Saturday, 1 June 2013

Poetry Publishing. Is Nobody Making an Income?

Following on from my previous post about whether the difficulties in poetry publishing are new, I also want to talk about another myth that's circulating. Just because poetry publishers have difficulties with low profit margins, no profit margins, or running at a loss, this doesn't mean nobody is being paid. A lot of people are making an income from poetry publishing and it's the publishers who pay them. That's why the profit margins are so low.

One thing I'm most proud of at Ward Wood Publishing is that we started during the recession, in June 2010, and it's so important for entrepreneurs to create work and income that then circulates and is paid out to keep other businesses going. We always use UK printers, and with a book a month we are continually putting work and income their way. Our fiction and ebooks do help us maintain this level of work - so don't be put off ebooks as they do help finance poetry and print runs.

I often see discussions online where people are saying that 'nobody is making an income' if the publisher isn't, including the authors. This isn't right. Author royalties are part of the cost per book to a publisher and we have to factor this in when calculating our profit and loss. We pay 10% of cover price royalties to authors. In standard publisher contracts with most companies, authors can also get their own books at discount, and these are the copies they generally sell at events either at discount or with a mark up. So royalties and selling their own books are two ways authors can make an income. Travel expenses to the regular live events they need to hold do cut into this or eat it up.

I have heard that some poets don't have a contract from their publisher, and they get no royalties. I do feel there should be a contract for various legal protections, but I can understand publishers perhaps taking the approach that royalties are paid on net income rather than gross income, and this would lead to no royalties once costs are taken out.

Some of our authors also get funding from various arts councils to travel to events, and even to dedicate time to writing a follow-on book once they have been published. Some get teaching posts and writer-in-residence positions. As publishers, we pledge the high entry fee to the major awards, and the full amount of the prize money would go to the author. Book sales even after a major award win or shortlist may well not let us recuperate the extortionate entry fees (up to £10,000 plus additional promotional tour costs if shortlisted).

Publishers make the full investment and take all the risk. When discussing the financial difficulty for publishers due to the low profit margins in poetry publishing, it's important not to imagine this means others, including authors, don't get paid. If we didn't have to pay anybody we would have a reasonable profit margin per book. We have a high turnover financially, but the problem is that the costs involved in producing a book, and paying authors and others, mean that the income is almost equal to the outgoings. For this to change, books need to sell more than 500 copies (which doesn't happen with poetry) as this is the point where higher volume print runs can reduce the cost per unit.

There is a very simple answer to this if people want to support publishers and keep publishing outlets open, and that is to buy poetry direct from the publisher whenever possible. This does cut out a lot of additional costs that I'll outline below.

One irony in poetry retail is that poetry lovers used to go to the trouble of buying direct from publishers in the old days, before the internet and when it was harder to get our hands on the books we wanted. This really did help publishers and authors. Since the internet made it easier to find and buy poetry books, people not only want to buy online, they have become almost addicted to the idea that Amazon is the one-stop place to get books and information about them (and the information about whether or not a book is available is very faulty on Amazon and loses many sales).

This brings me to the point where I can list the other people making an income out of poetry publishing - the middle men we need to go through to get the books to buyers, whether they shop in the hight street or on Amazon or Waterstones and other websites.

Retailers, both online and in the high street, insist on buying from their favourite wholesalers who get stock from a distributor. So we have to have our books warehoused with a distributor (Central Books) and with a top wholesaler that shops and Amazon will use (Gardners). They don't charge us for this, not even for the warehousing, but they each take a cut on all sales. We then also need a book marketing agency to rep our books to shops and they also take a cut. Yes, we can market books to shops too, but the book rep gets them into more shops and only charges commission per sale. So it is worth our while having everything in place so books can easily get into the distribution channel no matter how people want to buy.

An alternative is to use Print On Demand using Amazon, but this is more costly per book for the quality we need, and also it doesn't let us warehouse and stock enough books with the distributor and wholesaler (well we could but it would be an expensive way to do it). The advantage is the POD makes books available worldwide on Amazon, but other retail methods are important too so we'd need both approaches.

Poetry book sales in the lower hundreds aren't a terrible thing. In fact I have a feeling poetry is thriving more than ever and has never been more popular. The problem is that, because we are paying so many people out of each book sale, the profit margin is low. If publishers aren't too savvy financially they can even get into a loss-making situation.

So please don't think nobody is making an income. A whole set of businesses are kept going by publishers like us and that's one of the achievements I'm most happy with during a recession, along with the opportunity to keep publishing outlets open for exceptional authors.

Entrepreneurs creating work for individuals and other businesses are a key factor in helping to pull us out of recession and we should probably get funding for that reason alone! We've done it all without funding though, as publishers anyway. Individual authors should keep applying for funding.

If you've been interested enough to read this far I'd just stress one point. The way to solve the problem for publishers is to buy direct from publisher websites as it makes a huge difference not having to pay the commission to distributors and wholesalers, and they are definitely doing fine with the bestsellers they also handle.

There really was one great thing about the Good Old Days and that was direct sales from publisher to buyer.


  1. Very interesting - thanks.

  2. Its good to hear a thoughtful description of the poetry industry from the publishers angle.

  3. I have been corrected by Neil Astley at Bloodaxe on a Guardian discussion board. Apparently the biggest poetry publishers get most of their sales in bookshops and on Amazon and not at live events, although he added that this may change with the reduction of poetry stock in Waterstones. I had heard a quote from him a while ago but it must have been taken out of context. At Ward Wood we have found Waterstones supportive and our book shop sales are increasing now we have a good book marketing agency repping around the UK, Ireland and Paris so I do continue to feel positive.


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