Assessing "Poetry Sales" isn't easy. Firstly it's not always clear what counts as poetry. Secondly, publishers often aren't forthcoming about sales, which rarely reach 4 figures and are usually part of a long tail. Some publishers give print-run sizes rather than sales, and count review copies as sales. And books on school/university reading lists may receive special treatment. e-books and web-publishing have complicated matters even further. I'd contend that poetry's never been popular, and that poetry's more popular than ever. It all depends of course on what you mean by "poetry".
Was there ever, anywhere, a Golden Age of Poetry? Here are just a few of many candidates. I think fashion and lack of alternatives account for many of these highlights -
- In pre-literate times, short and memorable passages were popular, often being set to music. I imagine that they spanned the literary spectrum, though I suspect that the equivalent of pop songs was by far the most popular type.
- In Victorian times, many middle class parents felt they should have a poetry anthology on their shelves. Some evenings they may have taken turns to read poems out around the fire. A new book by Tennyson could sell 40,000 copies in weeks.
- In 1965, the "International Poetry Incarnation" attracted 7,000 people to the Albert Hall.
- Toyo Shibata was 92 when she started writing poetry; her first self-published collection of 42 poems has sold over 1.5 million copies in Japan since its publication in 2009.
- 70 million global viewers watched dueling versifiers vie for a $1.3 million cash prize in Abu Dhabi’s hit reality show "Million’s Poet".
- According to Publishers weekly, Rupi Kaur has sold nearly 500,000 poetry books.
- According to The Academy of American Poets director Jen Benka, the Academy’s Poem-a-Day has over 300,000 readers.
More often we hear about sale flops. Some of these stories may be apocryphal, but they're fun anyway -
- Edward Fitzgerald paid to have 250 copies of the Rubaiyat translation printed, intending to sell each for 5 shillings. Something like a total of six copies were sold. After a couple years, the bookseller put it on the remainder table. Asking price: one penny.
- Of the 2,000 copies of the 1832 edition of Wordsworth's poems, less than 400 had been sold by Sept 1833.
- James Joyce's "Chamber Music" was published 1907. By 1913, fewer than 200 copies out of 507 printed had been bought, many by Joyce.
- Jorge Luis Borges used to carry round copies of his book of poems and stuff them in the overcoats of men who were having a shave or a haircut.
- According to Nielsen Bookscan, not one of the shortlisted collections in the 2007 T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry had sold more than 1000 copies by 2008. "Hawks to Doves" by Alan Gillis had sold 39 copies.
- Michael Juster's "Wilbur Award" winner, "The Secret Language of Women", has sold 400 copies in a decade - slightly above average for the series.
- The best-selling single-author poetry book of 2011 in the US - "Horoscopes for the Dead" by Billy Collins - sold 18,406 copies.
- According to The Guardian only 500 copies of Prynne's "Pearls That Were" were produced in England. On the plus side, in China a translation of it had sold more than 50,000 copies" by 2004.
In 1998-9 the UK Arts Council found that Faber published 90% of the contemporary poetry books that were bought. 67% of them were by Heaney, though his UK sales pale beside those of previous popular UK poets - Byron, Kipling, Betjeman, and Pam Ayres.
In The Guardian, 2013 it said that "total value of UK poetry sales has gone from £8.4m in 2009 to £6.7m last year", and that Salt (a publisher who had produces many single-author poetry books) found that sales had "a 50% drop over the last five years, half of which happened in the last 12 months"
But don't despair. Though most poetry books on middle-class shelves are unwanted presents ("Birthday Letters" is in many charity shops), I think quite a lot of poetry survives under other guises. A thoughtful passage can "go viral" nowadays, being read in hours more than a prize-winning poem is read in centuries. And song-writers shouldn't be underestimated. When Joni Mitchell began a track with "Blue, songs are like tattoos/ You know I've been to sea before" she was taking words seriously.
Attempts to widen the base of poetry have never been too successful in strictly poetry terms, especially those that use slogans like "Anyone can write". Perhaps the most recent successes are Dana Gioia's "The Big Read" and "Poetry Out Loud", which aim to increase appreciation of poetry. The current situation, where much worthwhile poetry isn't involved with establishment poetry (and might not even be called poetry) isn't the worst of all possible worlds. At least the writers don't have to make compromises.
- In the Mapping contemporary poetry report, these were the top 10 (in terms of value) all-time UK poetry titles (Non-contemporary poetry excluded)
Title and author Copies sold 1 Staying Alive (Astley (ed)) 90999 2 The World's Wife (Duffy) 67590 3 Collected Poems (Larkin) 40696 4 Beowulf: A New Translation 51694 5 The Whitsun Weddings (Larkin) 42579 6 Being Alive (Astley (ed)) 27292 7 Birthday Letters (Hughes) 31227 8 If I Don't Know (Cope) 30776 9 New Selected Poems, 1966-87 (Heaney) 22775 10 Collected Poems (Plath) 16054
- "Official figures from Nielsen BookScan show a sharp decline in the overall UK 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." (Guardian 2013)
- "Over the past two years, according to BookScan, the three bestselling UK 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." (Guardian 2013)