Since hearing that Kitsune Books, the publisher of Gods of Water and Air, my third poetry collection, was ending business operations on December 31, I've researched small press publishing to try and understand what had happened and what to do. I had picked Kitsune partly because they were a rare combination, a press publishing both poetry and prose, and I have a novel to publish. What I've found shocked me, even though I had a picture of the tenuous nature of publishing, especially small publishing companies.
Print publishing, as we all know, is becoming an endangered species, as the sale of e-books now is increasing while print sales remain flat. And poetry publishing is very endangered -- yet poetry itself is flourishing in some ways. As an American art form, poetry is abandoning its academic and literary roots and becoming, by way of slam, rap, rock, and readings, a folk art. Poetry performance is thriving; the printed word is dying. It's becoming a younger art, a pop culture and social phenomenon.
Like Kitsune Books, most poetry presses in America are operations as fragile as the health or will of its often sole operator. That means a press's entire catalog and backlist of books is vulnerable to sudden disappearance.
Do you ever think to ask a press that's offering you a publishing contract about their gross sales or net profit margin? How many full-time staff members? Or average sales are for a poetry book? I sure didn't ask such questions, not with my last three publishers. And because I remained ignorant, I had unpleasant surprises. Not that they were bad experiences, but that I was unprepared to face how frail these companies are, how they may even be hobbyist ventures, and what little resemblance most of them bear to conventional book publishing and the expectations an author might reasonably have in that context. I have lived and am learning. Who knows, I might start a press myself one day.
What I've learned is: poetry is an endangered species; poetry has never been as popular in the last 25 years; contemporary poetry bears little resemblance to anything in print; poetry is an almost all-volunteer effort; poetry has migrated into other cultural forms. All these are true. Yet something else is happening. Poets are starting self-publishing collectives, publishing e-books, publishing spoken-word CDs, reading on the radio, forming Facebook communities, printing broadsides, making book trailer videos, appearing on Youtube, even showering cities with printed poems. Poetry will never die. Print and bookstores may.