Publisher says these books are 'no longer viable' as sales drop by more than a quarter
As figures show tumbling sales for poetry, authors including poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy are mourning news that one of the UK's most energetic independent publishers can no longer afford to publish individual collections.
After releasing more than 400 poetry collections, many by debut authors, and launching scores of careers, Salt said earlier this week that it will be focusing on poetry anthologies in the future. "We've seen our sales [of single-author collections] decline by over a quarter in the past year, and our sales have halved in the past five years," said director Chris Hamilton-Emery. "It's simply not viable to continue doing them unfunded … We have tried to commit to single-author collections by funding them ourselves, but as they have become increasingly unprofitable, we can't sustain it."
Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy said the decision was "extremely sad news". She added: "They publish some excellent poets and I hope that other publishers will offer space to the poets who will now find themselves without a publisher." Former poet laureate Andrew Motion said the news of Salt's withdrawal was "a great shame". "I think Chris is a terrific editor, with a great eye for new talent, and the opportunities he's been giving for new poets to have solo collections will be sorely missed," said Motion.
Salt counts amongst its authors the major American poet Charles Bernstein, the award-winning Australian poets John Tranter and John Kinsella, prize-winning British author Luke Kennard, and Eleanor Rees and Sian Hughes– both of whom have been shortlisted for the Forward prize for best first collection.
Official figures from Nielsen BookScan show a sharp decline in the overall poetry market in the last year. There was growth of around 13% in 2009, when the market was worth £8.4m, followed by small declines in 2010 and 2011, and then a major drop of 18.5% volume and 15.9% value in 2012, when the overall value of the market fell to £6.7m.
"It's a very tough world out there," said Hamilton-Emery. "For many years the market was static, and then it went into quite sharp decline, particularly through the traditional market of bricks and mortar booksellers. There has also been a massive increase in the number of poetry publications coming out. We think that's a good thing, but we can't commercially be part of it … As a very small, niche commercial publisher, we can't possibly sustain what we have done in the past."
Over the past two years, according to BookScan, the three bestselling poetry titles have all been by Duffy – The Christmas Truce (38,181 copies sold), The Bees (29,716) and The World's Wife (19,933). The rest of the top 10 is made up of three anthologies, The Odyssey, the Pam Ayres Classic Collection – and two more Duffy collections. The collected Philip Larkin comes in 13th place (10,152), behind more anthologies, and Seamus Heaney's Burial at Thebes in 14th (9,253). Even a prize-winning poet such as Sharon Olds has sold only 7,399 copies of her collection Stag's Leap, while John Burnside's Black Cat Bone sold 5,544 copies.
To put this in context, last week in just seven days Martina Cole's The Life sold 23,821 copies. Not a single Salt title appears in the top 100 poetry books sold over the last two years, according to BookScan figures.
Instead of producing individual poetry collections, Salt will focus on its Best British Poetry anthology series, on fiction – its author Alison Moore was shortlisted for the Booker prize last year – and on increasing its non-fiction.
Its decision has hit online poetry community hard. "The news that their poetry publishing will now be slashed to a single annual anthology is terrible for British poets. I mean, their list is bursting with talent: a whole, brilliant generation," blogged the poet Clare Pollard. "Seriously, where are all these poets going to go? Why couldn't Salt find an audience for such an embarrassment of talent? The Arts Council seems happy to pour funding into encouraging a glut of aspiring writers, but what exactly are they supposed to aspire to when poets of this quality find themselves without a publisher for their next book?"
Salt poet Katy Evans-Bush told the Guardian that Salt's move would "leave a big gap, in more ways than one".
"Salt has made a huge difference to the landscape of UK poetry publishing: it's opened up boundaries … and made a space for some of the most exciting poetry being written at the moment. If, as Chris says , this really is a great time to be writing poetry, it's partly because of him," she said, referring to Hamilton-Emery's official statement that "there's never been a better time for poets to write. There are huge opportunities for poets to publish in new ways – and there are scores of new presses emerging, too. It's an exciting time."
"It's salutary to remember that when Salt started expanding its list, it did so in a climate where a lot of very good poets were finding it hard to get first collections out," said Evans-Bush. "Several of us had been students of Michael Donaghy and I know he was demoralised, seeing us not getting ahead. Then Salt came along with its seven-league boots and snapped up a little generation of us. It made everything possible. As the commissioning editor for the past couple of years, Roddy [Lumsden]'s been doing it for another little generation. I think Salt will be hugely missed – more even than many people realise."