“Don’t Panic!” Maybe the poetry market is not in decline.

Creation: Reading Genesis

Creation: Reading Genesis (photo by Michael Dickel)

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?

AAP book sales data graph
Graph of annual book sales by year (source: http://publishers.org/press/24/).

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.


8 thoughts on ““Don’t Panic!” Maybe the poetry market is not in decline.

    • People still buy music and DVDs, go to the movies, have cable TV–all of which you can get for free. There is also something to holding a printed book in your hands (which e-Books don’t give you, either). And blogs are ephemeral–they come and go. You can keep your book on your shelf. I have a copy of a 1961 chap book by Edward Dorn on my shelf that I picked up in a used bookstore in Chicago, for example. Even his widow doesn’t have a copy of that particular book. Do you think individual blogs will still be around 50 years from now?

      Also, a blog is different from a book. A blog may have lots of poems, but usually as they are written. A book tends to organize by themes or relationships, to put poems in order of how they might be read together rather than as they are written. Blogs, to me, often are more like journals, or “here’s what I’m working on now.’ I think that they likely whet the appetite, if the poet is good (but I don’t think the vast majority of them are good). Then, when a book comes out, some of those blog readers will be first in line to buy it.

      The stats don’t suggest that blogs are hurting other book sales. Poetry might be different because of the usually short form of a lyrical poem. However, if other book sales have steadily increased through 2010, at a time when blogs seems to be multiplying, I think likely poetry book sales will also increase. Unless Rob Mackenzie is correct, and the market has reached some sort of limit–in which case, the problem is how to get more people to read and buy poetry, not “where have all the buyers gone, long time passing.”

  1. I buy poetry books. I buy print. I buy digital. But the smell of the real deal is intoxicating to me. The look of an independent chap book is a work of art. I love how you finish this, Michael…promote poetry…for what it is, for what it does, and for the hearts that bleed on to the pages…yes, promote poetry!

  2. Don’t panic, okay I won’t. Good article. Two things I have just made a blog recently and I bought a poetry book a year ago with poets throughout the ages and poems categorized. I absolutely loved reading it. I agree people have to be directed to reading them, poems.

  3. Excellent article , Michael. You have given us some very interesting stats and made some good points that poetry sales are not declining. I know for myself money is way tight and I buy what I can afford. Often, second hand stores or books passed on to me is how I get them. I love books. The smell, the feel of the pages there is nothing that matches them. I have bookshelves full of books that I cherish. 🙂

  4. I so concur that we need to promote and read more poetry amongst each other, simply to further it as a craft. I personally don’t know many “readers” who would go into a book store or online to buy a poetry book (other than my writerly friends), but I know many who read it if it’s in front of them i.e. on their “device”. But then is it forgotten?

    As a person with a strong love of hard cover books and all that goes along with that (especially ones with old yellowed pages), there’s nothing to me like getting lost in one. As has already been said, there’s value in all mediums and delivery and I get what I read from many places too. But nothing replaces the real deal (oh yeh I melt at a nice chapbook!) 🙂

    It’s so true there’s art in how a book is presented, as opposed to a blog or a “download this poem for 39 cents on Kindle”! And hopefully there’ll always be those who appreciate that, who want to hold a book in their hands and engage and experience it, and have it permanently up on their shelves. We’re just so disposable nowadays gosh. I don’t ever want to get to the point where what I read gets forgotten about after I’ve read it- which isn’t going to happen if I have the hard copy.

    Of course I’m not the only one who feels this way, so I feel the future of real books isn’t going anywhere too quickly! 🙂

  5. i think you hit the nail’s head with the last line in your article – true, promoting poetry should be the real goal 🙂 and we, the writers and poets, should be the first ones to do so

  6. this has been a most encouraging encounter. as a poet i often think i’m paddling upstream. maybe i’m just in shallow water. as i have understood, poetry reading was once part of the earliest Olympic Games. times have indeed changed, but something in the soul of man hungers for a more ambrosial diet. it will always be that way for some. and there will always be poets to serve the meal.

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