I am a publisher, a hybrid creature: one part stargazer, one part gambler, one part businessman, one part midwife and three parts optimist.
– Cass Canfield the late American publisher.
I have that quote on the header of my blog and it is that very spirit with which as a commercial publisher, I approach poetry. On the one hand you want to publish quality material but equally you want to have the material sell well and see the author rewarded for their craft (and it is a craft just as any writing is). On the other hand, poetry books are not always the most lucrative. Commercial reasoning might well force a publisher to publish one more solid Irish history or perhaps to risk a misery lit memoir, rather than publish a collection from a poet, new or established.
The shame of it is that though the value the publisher will accrue from producing a poetry book is often much less visible it is much more valuable.
In today’s crowded market what stands out is original writing and fresh or real talent. While it will certainly result in a more immediate fillip for the profit and loss account, a misery memoir offers little new to the world of books. Readers will not be lacking for decently written titles that show them the horrors of others’ lives in a very real way. There is however a dearth of good poetry that can bring a reader on a journey of discovery and allow them to escape (for however short a time) from the pace of modern life.
By publishing original voices and exciting poetry, even a commercial publisher can enhance their reputation among authors and increase their profile. The benefits of this process to their other activities are unseen but are real. Authors aware of your more literary endeavours are happier under your banner for that reason. People in more diverse fields gain an awareness of your brand, encouraging perhaps more sales and more importantly when they write a book that might just suit your general list, your company might well come into their mind when it might not have before.
What is more, and this is often overlooked, commercial publishers are well placed to bring poetry from the margins of the market to a wider audience. In some instances this may mean simply packaging poetry in a customer friendly way, as Mercier and many others have with children’s poetry in recent years. Or it may mean simply ensuring that the work of authors gains distribution and shelf space in mainstream bookshops, a challenge even for strictly commercial titles.
That is one of the reasons why Arts Council support is so important for Irish Publishers. It allows us to make decisions outside of strict commercial limits. They may not always be perfect, but they enrich our lives and allow readers the opportunity to experience more and better poetry. Whenever a commercial house publishes a poet they push poetry into the mainstream a little more, making poetry less of an outside affair and more an affair for everyday life, something real and regular, something not to be viewed from afar but up close and personal. That can only be a good thing to my mind.
Eoin Purcell is Commissioning Editor with Mercier Press in Cork, Ireland. Prior to that he worked at Publishing Manager at Nonsuch Ireland. He writes regular blog posts and columns on the Irish book trade for The Bookseller magazine. He blogs over at eoinpurcellsblog.com