The Book Club for Poetry Lovers – why don’t we have one?

One of the first things I discovered when I began my three year tour-of-duty in the UK was the PBS: the Poetry Book Society. As you may have gathered from this post title, it’s a book club for people who love reading poetry.

It was originally set up by TS Eliot and friends in 1953, to ‘propagate the art of poetry’. Every three months, they receive advance copies of poetry collections from various UK publishers. They go through them, and select the best five – four are PBS Recommendations, and the overall best is named the PBS Choice for that quarter. The standard membership gets you a copy of the PBS Choice, plus a discount of 25% (or more) off retail price for a seemingly endless list (and backlist) of poetry titles. You also get a nifty little newsletter-cum-magazine, the PBS Bulletin, which has comments from the poets selected as well as from the selectors themselves, and brief reviews of scores of other recent poetry releases. You also have the option of the nuts-and-cola membership which just gets you the magazine (plus the members discounts), or the super-deluxe option which gets you all the usual plus the four Recommendations as well. (Sigh! Always wanted it; never quite managed to stretch to the cost …)

I know this sounds like an advertorial, and in some ways it is – I think it’s an amazing scheme, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in exploring the world of contemporary British poetry. (Especially good if you’re also on BookMooch, as poetry books tend to be very cheap to post if you decide you don’t like the choice that season!) There are quite literally scores of poets that I would probably never have discovered without it. And as well as the book club side of things, they also run the TS Eliot Prize, an online bookshop, an annual competition for poetry pamphlets (aka chapbooks), a reviews/new/articles column called the Poetry Portal (have a squizz at the article on Poetry Phobia, and the list of categories that poetry manuscripts tend to fall into. Ouch!). Then there are the book clubs, awards shadowing schemes, the Children’s poetry promotions … don’t they sound amazing?

And Arts Council England have just decided that the PBS will no longer receive any funding, effective April 2012. (For some reaction to the news, check out this and this.)

It will be interesting to see how they get on. After weaning myself back to associate membership for the last couple of years, I decided I needed to bump back up to standard when I renewed my membership. Show my support. It’s not necessarily the cheapest option for people outside the UK and Europe – getting the Bulletin and then sourcing the choice (or one of the other books, if the choice doesn’t interest me) from somewhere online (and BookFinder is brilliant for this) is often going to be cheaper. But … there’s something really joyous about getting that parcel in the mail, four times a year. The choices tend to be mainstream rather than especially experimental, but that’s fine for me, (and just plain sense for a bookclub). Often, you’ll get your copy a good couple of months before the official release date too, so that’s always a bonus (‘The new Heaney? Oh yes, got my copy months ago. Dogeared to pieces.’)

I know there are downsides for publishers – if your title is selected as a PBS Choice, you agree to sell between 1600 and 2100 copies to the PBS for £2.25. The books usually retail for  £8 to £10, and the standard trade discount in the UK is about 55%, so you’re looking at making £1.35 to £2.25 less per copy sold to the PBS. Which is quite a lot … but then you’re being guaranteed that many sales, and you’re getting them sent out and promoted all over the world. Titles selected as PBS Recommendations are just subject to the usual 55% trade discount. In both cases you’re expected to print the words Poetry Book Society Choice or Poetry Book Society Recommendation on the front cover (required for choices, ‘wherever possible’ for recommendations), but given how far in advance of actual printing date these things are decided, it’s probably not a particularly onerous ask.

I’d love to see something like the PBS start up here. What a fantastic way to get poetry books ‘out there’. Not just the glossy titles from big-name authors and publishers, but the lesser-knowns, the should-be-better-knowns. Given the size of the NZ market, it would probably have to be a joint venture with Australian publishing – but what a chance to get Kiwi poetry seen over there! And to keep us up to date with new writers! I know that literary journals do some of this (although the rate of shrinkage in reviewing here is starting to make that statement look rather nonsensical), but as a bibliophile, the book in my hands is the experience I want. A regular gift of a new book, picked by people whose taste I trust. (Maybe you could choose what level of experimentation you wanted – Attention Avaunt Guard, or Mainstream Flow My Way?)

Something to daydream about.

2 Replies to “The Book Club for Poetry Lovers – why don’t we have one?”

  1. Maybe it could start locally with NZ poetry recommendations between consenting readers and see if it gets any traction. The usual problems with the NZ poetry community being small and sensitive should not be an overwhelming impediment to sharing apprecition and interest. For myself, I lack the opportunity to have poetry conversation and would welcome the possibility of learning what, and how, others think.
    Rae Varcoe

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