Annual sales of poetry books are set to surpass £10m for the first time since records began, The Bookseller can reveal on National Poetry Day today (6th October).
The poetry market last year enjoyed its highest sales ever, both in volume and in value, selling over a million books at an all-time high of £8.8m in value. Figures from Nielsen BookScan have revealed that this year could see even better revenues, with the category up 15% in value for the year to date at £4.9m compared to £4.2m for the same period in 2015. If sales continue to grow at the same rate, they will exceed £10m by the end of 2016 for the first time since records began.
Donald Futers, Penguin’s editor for poetry, has credited the growing presence of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) poets as an “important” cultural current behind poetry’s growing audience. "Diversification, experimentation, radicality, craft, and concomitant buzz” are a handful of the factors contributing to the uplift, he said.
"Audiences for and curiosity about poetry seem to be growing steadily in the UK,” said Futers. He attributed this partly to “the growing representation – the growing mainstream publication – of the phenomenal work BAME poets have been doing for decades, which means that the public as a whole quite simply have ready access to quality writing which previously they did not”.
“Readerships are now being catered for which before were unjustly neglected,” he said.
Other reasons why Futers believes poetry audiences are growing is the emergence of a “particularly energetic and innovative” generation of young poets, self-published poetry stars and 'Instagram poets' who are finding or creating large and “seemingly atypical” readerships for their writing. This year's bestselling title for the year-to-date, according to Nielsen BookScan, is Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey (Andrews McMeel Publishing), an originally self-published book of poetry that sold over 15,000 copies in its first run thanks to her army of social media fans (58k followers on Twitter and 648k on Instagram).
Don Paterson, Poetry editor at Picador, agreed the new generation of publicists - and poets - who understand how to use social media well, had helped to make the poetry more buoyant.
“Poetry was never inaccessible," Paterson said. "It was, however, pretty badly marketed for a while, and just plain difficult to find. But it’s also becoming a broader church, and the old lines that used to be drawn between the poetic constituencies – between the experimental and the mainstream, the mainstream and the performers – have largely disappeared. These days it wouldn’t be unusual to see, say, Denise Riley and Caroline Bird and Paul Farley on the same shelf, stage or review round-up. And it’s an increasingly diverse scene that’s finally redressing some historical imbalances. Some faster than others, admittedly.”
Performance poetry has paved the way for some new writers. Best known among the performance poets is Kate Tempest who is now a Picador poet and soon to publish a new long poem Let Them Eat Chaos composed from the lyrics of her forthcoming album. Paterson said: “The impact of performance poetry has been a huge boost, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s also recharged the existing market. The likes of Kate and Hollie McNish are proving to be gateway drugs to all sorts of other poets and poetries – especially as they enthusiastically promote poets from other camps. They’ve also returned poetry to an older, more physical and direct model, a 'poetry of moral exhortation’. And they’ve certainly taught older poets of my own generation a few lessons in connecting with audiences: the live, performing poet is actually a meaningful point-of-sale again.”
Amplification of this has been helped along by celebrity endorsements. Warsan Shire was thrust into the spotlight this April after pop star Beyoncé Knowles chose her work to feature on her new “visual” album, “Lemonade”, to the benefit of Manchester-based indie Flipped Eye Publishing, which publishes her. Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is now the 19th bestselling poetry book this year to date, having sold 6,155 copies in total.
“Prize culture” is also responsible for bringing some publishers "a small bonanza”. Poetry publisher Carcanet most recently saw its poet Kei Miller win the Forward Prize for the Best Poetry Collection in 2014, and Vahni Capildeo win it in 2016, with both going on to become bestsellers.
The increased excitement around poetry has also lead to an increase in output, Michael Schmidt, general editor for PN Review, and managing and editorial director for Carcanet Press, believes. “Year on year there seems to be a steady growth,” he said. "More poetry is published now than ever before: there are more than dozens of independent presses at work all over the country.
“Some of the quondam big players are returning to market with excellent editors (Donald Futers at Penguin, for example) and trying to re-invent the readership poetry had in the 1960s. Of the bigger presses Hogarth and Cape are doing wonderful work. Faber is no longer the big beast. Among the smaller independents Enitharmon and Seren are producing exquisite books, some of which actually sell. And Bloodaxe always has its eye on widening readership with its anthologies and its vigorously promoted new collections.”
The second bestseller for 2016’s year-to-date, according to Nielsen BookScan is Seamus Heaney’s Aeneid (Faber), clocking up over 10,000 copies sold, while Faber anthology Forward Art Foundation’s Poems of the Decade has sold 8,455 copies. Another anthology, Poems that Make Grown Women Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden (Simon & Schuster), has also done well, selling 7,911 copies.
Faber poetry editor, Matthew Hollis, commented: “Poetry readers seek variety, and good publishers will respond with books that challenge and make new, as well as those that may comfort, console or delight. At Faber, we have been struck by the way readers have taken to heart the range of our publishing – from scholarly editions of T. S. Eliot and Basil Bunting, to translations of Classical Aeneid and Middle English Pearl, through to debut and even pre-debut pamphlets from the yet-to-be-known writers on the Faber New Poets scheme. All have been welcomed. Readers approach poetry generously and variously, with an open mind and with a sharp eye.”
The overall rise in market value of physical book sales reflects a marked increase in price points: for the year to date, the average selling price of a book has gone from £8.20 in 2015 to £9.19 in 2016 - a 27% jump.
Wholesalers commended for their role in pushing poetry include Gardners and Bertrams, who, according to Schmidt, are “taking poetry seriously and selling a lot more than they did”. Waterstones meanwhile has asked to step up its support of poetry, Schmidt said. “Amazon is a substantial player, and the Book Depository as always has been wonderful. Foyles – and Foyles in all its branches – seems quite committed, and Blackwell’s is growing its poetry offering again," he said. “We are still waiting for Waterstones to return to the fray - in the older days Waterstones was our absolute spinnaker, but the wind hasn’t been blowing strongly from that direction for a while. James Daunt: send us a gale!”
Amazon.co.uk today (6th October) revealed its best "rhyming reads" for National Poetry Day. Its top sellers in poetry on Kindle are: 100 Prized Poems: Twenty-five years of the Forward Books by William Sieghart and the Forward Arts Foundation; The Witch with the Wonky Broomstick by Sam Cairns; Stressed, Unstressed: Classic Poems to Ease the Mind by Jonathan Bate; Collected Poems by Carol Ann Duffy; England’s Best Loved Poems: The Enchantment of England by George Courtauld; Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes by Billy Collins; We British: The Poetry of a People by Andrew Marr; Milk and Honey by Kaur; Pearl by Simon Armitage; and Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl.
The theme of this year’s National Poetry Day is “messages”. Events will see 40 BBC Local Radio stations engage 40 poets to celebrate England’s best-loved local landmarks in verse. The Prince of Wales, as an admirer of the work of Seamus Heaney, will begin the celebrations by reading one of his poems “The Shipping Forecast" on BBC Radio 4’s "Today" programme.
"A poem can reach places that prose just can’t,” said Susannah Herbert, National Poetry Day director. “That’s why we’re inviting all with anything important to say today, to say it with a poem. It can be new or old, utterly original or a familiar favourite. It can be deep and dark, funny or memorable. By enjoying, discovering or sharing a poem – words that draw attention to themselves - you change the nature of the national conversation.”