Category: Archive

Shelf lives

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Despite a reading boom in Ireland, poetry sales dropped 10 percent last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. Typical print runs for new collections now stand at just 1,000. Few books go to press a second time.
“Chances are, if you take 100 people going into a bookstore, not one of them is going to buy a book of poems,” said Joseph Woods, director of Poetry Ireland, the national organization for the promotion of poetry. “With a few exceptions, bookshops don’t carry books of poetry for the fan of poetry.”
“Fifteen years ago we were dealing with around 60 bookshops in the country,” said Jessie Lendennie of Salmon, a small, County Clare-based publisher. “All we had to do was send out our flyer. Now it’s virtually a matter of begging.”
As the consolidation of larger bookstores and publishing houses continues, commercial pressures are militating against a genre that is, by its nature, a slow burner. Shelf space is at a squeeze, say boutique publishers — the sums just don’t add up.
“The reality is that it has always been very difficult to sell poetry, even in Ireland,” explained Bronwen Williams, a literature specialist with the Irish Arts Council.
“It’s a very small market. But there’s no doubt that the environment, in terms of getting books onto bookshelves, is much more difficult now. And I really don’t think that’s the fault of publishers.”
Around 40,000 volumes of poetry sold in Ireland in 2005. By contrast, chick-lit author Marian Keyes’ first novel, “Watermelon,” has clocked sales of over 45,000 to date. Her previous books have far superseded that figure.
“It’s the creeping commercialism really,” said Lendennie.
In recent years, Salmon’s distributor stopped taking contemporary poetry from small publishers. Her local bookshop in Ennis won’t accept verse at all “unless you’re talking about dead people and Seamus Heaney.”
“It’s very personal with poetry,” she said. “Every poet is very personal to us. So it does feel like something Irish is being rejected by Irish institutions.”

The problem with poetry
With exceptions, poetry rarely produces bestsellers. It sells in a trickle. Pitched against commercial fiction, it cannot hope to compete in terms of sales. And without shelf space, it cannot hope to attract browser curiosity.
“It’s like jazz,” said Peter Sirr, editor of Poetry Ireland Review. “Like you get a small clutch of people who go out and buy a new jazz guitar record, so it is with poetry.”
Irish writers continue to submit poetry to Sirr’s magazine, but anthologies and a handful of household names (Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Brendan Kennelly) are alone capable of causing sales blips.
However, large booksellers deny neglecting poetry as a genre.
“We review every book on its merits,” said Mel Harris, Regional Marketing Manager for Waterstone’s, one of Ireland’s largest bookstores. “There is no policy about poetry.”
“If a book is only a print run of 1,000, but is of particular local interest to a branch, then that potentially could be a very good seller for that branch, so in that case we would stock that book,” she outlined. “It’s that democratic.”
Despite sluggish sales, small publishers remain energetic. Salmon, Dedalus and Gallery Press all retail online, an avenue that now accounts for up to a third of Irish poetry sales.
Poetry Ireland’s “Writers in Schools” program continues to foster young audiences, readings are well attended (and healthy points of sale) and new publishers like Doghouse and Bradshaw are engaging with the besieged genre.
While not exactly “on the up,” Cl

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