read, so it looks as though it’s back to the future for Australian poets. With the advent of desktopping it’s certainly an easier task to produce a book these days. So, set the copier for collation, crack open the six-packs, head down to the local instant printshop (you’ll need a spiffy cover), put on your running shoes and a great big persuasive smile - you’ll probably have to visit the bookshops and distribute the gorgeous little wonders as well.
This article was commissioned by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in February, 2000.