Kona’s column 11: The M Word
September 13, 2010
Once, in a distant and touchingly naive life, I invited a double glazing salesman over the threshold and into the house. (While that prospect might seem titillating to those of you who’ve explored the cul-de-sac of paranormal romantic fiction, let me assure you that I remained non-exsanguinated, both biologically and financially, and only one of the participants was the least bit dirty. Hint – it wasn’t me.)
The requirement was simple: a single new sealed unit to replace an old one that was leaking and misted-over. Predictably enough, Mr Hard Sell’s objective was to come away with a contract for the complete replacement of every double-glazed window in the house. He was masterful, using manipulative sales tricks ranging from the “Yes Set” (a series of no-brainer questions to which the only possible answer could be “Yes”) to the “Spurious Personal Connection” (in the midst of his collection of sample window-installation photos, a snapshot of a cute toddler, ostensibly his). The fact that his quoted price dropped by 50% during the course of his pitch, after a couple of (presumably faked) “special negotiation” calls to “my boss”, highlighted the lucrative margins on offer to the successful sales fast-talker.
It’s unfortunate that Mr Hard Sell and his unscrupulous ilk are the straw men that appear, small but oh-so-perfectly formed, in the average poetical head at the merest whisper of the word “marketing”. I can’t imagine any really committed artist wanting their work disseminated through hard-sell methods, not least because the salesperson generally doesn’t care about the product, but only for the profits that can be fast-talked by shifting it to gullible buyers who won’t really appreciate it either. (That said, I’d love to set our Double Glazing Salesman loose on a door-to-door cold-calling spree with a fat briefcase of contemporary poetry books, just to see how he got on: come on Channel 4, there’s a reality show for you.) To characterise all marketing as hard-sell sales, the gulling of dupes into buying second-rate products they neither need nor want, is about as silly as throwing away a houseful of perfectly good windows – and it’s only one of the misconceptions that blights the name of marketing and thereby gets in the way of poets and poetry reaching new audiences.
Any business-savvy person will quickly point out that sales and marketing aren’t actually the same thing – so the hard sell problem is a red and particularly stinky herring when we’re discussing poetry marketing. However, there’s a second misconceived objection, which has a parallel in the software industry that’s been beautifully satirised by geek hero Dilbert: namely, the techies’ gripe that the Marketing Department consists of a bunch of shiny suits who swan in and override all the elegant designs, technical considerations and funky innovations proposed by the Engineering Department because “the market doesn’t want that”.
I’d argue that this view of marketing – that it consists of establishing the requirements of the market’s lowest common denominator, however stupid these might be, and conforming to them absolutely – is the source of the “dumbing-down” whinges that are often trotted out in regard to poetry marketing. There are certainly commercial contexts in which a market exists and a product is deliberately “tailored” (or bowdlerised) to fit the needs and timescales of that market – but poetry, for goodness’ sake? Have you ever heard of a poet being told by his or her editor “Can you please just get rid of some of those polysyllabic words, and make it all a bit more unintelligent, so I can sell it more easily? Also, the words “shards” and “heartache” are hot this year with the C1 demographic, so can you throw some more of those in? Oh, and by the way, I’m negotiating an iPad co-branding deal, so we’ll need a poem to work in with that.”
There’s a third variety of marketing, though, which is desperately relevant to poetry and its thoroughly non-burgeoning sales. This kind of marketing, which is required for any innovative product, is simply the act of figuring out who might be interested in the thing you’ve made (be it a gadget, a book, an artwork or a song) and finding ways to let them know about it. There’s no hard-sell, no dumbing-down: just the challenge of finding the natural market for your product, or, in the poet’s case, of reaching the particular audience that would value your poems.
Some will argue that for poets to bother with even this kind of pragmatic marketing is somehow lowering, fundamentally grubby, and that the artist’s first and only calling should be to his or her art. I find this position quite defensible in those who wish only to write, but somewhat flaky in those who wish to be published; publishing a book does tend to suggest that you, its author, would like people to read it, however coyly you might wish to deny this fact. Even if you are genuinely indifferent to your readership – perhaps, for example, because all you really need or want is the psychological validation of your publisher’s stamp of approval – your publisher is unlikely to be so carefree about it. Publishers must care about book sales: commercial publishers have to survive in an increasingly tight marketplace, and grant-aided publishers have funding bodies very concerned about the audience for the work they subsidise.
In these circumstances, helping with the marketing of your book or pamphlet – however personally uncomfortable you find this – isn’t egregious self-aggrandisement: rather, it’s simple professionalism, part and parcel of being a published contemporary writer. I’m sure that many of us find the process awkward and embarrassing, and would prefer to restrict ourselves to the more desirable aspects of being a professional poet (the wealth! the fame! the women throwing underwear!) – but poetry books need marketing to find markets, and in the absence of large commercial budgets for this, some DIY effort is required. It’s only once we embrace the basic non-evilness of marketing that we can get onto the far more interesting question of how to go about it – with all the same verve, creativity and sense of humour that we try to put into our writing.
Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland.This column is a monthly feature. Kona also facilitates the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and follow her on Twitter.