Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Salt in the Wound

Salt Publishing is in trouble again, and has renewed its "just one book" campaign; I’ll be buying a book or two to support it, as its back catalogue is excellent and I'd hate to see it all disappear. But I don’t feel hopeful. Salt has always been stridently pro-market and has enthusiastically embraced the corporate model; but asking people to invest in your business as an altruistic act requires something different; a writers' / readers' cooperative perhaps, or even just a supporter / subscriber arrangement like the one Reality Street uses.

I hope Salt survives, but I believe that the corporate model they’ve adopted doesn't work for poetry; accountants don't like it, which is why OUP jettisoned its poetry list. The publishing of contemporary poetry is not viable without subsidy, whether it be public or private. As a business, you produce products that people want (or can be persuaded to want) or you go bust; you need products that sell in bulk, and since the end of the UK’s Net Book Agreement (whereby book prices were fixed, enabling publishers to subsidize work that sold in small quantities), there’s been no place for poetry (and much else) in commercial publishing. How long would Bloodaxe and Carcanet survive if their public funding was removed? Not long.

As our millionaire rulers roll back public spending and the Big Society has us all working longer hours for less pay and fewer rights, Salt won't be the only poetry publisher to suffer. Maybe the only publishers left will be self-funded micro-publishers. In the UK brewing industry craft-beer is now almost exclusively produced by micro breweries. In a sense, that means the big boys have won, but at least you CAN still buy craft-brewed beer. The same might happen in the poetry world. We can only hope that the micro-publishers keep poetry-publishing alive until (if?) times get better.


John B-R said...

I ordered a Salt book, too, Leevi Lehto's, in the spirit of Ginsberg's I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

I think that no matter what happens poetry will continue to appear in the world. I don't believe those "good times" will ever return, nor the old publishing models.

I myself can't foresee any model other than the one you propose, the micro.

Of course, we do have e-, which gets the stuff out there...

I wonder how this all works outside the anglophone world ??

Laurie Duggan said...

I too made an order last time Salt called for help (and I probably will again), but I agree that it's the business model that is the problem. The sheer size of the list I think works against its success. There are only so many books I can afford and, undoubtedly like many others, I tend to freeze when confronted with so much to choose from.

Alistair Noon said...

Hi Alan and all

Interesting comparison with the brewing industry. The small press as a micro-brewery. In spite of its reputation, German beer is in fact a largely mass-produced watery tasteless headache-inducing travesty of what it once was and should be. The Great Satan is Becks, but there are lesser devils too. A few valiant micro-breweries put up a much-needed fight.

Alan Baker said...

I agree that the size, and increasing loss of focus, is a problem with the Salt list. I followed the link to Veer books from your blog Laurie, and that's an example of a press likely to survive: catering for a very specific market (and subsidised by a university!).

For Salt, realist popular novels (bodice-rippers, no less) and mind-bending poetry on the same list probably isn't going to encourage brand loyalty.

Alistair - you've disillusioned me about German beer - same story as over here by the sound if it.

The question about non-anglophone poetry is interesting. Ernesto?...

Chris Hamilton-Emery said...

Fascinating, Alan. I think the cooperative model is redundant in an age of self-publishing. No one needs to stump up to pay publishers by subscription now. There's a wealth of self publishing options open to poets and very many are fantastic. We wouldn't want to compete in the author services market (which is increasingly crowded). We've learned that to grow our business and stabilise it, we'll need to be far less dependent on publishing primarily in one genre. So the key for us is diversification into other genres and diminish our reliance on poetry. I think focus is absolutely key for small presses, I suppose what Salt is becoming is a general trade publisher now, and whilst there has to remain absolutely commitment to finding the best book by the best author at the best time, there's a growing need to do that on as broad a base as possible. We'll have to see if that gamble is right.

Very best from me

Alan Baker said...

Maybe you're right about the coperative model, though I'd argue that the activities of the myriad of self-publishers and small presses is a form of cooperation. If, as you say, Salt is becoming a standard trade publisher, then it' going to be hard to maintain your poetry list, or at least to be as open to new poets as you have been so far. But I'm sure you'll ty harder than most trade publishers. I wish you good luck anyway.