Commentary - Death by a thousand cuts

What is killing poetry? The indifference of publishers or the public?

Forget farmers - what about the poets? With the bookshop chains increasingly acting like the big supermarkets (shaft the producers, pile the goods high and flog 'em cheap), and with subsidy leading to oversupply, poets are facing a classic market squeeze. And just as the Common Agricultural Policy built butter mountains and wine lakes that no one knew what to do with, so Arts Council funding is creating a vast and expanding poetic smog.

In a recent review, I mentioned that more than 60 per cent of the books of contemporary poetry sold in this country are the product of one man, Seamus Heaney. That, I thought, was bad enough. But now, in the Times Literary Supplement, comes news that Britain's leading publishers of new verse - Faber, Carcanet, Bloodaxe - are finding it ever harder to shift the stuff. Faber, we are told, is publishing no new work in the second half of 2001; Carcanet is taking on no new authors; and Bloodaxe has closed its list for the next three years. So what are poets to do? Go on strike? No one would notice. Take to the streets, banners held high, to demonstrate against the threat to traditional industry and livelihoods? Everyone would laugh.

Things are not, perhaps, quite as bad as the TLS suggests. Faber, as it happens, puts out most of its new work in the spring. Carcanet is still publishing four or five first collections a year. Likewise Bloodaxe, although it is true that currently the publishing house isn't looking for new authors. Even so, all is not quite tickety-boo in the world of poeticulture.

There are two ends to the problem. First, the big book chains, principally Waterstone's, have slashed their stocks. They know that what sells best are the big names and anthologies for the Christmas stocking. Consequently, there is a less diverse range on the shelves of your local branch. This, along with the death of the independent bookseller, serves to make poetry on the whole less visible, but is particularly hard on the smaller publishers. Faber, whose front list boasts the likes of Heaney, Armitage and Muldoon - the Sunny Delights, in this scenario - finds it easy enough to get its books on the shelves. Indeed, Faber tells me that it is not cutting production at all. But Bloodaxe and Carcanet? Not so easy, especially as the chains are in a position to dictate terms to smaller publishers. "The trade situation is pretty gruesome," a Carcanet spokesman admits. If publishers refuse to accept the bookshops' terms on returns and margins, the bookshops can - and do - simply refuse to allow their sales reps into the shops. "They are, in effect, blackmailing us," he says.

Neil Astley, the editor at Bloodaxe, says the company has been steadily cutting the number of new titles it publishes each year. And, having picked up several poets when Oxford University Press axed its list in 1998, Bloodaxe now has as many as it can handle. "We're having to turn down some good people," Astley says. But there is still plenty of interest out there. "Our perception is that the audience for poetry is larger than it was five years ago, but that people aren't finding it in the shops."

The shops argue that they aren't in the business of subsi- dising what they see as uncompetitive publishers. Subsidy - the other end of the problem - is the business of the Arts Council, which last year paid writers, publishers and other literary organisations in England more than £1.7m to produce work that, it seems, not many of us are buying. This should be put into context: the same year, the Arts Council spent £47m on music, so the money for literature is but a drop of swill in the total arts trough. And by no means all of that £1.7m goes to poetry. But one has to wonder if it's money well spent.

Subsidy can produce perverse incentives. In the old days of eastern European writers' unions, when novelists were paid by the line, it was said that a writer could simply copy out the Budapest area phone book, change a few names and numbers, call it fiction, and retire happily to his dacha on the shores of Lake Balaton. Admittedly, things aren't quite that bad - yet. But if subsidy exists to correct market failure, the logical conclusion is that the Arts Council becomes the bookseller of last resort, or at least takes a much stronger lead in improving the demand and distribution side of the market. Failing that, perhaps it should follow the CAP model more closely and adopt a policy of set-aside: pay poets to lie fallow for a few years. I can think of a few good candidates for this.

There are other channels of distribution available to small publishers. Just as smallholders have their local farmers' markets, so Carcanet and Bloodaxe are selling more books via mail order and the internet. Alternatively, they can go organic - cultivate a posh niche with potentially higher returns, which is, in effect, what Faber is doing with its new range of hand-sewn, made-in-Italy books.

What it comes down to, in the end, is this: the only people I know who actually buy poetry are those who also write it. Production is outstripping demand, and the market cannot sustain this. Just as we need forests to mop up the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so we need new readers to absorb all this verse. Which means it's up to you, dear reader, to save the day.

Adam Newey is the New Statesman's poetry critic

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, In the line of fire