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.

4 Responses to “Kona’s column 11: The M Word”

  1. I don’t think marketing is evil, but I do have a visceral difficulty with suggesting to others that anything I’ve done might be worthwhile or something they might like to buy. Nice kids’ parents (especially nice girls’ parents) seem to din modesty and self-effacement into them from an early age, and if they don’t, their schoolfriends do, by coming down viciously on anything that looks like getting above yourself or others. I don’t know if this is especially British, or generational, or gender-related, but I do know it’s a bloody hard attitude to shift. My only plausible solution would be to use a relative as a sort of unpaid agent, to say for the poet what she is too embarrassed to say for herself. It wouldn’t work for me, because my husband, though willing, knows bog all about the poetry world. But it’s all I can think of.

  2. Kona Macphee Says:

    Sheenagh, it wasn’t dissimilar in Australia where I grew up. There was a real aversion to being seen to be “up yourself”, and also something that we called “Tall Poppy Syndrome” – a predisposition in Aussie culture for cutting down anybody who got too big for their boots, too successful. (It was fine and dandy to be an “Aussie battler”, but lord help you if all that battling actually got you somewhere!) I agree that conditioning like that is very difficult to overcome, and I still struggle with it myself. I find that trying to be a spokesperson/advocate for poetry in general, not only my own work, helps to some extent in getting over the cringe factor – how about you?

  3. Yes, I agree it’s poetry in general we need to promote. Though having said that, there are aspects of the scene l wouldn’t want to promote and I can see why they put people off – most notably some of the acababble Lit Crit is written in, which seems designed as a barrier, and some of the cattiness that infests the scene.

  4. Kona Macphee Says:

    I relate to what David Lodge wrote on the subject of the more abstruse academic Lit Crit:

    “In 1987 I retired from university teaching, and although I expect to go on writing literary criticism, I doubt whether much of it will be oriented towards an academic readership. One component of that decision was a feeling that it was becoming harder and harder to make meaningful connections between an academic criticism increasingly dominated by questions of Theory, and the practice of creative writing.”

    As to cattiness, it’s certainly about, and pretty disappointing – but one of the lovely things about moving to Scotland has been how warm, welcoming and generally non-neurotic the poetry community here is. Respect!

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