Dead-tree publishing has been in a quiet, lumbering crisis for many years now. Publishers are understandably confused over their role in a world that exchanges information freely and is stocked with e-book readers and high-tech print-on-demand services provided by some of the largest book sellers in the world. Writers are beginning to challenge the notion that a traditional publishing house is some beneficent entity that must be courted and deferred to. Even the idea of the publishing house, a disjointed amalgam of money lender, talent scout, editor, manager, publicist, ad company and printer, seems challengeable now in a way that would have seemed inconceivable twenty years ago.
But nowhere is the entrenched hold the traditional publisher deeper and more enduring than the field of poetry. While ersatz fan-fiction tops the best-seller lists for mass-market paperbacks, poetry, even in a crass or bastardized form, is largely absent from the mass market altogether.
It’s an open secret that people don’t buy poetry. Some small exception is made for those poets humorous, famous, or dead enough, but by and large the rule holds true. There is not a large publisher in America for which contemporary, literary poetry is an important commercial concern.