'Insta poet' Donna Ashworth leads big rise in poetry book sales
One of the big poetry stories at the end of 2023 was the rise in poetry book sales. It is interesting to look at the story behind the rise in sales figures, and at some of the statistics. For instance, newly-published Scottish poet Donna Ashworth, pictured, has ended 2023 with five of her books in the Top 20 poetry chart, and three of them in the top five. Nearly 70,000 of her hardback books have been bought this year. Crucially, Ashworth also has a million Facebook followers and 200,000 reading her poems on Instagram. Her success comes in a record year for poetry with sales at their highest since official figures from BookScan began a decade ago.
Ashworth told the Guardian that she wrote poems in her teens before a career as a pop singer/songwriter (“the music industry chewed me up and spat me out”), magazine editor and children’s play centre owner. She began a poetry blog on Facebook in 2018. 'History Will Remember When The World Stopped', written during the 2020 Covid lockdown, became a huge hit after being read online by Michael Sheen and Griff Rhys Jones.
“That emboldened me and, over the next couple of years, I self-published through Amazon,” said Ashworth, who describes her writing as “self-help in poetry”.
Rupi Kaur kicked off the Insta-Poet movement before she was spotted by a publisher. Her success has been linked to the rise of meditation, mindfulness and yoga, which help with both personal issues and a complex world. Instapoetry is a style of short and direct verse, put out and shared online. Like Ashworth, Kaur was spotted by a publisher and has since had several bestselling collections. Her milk & honey is still at No 3 in the 2023 chart. According to The Bookseller, Kaur is the fourth bestselling poet since records began, trailing only Ted Hughes (£8.9m), Pam Ayres, and Seamus Heaney (£7m). Since its UK launch, milk & honey has never been out of the annual top five poetry books. The Bookseller says that Instagram is still the key sales driver, but BookTok - part of TicTok - is becoming as important.
“There’s been a real change in poetry over the past decade,” said Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society. “It’s been led by Instagram and social media, with many more poems about shared experience and the human condition.”
Brian Bilston is another bestselling poet who originally found fame as the ‘poet laureate of Twitter’. In an intgerview with Write Out Loud earlier in 2023 he said: “I do tend to write quite directly, though, often about topical issues, which is why I think some of my poems have been shared a lot on social media.” Later he added, in the same interview: “People tell me that they were put off poetry at secondary school but, to their surprise, they’ve found themselves enjoying mine. I love that. So much of written poetry seems aimed at other poets; to me, that seems like a wasted opportunity.”
As you might guess, Write Out Loud is a champion of online poetry, as well as banging the drum for grassroots, open-mic performances. But online poetry does have its critics.
Among them is Neil Astley, whose Bloodaxe Books, set up in 1978, gave many new poets, particularly female ones, a voice. His authors include Benjamin Zephaniah, whose death earlier this month led to an outpouring of emotion and surge in sales, and he was the first to publish the current poet laureate Simon Armitage, and also Jackie Kay and Jo Shapcott. “The literary value of many of these Insta poets is zero,” said Astley. “This boom in their sales is about stuff pretending to be poetry. It also pushes out other, more deserving poets.”
On the other hand, a new translation of Homer’s Iliad and the famed Penguin Classic of his Odyssey have made the 2023 Top 20, winning over mainly young readers.