Thursday, June 21, 2007

We've only got 14 minutes to save internet poetry!

Somewhere in the deeper recesses of the internet I've been chatting with others about the role of the critic. As ever, the old shibboleth about the worthlessness of internet poetry came up - millions of "poets", nada quality control, no status, no money in it, etc, etc. My stance is that critics have a role to play in sorting this mess out. The big question is "where's the revenue stream?" Because if you want people to do a proper job, you're going to have to pay them.


Let's look at the current PoBiz model. Here you've got poets who produce the raw goods, publishers who package the goods into saleable product, critics who evaluate the products (ostensibly to help guide readers in their purchasing decisions), retailers who sell the products, and readers who buy the stuff. At each stage there's some sort of cash transaction because each person in the chain expects to profit - except for the reader, who's paying for the pleasure of owning their own copy of some nice poems.

Now this whole edifice depends on the reader buying the product. Chris Hamilton-Emery, a wonderful person who runs Salt Publishing - and is a poet in his own right - has mentioned in these chats I've been chipping into that "[the UK poetry market] is likely to be between £18M to £27M a year in total poetry sales, about £9M of which is trade (i.e. sold through shops) [...] The vast bulk of these sales is dead poets, of course."

There are other sources of money (ignoring the whole mess of poet-centred education), specifically sponsorship money from companies, individuals, wills and the like; and grant money from governments and councils - in other words, taxpayer's money. Some of this money is given directly to the poets - sponsorship awards, poets-in-residence, the odd competition prize that isn't funded entirely from entry fees. Some money goes to the publishers to publish otherwise uneconomical books. Libraries and schools get money to buy new books. The problem with these sources of money is that you can't over-rely on them if you want a healthy poetry economy; it takes just one big political decision (close libraries, divert grant funds to a different art, etc) to cripple the whole set-up. In the end, you need people to buy poetry. Preferably lots of poetry. Most preferably from poets who are still breathing. Like me, for instance.

Poetic economics

An economist (which I'm not, even with my one-day's worth of economics 101 training that Her Majesty's Treasury supplied me with when I started working in their offices) would probably call poetry a "luxury good". A poem is a gift: someone who buys a book of poems is either gifting it to themselves, or to someone they want to impress. Admittedly, a book of poems is not quite as tasty as a box of chocolates, or as zippy as a Ferrari F430 Spider, but then it does tend to last longer than the chocolates and requires less maintenance than the car (and yes, a book of poems, appropriately applied, is just as likely to get you some nookie as the chocolate and car are).

What I'm trying to say is that - unlike the doomsayers going around saying "woe is me; poetry is dead" - there is a market for poetry. We just need to grow that market.

Now let's consider the impact of the internet on the current PoBiz model. In some ways, the internet has revolutionised poetry: anyone can start a blog or join a MySpace group and start posting their poems. Lots of people do exactly that. But why do they do that? Why do they choose the internet over the traditional way of doing things?

In a single word: quality. There's no getting over the fact that PoBiz is a business, and the driving force behind any business is the making of profit. Which means that the quality of the product has to be controlled. Which in turn means that publishers are only interested in publishing the poets whose work they are confident will sell.

Who controls the quality of the product?

Here we come to the big, knotty problem that lies at the heart of PoBiz: who gets to decide what is good? Well, generally it's a task that is divided between publishers, critics and the poets themselves. Before a publisher will consider publishing a poet, that poet has to establish a reputation - magazine publications, competition wins, good live performances (moving beyond the open mic stage), a bit of networking, etc. Then the poet needs to produce a set of poems that the publisher can believe in - why sell something you don't like yourself? The retailer has to be convinced that the poet has built enough name recognition to make it worth their while to put the book on their shelves. The critic - a seemingly much maligned figure - can help build a poet's reputation with good reviews of the book in places which readers frequent, looking for recommendations.

Reputation is such a tricky thing. There's always the question in the background: is that poet being published because of the quality of their work, or their networking skills? Yes, you may call me a cynic, but the system doesn't always work quite as well as it could; we're all human, after all. And once this huge investment has been made building up a poet's reputation and market platform, the system is going to demand a return - are the poems that appear in a second collection, or a third, or fourth, as good as those in the first collection, or are poorer poems being sold on reputation alone? If critics are doing their job honestly, then the reader can have some confidence that they're not being sold a pup, that a poet's latest output is as good as the stuff they've enjoyed - and bought - before. But critics rely on poets and publishers for their work - how many "damning" reviews can a critic offer before publishers stop sending them new books for review?

Yes, I have a tanker's worth of liquid cynicism. It's genetic: I blame my mother.

So anyways, we have this PoBiz system that (mostly) works. It's perhaps a little too over-reliant on grants and sponsorships, but there you go. And we do have a market for poetry, a luxury good which much of the population holds in some esteem (even if it's only because they've been told to hold it in high esteem at school). Nevertheless, given a choice between a blank birthday card and a birthday card with a poem in it, most people will go for the poem - a prestige gift, a way of making the gift more special and meaningful between giver and receiver. There is a demand for poetry.

So what effect has the internet had on PoBiz? Not much, to be honest. Partly because of the quality issue. partly because people - readers, gift givers, poets, etc - know how the system works: they have confidence in the system.

Let's have some music to go along with this (very) long post, Rik

In other areas, the impact of the internet (and new technologies generally) has been massive. Think video. Think music.

In the old days, the music industry used to operate a little bit like the PoBiz industry, with singers and songwriters having to build reputations, record companies looking for good, marketable acts, etc, etc, etc. Record sales drove this business, alongside merchandising, royalty payments and ticket sales. But then something very nasty happened.

People began swapping their songs. Tape recorders started it all off - it was easy to tape an album and give it to your mate. Then digital technology chipped in, and the internet, and Napster got born - and killed off. The truth was that people didn't want vinyl - they wanted music they could carry around with them. And they saw no problem in sharing the music they owned with others - a swapsies economy, if you like. And now we have iPods and online stores where you can buy a song for 79p and all the rest. Things seem to be settling down again in the music business after the internet revolution. And profits are still being made.

Many better, more informed people have written about this stuff. My interest is in seeing if there's any lessons for poetry in the experiences of music.

You want a poem for what?

The internet poetry scene can be a frightening place when you first meet it. For a start, it's huge. Massive! How can a person deal with such a constant, neverending outpouring of poems? It's like trying to get a cup of decent, clean water out of the Amazon!

A jungle analagy is good here. When people first see the jungle, they see - a jungle. Lots of jungle. And all of it frightening. But when you look closer, when you study it for a while, you begin to see something different.

Yes, the internet poetry world is a jungle. It's a complex, many layered world, with its different types of tree and different groups of monkeys and parrots screeching at each other and different ways of moving through the place - ambling along the ground through the leafmould or swinging between trees on the vines or growing wings to fly above the canopy. There's poets there - mostly people who write poems for themselves or their friends, but other sorts of poets too: groups of poets busy workshopping, or setting out their displays, or publishing other poets in online magazines. There's also parasites: leeches whose only interest is to suck the cash out of people's dreams of being heard beyond the branch of their tree or their hole in the ground.

And there's readers there, too. People visit the internet to hunt for poems. Sometimes they need a poem to read at a wedding or funeral. Sometimes they're looking for a special poem to give to a friend, parent or lover. Sometimes they just want to settle down and read a poem about God, or loss, or love, or sex. Whatever. They're there, and they want their poems.

Now, why aren't these people going to the bookshops to buy these poems? More often than not, they don't want to buy a book of poems. They just want one or two poems that meet their particular needs. They also know that poetry books are expensive.

So what, Rik? What's your game? Where's your solution?

I'm sorry. I haven't got a solution. My game is to try and imagine ways in which the internet can be used to the profit the poet, the critic, the publisher, the retailer and, most importantly, the reader.

We know that the internet poetry scene is frightening. So how do we make it less frightening? How do we pursuade critics to act as guides through this jungle?

We know that the percieved quality of internet poetry is dire. How can we improve the reputation of internet poetry? How can we get people to see that the best poetry being produced in the internet jungle is the equal to the best that PoBiz produces?

We know there's a market for good poetry. But are we delivering the product in the best way for readers? is the magazine, the collection, the anthology the best way to service the requirements of a person who only wants a good poem to read out at a funeral? How do we start generating a sustainable revenue stream?

Weve only got 14 minutes to save internet poetry. So get to it!


  1. Okay, you want answers. Here are a few:

    Firstly, you say money changes hands at every level of the PoBiz structure. This isn't strictly true. I had a three-figure advance for my first collection because it was with a large independent publisher. With Salt, you just get royalties. This situation seems fair to me, as I only recently finished paying off my first book advance anyway (it was published nearly 10 years ago, which may give you an idea of how astonishingly popular it was).

    Then you talk about critics not being able to speak honestly in case publishers stop sending them books. Generally speaking, in poetry, unless you're a regular reviewer for one of the nationals, the editor of the magazine is the person who sends review copies to critics, not the publisher. So it's up to the editor who they choose, and whether they 'dump' too-negative critics.

    This has always been a difficult issue for me. I tend to be honest where others would be polite. Editors have admitted to not wanting to give me review work because of that. But I consider that when an honest critic finally gives someone the thumbs-up, at least then you can be sure they MEAN IT!

    Next, you worry about the nepotism and backscratching element in poetry. Well, there is no solution to this. It's the way the world works on all levels, because human beings are concerned with relationships, and once in a position of power, we're always going to give work to friends rather than to strangers or, even less likely, enemies. Naturally though, the 'friends' you choose will need to be not just competent but seriously good at what they do, otherwise you end up looking like an idiot. In poetry, you either accept this situation or you don't get work. Simple as.

    Lastly, apart from the aside that perceived is spelt thus, the person who only wants a poem for a funeral on one occasion is not the ideal poetry reader. So no publisher worth their you-know-what is going to target them or be terribly bothered if they're struggling to find a poem online.

    What publishers want are REGULAR AND RETURNING READERS. People who buy books, because that's where the money is, who follow trends or the careers of particular poets, who spend a healthy amount of money every year on new poetry.

    So your laudable question is, who will stop and help the non-reader to cross the treacherous poetry road? And the honest answer is, nobody. Because it ain't worth it.


  2. The problem with the internet is Sturgeon's Law -"ninety percent of everything is crap" - except that it's probably more than 90%. You mentioned YouTube, but the vast, overwhelming majority of YouTube content is truly horrid and unwatchable. That's why they have a ranking system and playlists and other methods for the public to act as critics and editors.

    But that only works (to the extent it does) because YouTube has a vast audience so you can get some sort of statistical significance from lots and lots of opinions about a piece.

    Internet poetry is too "thinly-traded" to benefit from a process like that and frankly I don't have the patience to wade through dozens of crappy self-published internet poems to find a good one.

    In the traditional publishing world the editor establishes a floor under the quality. And experienced readers learn which publications have standards and styles that appeal to them. And a good publication is typeset and laid out to make reading a pleasure. And I can't curl up in bed with a single-malt and a computer to read a few poems before drifting off.

    With regard to books and critics allow to to confess: I have never bought a book on critics' advice. My shelf is stuffed with poetry books but every one of them was chosen by reading large bits of it in a bookstore before buying and deciding it was a keeper. I also buy lots of poetry magazines but I just read the poems, not the reviews.