Friday, March 20, 2015

Can a poet publicise her own work?

It's an issue I still struggle with, the question of being a publicist for my books as well as a writer. It seems some writers are brilliant at it but many of us find it excruciating. It's not that I have a problem with marketing - it's an art like many others - but I am naturally shy and have never been good at networking.
I can't list the number of opportunities I've had, but end up in the corner, talking to the other person in the room who feels as out of place as I do.
Ridiculous, really, that I can define myself as shy when I've earned a living as a journalist for so long. But now I understand that career choice - journalism gives me a reason to approach people, to ask questions, to engage. It is perfect for a shy person.
Publicising my books, though, is another matter.
I have worked with brilliant marketing people in business and witnessed how selling shampoo or fabric conditioner works.
It's a long and expensive process. There are focus groups, endless layers of experiment in which attitudes, word combinations and images are put to the test to see which of them is most appealing. Eventually the marketing team has a sense of how to sell a new product or revitalise an old one.
But the product isn't made by the marketing team. It's made by scientists and innovators. The marketing team is presented with a creative task, one that is deliberately detached from the actual creation of the thing they are trying to sell to the public. The scientists might be asked for a steer, what can and can't be claimed, what they want from their inventions, but they are not expected to sell.
This distinction shows how the concept of a writer promoting her own books is flawed. It doesn't matter why we write or what we are writing, although some books are easier to sell than others.
In its March newsletter, The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) suggests writers should be collaborating with publicists rather than seeing their role as separate.
"In an exceptionally crowded market, your book is likely to be born only to blush unseen unless you are prepared to publicise it yourself, or make every effort to help your publicist to do so," writes Carole Sanderson. 
If it's that difficult for prose, what position are poets left in?
Poetry is a crowded market, if you choose to use those terms - and some might find them inappropriate. But Facebook groans under the weight of angry threads about prizes and competitions, who's been left out, who's ignored, who is getting much more than their 15 minutes of fame, tucked in between videos of cats and happy cows. 
A friend told me recently that poetry anthologies are the favourite reading of life prisoners. That was new to me. In a world of shrinking attention spans, surely poetry can settle in the mindspace of people who are unable to find the time for a novel?
There are initiatives, but they are disparate. We have a collection of websites promoting poets - their selection process is difficult to fathom. 
We have a healthy range of independent publishers all bringing out new books, which may sell if they are shortlisted for a prize, but otherwise often go unread. Why aren't they collaborating more?
We have a few high profile marketing campaigns aimed at selecting the country's top poets, which succeed in selling a few more books for certain publishers and do nothing much for the majority because they concentrate on individuals and seen as indicators of quality, not the rather unfocused promotions they really are. 
Why aren't these initiatives consolidated? How is it that the Academy of American Poets, The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine in the US seems to be able to present a holistic overview of what's happening in north America and to a degree, the rest of the world, in a way that doesn't happen in England at least?
And while I try nowadays to think more positively, to brush aside the doubts that beset every writer and recognise them as a necessary part of the process, I feel that poetry and poets in the UK deserve a better deal. 
All of us, prize winners and not, deserve to be treated as part of a community that is involved in creative endeavour. Creative endeavour is hard, won't ever make me rich and is likely to keep me below the poverty level, in fact. It demands my attention and is taking a long time to show results. I have long fallow periods, when the doubts are overwhelming, and the odd stretch of activity when perhaps I feel I might be getting somewhere. During both those extremes, I want to pay attention to what I am doing, not to selling it. 
And I don't think that's unreasonable. 
Perhaps we can situate poetry within the sustainability sector? I am writing about sustainability at the moment and it makes me feel so good. Each year, this job comes up and I relish discovering companies who are doing something so new. As I put their profiles together, it sometimes feels like poetry. 
So perhaps there are similarities between the sustainability movement and poetry?
Is there a publicist out there who can take this on? Who can gather the poets, unruly as we are, into some kind of community that is expanding the pathways of the mind and crunching metaphors that are offering new ways of seeing the 21st century and its terrible challenges?