I’ve heard about the demise of the book since the 1960s. Commentators used to blame TV, radio, and Rock’n’Roll. Comic books caught the blame in earlier decades. Before that, pulp novels took away from “real” books. Today, we blame computers, the internet, and Madonna. But, the book remains.
I think more people should read poetry. Poetry has always been considered a “niche” market, with low sales compared to other books. Poets should read (and buy) poetry. If we believe in the value of poetry, then we should review poetry, write as critics who invite readers to read the work. But, do we need to worry about a decline in book sales? I don’t think so.
Book sales overall are on the rise. Yet, there are cries of declines in sales. Book sales data do not usually break out poetry as a category. However, one blogger, Rob Mackenzie, sites record numbers of books entered in major awards as a likely indicator that more poetry books are published. He assumes that the books sell.
Association of American Publishers sales data support an increase in sales, overall. From 2002 to 2003, sales (e-books and print) increased a mere .05%. From 2009 to 2010, they increased 8.32%. While this data is not specifically for poetry, why would poetry sales go down as publication of poetry books increases and other book sales increase?
So, why the perception that sales are declining? I think that three inter-related factors feed the current frenzy of fears of the imminent demise of the (poetry) book.
First, Rob Mackenzie suggests sales limits in “Are too many poetry books being published?” The actual market for poetry books might have a cap of a certain number of sales. That is, a fixed number of people buy poetry books, but only buy an average number per person per year, say 5. If there are more books published, that means more books to choose from in any one year. That might lead to a decline in sales per book, as different buyers would be less likely to purchase the same book.
The second factor relates to the first: Does data from the American Booksellers Association and the American Association of Publishers, for example, include the expanding self-publishing market and sites such as Lulu.com? What about smaller online e-Book publishers? How many sales might the statistics leave out from the new e-commerce model of online connectivity and individuals selling from their own web sites? This could lead to an impression of a decline in poetry sales (given the limited market theory).
A quick search at Lulu.com using only the word “poetry” garnered over 47,000 hits. Some of them were duplicates, but still, that is an impressive number of books, and for just one site. One directory of e-Book publishers lists over 50 royalty paying (which suggests sales), non-subsidy e-Book publishers. Not all publish poetry, but neither is this list all publishers. These numbers suggest that statistics may miss a number of sources of book sales. However, the available statistics show increasing book sales, not declining.
The third factor relates to the second: anxiety about new technologies and new modes of sales. Several articles report that e-book sales tripled, passing paper books in sales for early 2011. The increased presence of online media created similar panics for music sales, movie sales, and other cultural production.
Yet, reports suggest that e-Book purchasers also buy paper books, sometimes the same book. Just as music downloaders often purchase CDs of the artists they download. And people who download movies go to cinemas. It might be more a factor of electronic formats supporting and promoting, rather than only competing with, conventional productions, but people still fear the encroachment of the new into the familiar.
So, to quote Douglas Adams, “Don’t panic!” Promote poetry. Figure out how to get more people to read poetry. That is the real goal.
You can’t buy Michael Dickel’s e-Book, but you can download it for free from why vandalism? e-book publishers: The World Behind It, Chaos.