Publishing is big business.

E-publishing is making headway, but the vast majority of sales are conventional books, and many believe it will always be so.

Publishing is a business like any other, and writers need to understand that business rules apply. New authors may be the lifeblood of the industry, but the first responsibility of any publishing house is to stay afloat, giving employment to its staff and support to current authors. Every new book is a gamble, and companies do not like gambling in an increasingly competitive industry.

Novels are vastly more popular than poetry collections, but even a well-reviewed first novel will generally sell no more than 1,000 copies over two years. A large publishing house will receive 2,000 unsolicited manuscripts every year, and perhaps publish 20, at no appreciable profit.

Some figures: Net sales for the entire United States publishing industry increased by 1.3 percent from 2003 to 2004 to a grand total of $23.72 billion, of which professional and scholarly books accounted for $4.06 billion, and the adult trade hardbacks accounted for $2.61 billion. In contrast, mass market paperback sales were only $1.11 billion, and e-book sales hardly worth reporting.

The USA has over 50,000 publishers. Add publishers in Canada, UK and Australia and the total in the English-speaking world may exceed 100,000. Many publishers are small, local and specialized. Many are not truly profitable. Publishing, accounting, warehousing and marketing procedures vary widely, as does the software employed. Hence a broadly-satisfied reading public, but also great waste and difficulties in implementing common IT standards.

Poetry Publishing

Poetry is generally supported by sales in other divisions — textbooks, self-help, gardening, etc. Some specialist poetry publishers receive funding from the Arts Council and similar organisations, and some require editors to dip into their own pockets from time to time.

That is not to say that conventional publishers will not bring out your collection of poems, but they need to be convinced that there is a sufficient market for your work, and that you will play your part in promotion: book signings, chat- and radio-shows, talks at literary societies, etc. No one can read all that’s published in even a small field, and librarians count on trade reviews and that loose association of reviewers, publishers and newspapers that give an author celebrity and sales appeal. Hence the importance of publishing in prestigious small presses, which open the door to university imprints and finally collections appearing in the leading poetry publishing houses: Anvil, Carcanet, Bloodaxe, Noble, Faber and Faber, Peter Owen, etc.

Rather different are the collections brought out by local publishers for a local market, which can be very successful if they feature characters and places loved by the community. Line drawings and maps can enhance the text, and root the poems in a particular setting.