Save an endangered species – the Poetry Publisher


Another week: another poetry publisher waves for the third time at the crowd of spectators on the shore, and sinks back through the placid waters into the primordial ooze, with barely a ripple to mark the place where it was last seen.detail from Hands by Wendy Swalls

Excuse me sir – did you see what happened?

No, not really. One minute there was a head bobbing out there. At least, I think it was a head. Definitely something round. With a bit sticking up out of the water.

Sticking out of the water?

Yeah. Could have been a hand. Or a leg. Waggling about a bit. An arm. Or a leg. Or I suppose (smirks) it could have been his—

Yes, thank you sir, lets leave it there. You’ve been very helpful. (To the crowd) Move along now please, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to see here. Move along.

The ecconomics of poetry publishing have always been on the faith-healing side of the economic ledger. There has never been a time when it was a money-making proposition in its own right – although there have been individual poets who sold well enough to earn their publishers some actual money, they were and are a minority. 

How bad is it really? Well, Gary Mex Glazner’s book How to Make a Living as a Poet includes a standard breakdown of book costs, provided by Ireland’s Salmon Press. Assuming a typical 80 page poetry collection, selling at a recommended retail price of €9.00, the costs are as follows:

typsetting €1.00
design €1.00
printing €3.00
admin. €1.00
author royalty €1.08
total €7.08
discounts* €4.05
fees for overseas distribution €1.00
total €5.05
total costs and discounts €12.13
loss per book €3.13


* bookshop & author & other discounts
average 55% of retail price


Depressing, isn’t it? And the same all over the world – check Very Like a Whale for comments from Tupelo Press‘s Jeffrey Levine. So why would anyone publish the stuff?

The cynical (and yes, I am one of them) would say that it used to be that poetry was felt to give a certain cachet to a publisher’s list: proof that they were in fact civilised beings, and not rapacious philistine pimps determined to get every last cent out of their authors. But also because poetry is an acknowledged artform. One of those things that have no obvious financial virtue, but which help to shape and define a country (and a culture)’s identity. It’s one reason why university presses exist – to look after things which we need, but which don’t belong in/to the marketplace. Research, exploration, discussion; all the things that shape minds, and open doors we don’t even know exist. Knowledge for its own sake. And to preserve things that people believe should be preserved. This is one of the reasons why there was such a huge outcry when Oxford University Press decided to close their poetry list back in 1998/9. (I should mention that the list has since been partially resurrected by/in association with Carcanet Press.)

As I type this, there are poets I know who are nervously waiting to see if their books will ever be published, or if their publisher will call it a day and their collections – fought over, sweated over, pimped and polished and accepted for publication – will be  pulped. Even Salt – surely the most vigorously marketed poetry list on the planet – have had to make public appeals for people who care to put their money where it helps and buy just one book. (Good campaign: and it may even be working.)

The world is going to hell. (Again.) So along with saving power and water and the whales, save a publisher. Buy a book of poetry. It’s a ridiculously simple thing to do, but it could make a huge difference. (If it turns out you don’t like it, join BookMooch and give it to someone else who might!) If you can’t afford to buy it yourself, go into your local library and ask them to buy it. It all adds up.

10 Replies to “Save an endangered species – the Poetry Publisher”

  1. Book Mooch sounds like a great idea. So – I went to have a look, and found they didn’t have a category for poetry. I tried “literary” and “literature” and got some rather depressing results!
    I’m trying to support poetry by buying local poets, I do buy some overseas poetry too but not nearly as much.
    I was a bit astonished by the figure on the Tupelo Press article – unpaid staff, 10 -12 books a year and it takes $225,000? I’m pretty sure from the figures I’ve heard that New Zealand publishers do it for a lot less – but publicity must be a lot easier here due to the smaller size of the market.
    Self publishing runs the risk of lack of credibility, but we did our book for $1200 or so, a little over $6 per copy, and even allowing for complimentaries, review copies etc, we sold out our print run of $200 and made a profit. Given that poets tend to cluster in groups for reading series etc, I think word of mouth advertising (or by e-mail) actually works quite well. Perhaps if we stop using mass market models of publishing and accept that we have a small market we can find better ways of doing it.

    1. BookMooch is fantastic, but the categories don’t work well at all – it’s to do with the way the search integrates with the Amazon database, I think. Do a direct search for a book you’re interested in by ISBN or author. There is heaps of poetry on there, it just takes a bit of looking.

      One thing that I do know about the Tupelo Press business figures versus the NZ model is one of scale. Standard poetry printruns in the US and UK are 1,000 copies. And there is a lot more done in the way of publicity and marketing overseas. Plus you really can’t compare the finances of self-publishing with a professional publishing business model – for starters, did you include anything to cover overheads – costs of electricity, rent of the place where the work was done, etc? Paid for distribution? Did you pay the person who edited the book? Collated the book? Did the typesetting? Designed the cover? How about paying people for their time in sending out review copies, or drafting press releases? Of course not. Which is why it’s possible to do things economically on a small scale – a hell of a lot of the costs are essentially “donated”. And that’s only possible for things done on a small scale. But if you want to be seen beyond the local environment, then you have to reach wider. And that means bigger scale, and dealing with things like marketing, advertising and distribution.

      I’m not running down self-publishing – hell, I’ve been involved with quite a few myself and know all about the various joys and horrors involved. But this is a different beast. It’s the difference between running a market stall and running a shop, or a chain of stores.

  2. Actually, when I was surprised by the figure, I wasn’t comparing it with the $2000 dollars so much as the $6000 I’m told Steele Roberts charges to take on your book, if they don’t like your work well enough to take on the costs themselves. In that case then I believe a lot more of the costs are covered (editor’s time etc) although perhaps not all. But after all, at least some of the costs must be covered by sales.
    I don’t think publishers in New Zealand do much marketing at all and of course they can get away with that due to the small size of the population.
    As to the budget for our self published book, it did include paying an editor – to avoid fights between the group as to what we included, and make sure the quality was up to standard. It also included commissioned cover art although probably not at market rates. The budget for the next one will include paying for layout – again, probably not at commercial rates.
    Remember, the Tupelo Press interview said that they worked out of their homes, and some of the staff work free – that’s why the figure surprised me, certainly if they paid for all those things I could understand the cost better.

  3. Come to think of it, I don’t think I really made the point I intended to make. What I was thinking was that self publishing, and other small-scale models like it, is obviously way cheaper than regular publishing. And if you have a mass market type of book then regular publishing is the way to go.
    But poetry is not, on the whole, a mass market thing. So perhaps we are making poetry publishing way more expensive than it need be, by trying to make it fit a mass market sort of model for publishing. Maybe we need to find new models for poetry publishing – not necessarily self publishing, but other ways of getting it out there that aren’t so phenomenally expensive in terms of dollars per book printed.
    I wonder what the average print run for a poetry book in the US is? You could hardly spend $22.500 (which is actually more like $30,000 NZ dollars) per book for a poetry book in New Zealand that is going to sell 200 or so copies – maybe 500 at best. That would be $60 per book (presumably after the sale price is deducted or at least the wholesale price). I can’t see any publisher taking that on.

  4. My experience is that launches and readings are by the far the best way to sell poetry books, unless one has an existing high profile or can generate a lot of publicity around the book – and possibly even then. However, launches and readings vary tremendously in effectiveness.

    Next comes social media (Facebook, Twitter etc., and blogs), although one has to strike a careful balance: too much promotion and it turns people off, too little and people don’t realise what you have to sell.

    I think that poetry videos (as in Helen Rickerby’s fledgling “NZ Poets on Video” initiative – see – are a good way to go, as are podcasts, because they take advantage of poetry’s strengths. I can see poetry audio and video being not just a means of promoting printed work, but also a distribution method for poetry in its own right – though, to borrow a neologism from the software development business, I’m not sure quite where the “monetisation” would take place.

  5. Okay, I’m buying two poetry books as soon as payday arrives! I think more poetry books could be given as birthday/thank-you/xmas/wedding/get-well-soon gifts, too.

    I think Catherine is also right that poetry lends itself well to non-mainstream publishing models. Some poetry publishers may need to get more innovative. I hope this doesn’t feel like spam — on my blog I recently posted an interview with Matvei Yankelevich from Ugly Duckling Presse, whose mix-and-match publishing methods fascinate me. That’s at

    1. Not at all – a fascinating interview.

      I know of a couple of poets who have made their collections freely available online when their publishers let them go out of print:

      David Howard’s Shebang
      and Beth Spencer’s Things in a Glass Box.

      Having said that, I do love books as objects in their own right. And it still feels like the most “real” form of publishing. I know, I’m boring and conventional. But you can’t lie back in a hot bath with a DVD, now can you?

      (Stop it at once. This isn’t that kind of blog!)

      1. Yes, I like books as objects too! And I spend so much of my day in front of a screen, that by evening I’m desperate to unplug. Paper, ink, bed … nice.

        Thanks for the links. I’m fascinated by the very different ways David Howard and Beth Spencer have chosen to publish online. I’m going to print BS’s out. I like her handy instructions.

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