It pains me to see that Salt are on the trail again for reader support. This time around I caught the campaign in passing at first, which is interesting in itself: perhaps a certain degree of fatigue in passing email references, like "Salt are in trouble again", but with no link to the campaign or explanation for what was up. It's the third time now and it's kind of depressing to see that things haven't got better for them, for all the hard work, innovation in poetry publishing and exciting, diverse lists of authors. And the worry is that people are going to get tired of repeated bail outs.
There's an interesting post over at Alan Baker's blog, Litterbug. He makes a nice comparison to micro-breweries, 'beer publishing'. Specialist ends of industries can survive on the small scale with dedicated readerships and recessions don't really affect them. Neither do profits, of course. But that's not really what Salt's about.
The mission behind Salt that's always interested me is, loosely phrased, (and might be reading too much between the lines on my part) that there are more audiences out there for poetry than can be assumed: poetry readerships are multitudes. (I could phrase it better, but I'm going for the soundbite.) Salt have a fantastically experimental backlist, as Alan points out in his post. But they also have mainstream poets like Tobias Hill and Jane Holland. I have Silliman, Monk, Kennard, Abi Curtis, Tobias Hill, Holland and Montejo kicking about on my shelves. The list is diverse and that's something to be celebrated. I don't expect to buy every book Shearsman or Faber put out, or that they should exist to satisfy only my tastes (even if I pine for the lack of flavour in certain publishers' lists from time to time) and the same goes for Salt.
And it saddens me to think that this audiences-principle doesn't seem to be holding. Is the problem, like Alan suggests, that Salt is spread too thin? That they've adopted a corporate model which doesn't hold weight? Is the 'long tail' a failure in the long term?
As with any business, the option is open to vary the model for different audiences. What Alan describes - public subsidies, viability of sales - is what Salt are falling back on. They're relying on a core demographic to buy books regularly; to some extent they are operating on a subscription model. Call it the 'Just One Book' campaign, or call it 'Buy three books a year', or call it 'Arts Council funding', it amounts to the same thing in any case: a fixed, core operational funding stream from a given source that permits survival, within certain goalposts. The most irritating aspect of this is how it restricts editorial freedom, forces certain choices down lines that might not be fruitful, in a wider aesthetic picture ('This poetry deserves to be in print' goes out the window when you're relying on an unpredictable commercial funding stream). And that in turn leads to brand damage - witness how far Faber have moved from the Eliotian dream.
But brand loyalty is what the subscription model relies on, in contrast. Do we save Salt because of the brilliant personalities driving it? Or because the poetry's shit-hot? The poetry has to be there too, right? And the poetry is there, for me, just glancing at the new and forthcoming on their homepage: the John James companion, the new Rachel Blau DuPlessis Drafts, and stuff I've not heard of that looks exciting, like Lisa Dart's The Linguistics of Light (revamped metaphysics in short, clear lyrics, with references to Greece that tickle my mental g-spot).
What's missing here is a proper subscription model: why not turn the 'Just One Book' campaign into a full on, 'Save us by picking x books from our catalogue for £x a year' service? I'm thinking here of an article I read, some time ago (which I think I've confused with this one by Blake Morrison on editing - a great article in any case) which mentioned in passing a Swedish publishing collective with something like 30,000 annual subscribers. Is that viable in the UK? It should be, especially when publishing in English, with overseas reach.
But it just doesn't seem to happen. Salt already have the Poetry Bank and the Story Bank, but I get the feeling that they are nowhere near as successful as the Just One Book campaigns have been.
The danger of appealing to that multitude of readers who want to buy when & what they want to buy, is that they'll think they'll not get the books they want from a subscription, or they'll want to spend their pennies on presses other than Salt. At the same time, you may well be thinking, 'I want to help save Salt!' which is great. But instead of buying just one book, why not chip in for a subscription to one of their Banks instead? (This is assuming, given the pages are still live, that the subscription is still available, of course. I've not seen it promoted for a while, but I'd thoroughly endorse a change to the system even after I've bought one - e.g. 5 softbacks instead of 4 hardbacks, or somesuch.)
Or maybe you're just thinking: 'Why has he used so many colons and semis in this blog?' Your prerogative, ultimately, but it would be a sad lacuna in modern poetry publishing if Salt did fold, especially if that was due to your punctuative fixation. And Chris H-E's recent fb status is that they've only £1000 left in the bank. That's a sad place to be for a publisher that managed to hit £124k turnover a year, through selling poetry (OK, and other stuff, but their core is still the unsellable, 'the opposite of money', as David Morley calls it). Don't let it be said that Salt didn't prove there was a bigger market out there than we could have imagined. It just hasn't been consistent enough to keep them safe.