Wednesday, 20 February 2008

George Szirtes, on the current price of poetry

Poet-in-Residence is pleased to feature the following item received from the poet George Szirtes. A considered and timely contribution to the price of poetry debate.

I am not sure anyone has yet accused a poetry publisher of profiteering or cashing in. Almost all of them work at a loss, subsidised by the publishing house through the sales of more popular books. As far as I know, the Penguin Modern European Poets and the Penguin Modern Poets series was subsidised by D H Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', and Secker (my first single-book publisher) ran poetry on the back of sales of Erica Jong's 'Fear of Flying'. Bloodaxe and Carcanet could not operate without public subsidy, which does however insist they contribute by producing broadly popular books too (such as Bloodaxe's anthologies).

I am sure you know that poetry is not priced by the word. The economics of poetry publishing is more complicated (and nevertheless more fraught) than that. I am relieved that publishers publish poetry at all. A popular poet like Wendy Cope or Carol Ann Duffy may sell as many as 30,000 copies off the back of school syllabuses. Most books of poetry sell in their hundreds, and not many hundreds at that. When my own 'Reel' won the T S Eliot Prize it sold some 3,000 copies - which was remarkable but that's a one-off (my usual sales in latter years have been around the 1,000 mark, good for poetry but hardly anything else). I think some fairly recent survey found that 67% of all poetry sales were for books by Seamus Heaney.

Which brings me to Heaney. He has actually won the Nobel Prize for Literature so on the words-per-pence count he is worth a great deal more than, say, I am. And compare the cost of a poetry book to the cost of a meal in a cheap restaurant. There are not many places in England you can have a two course meal plus a glass of wine for under ten pounds per head. Compare to a cheap bottle of wine. The wine goes of course. Heaney is worth two bottles. And he lasts forever as long as you or I live. Compare to any other pleasure people don't think twice about spending on. A train ride to London and back, second class, will cost you more than twice as much as my forthcoming book*.

George Szirtes

*'New & Collcted Poems' by George Szirtes (Bloodaxe Books) pub. date 29th November 2008. GBP 15.00p, paper, 978 1 85224 813 0,

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