Donations are essential to keep Write Out Loud going    

Instagram poets pushing us off bookshop shelves, warns Bloodaxe's Neil Astley

entry picture

The highly successful Bloodaxe Books publisher Neil Astley has highlighted the changing nature of poetry book sales as a result of the internet, and the rise of Instagram poetry. In a Q&A session at Barter Books, the famous secondhand bookshop in Alnwick, Northumberland, at the launch of a new collection by Bloodaxe poet Katrina Porteous, he admitted that online purchases were affecting book sales, with Bloodaxe’s biggest customer now Amazon, when previously it had been Waterstones.  

He also pointed to the sales success of some Instagram poets, describing their poetry as “short and pithy” but amounting to “bits of sentences chopped into lines”. He added: “Our books are being pushed out from bookshop shelves by this amateur stuff." 

Instagram poets are those who post their poems on Instagram initially. Some accumulate many thousands of followers, enough for mainstream publishers to offer to publish them. Scottish poet Donna Ashworth ended 2023 with five of her books in the Top 20 poetry chart, and three of them in the top five, after posting her poems on social media. Write Out Loud also uses Instagram to showcase the talents of poets that blog on our site from time to time.  

Astley told the audience in The Old Waiting Room at Barter Books, which is housed in a former railway terminus: “The pandemic changed the way books are bought … but we’re still enormously helped by independent bookshops. You’ll discover things in independent bookshops that you won’t find in Waterstones, because Waterstones are now all the same.”  

Neil Astley and Bloodaxe are particularly well known for their bestselling anthologies over the years, such as Staying Alive, Being Alive, Being Human, and Staying Human. Others have included Soul Food and Soul Feast, the latter published earlier this year.

Almost 20 years ago he talked of Staying Alive, the first anthology in the hugely successful series, as introducing “thousands of new readers to contemporary poetry. It also brought many readers back to poetry, people who hadn't read poetry for years because it hadn't held their interest. Too often, poetry editors think of themselves and their poet friends as the only arbiters of taste, only publishing writers they think people ought to read and depriving readers of other kinds of poetry which many people would find more rewarding.”

Bloodaxe will reach its 50th anniversary in 2028. Astley told his Barter Books audience that he launched Bloodaxe because “no one else was publishing the kind of poets that interested me. The idea was to give readers a broad range of poetry that excited me.”  

As Katrina Porteous talked about the ease with which poets were able to self-publish these days, and a lack of “gatekeepers”, Astley also had some points to make about the process of editing. Porteous said he was “quite unusual”, in that “you hardly intervene in the writer’s work at all”. Astley replied that that wasn’t always the case, but added that there were some poetry editors, also poets themselves, who were “quite notorious …sometimes they want the poet to sound like their own work”.

He added that when it came to putting together a collection, he was sometimes sent a group of poems that had all been published in magazines, “and they think that’s a collection, but it often isn’t. As an editor it’s your job to find the poems that work as a collection.”  

As far as poetry book sales are concerned, there was one bright note at the start of the evening. Mary Manley of Barter Books - once described by the New Statesman as “the British Library of secondhand bookshops” - said that contemporary poetry was one of their biggest-selling genres of used books. That has to be good news. Hasn’t it?   


embedded image from entry 136201   

Bloodaxe anthologies on sale at Blackwell's bookshop in Newcastle 


embedded image from entry 136202

Books by bestselling Instagram poet Rupi Kaur on sale at Waterstones in Newcastle 



Background: 'How we brought more readers to poetry' - Write Out Loud's 2020 interview with Neil Astley





◄ Deadline nears for Foyle Young Poets of the Year award

Leaving the Hills: Tony Curtis, Seren ►

Please consider supporting us

Donations from our supporters are essential to keep Write Out Loud going


Profile image

Steve White

Sat 13th Jul 2024 08:05

If you're in the business of selling poetry books and fewer people are buying your books, preferring to read poetry on the internet instead, then criticising their choices is hardly likely to have them come flocking back, and Astley comes over as particularly pompous with his "bits of sentences chopped into lines" and his later accusation that editors only publish work that they think people ought to read but then going on to say that he launched Bloodaxe to publish poets that interested him.

There are advantages to publishing your poetry on the internet. If you're writing about contemporary events, you can share your reaction while those events are still current and in the forefront of people's minds. Stephen Gospage's commentary on the war in Ukraine, here on Write Out Loud, springs to mind. There's also no doubt that the Instagram poets are reaching and engaging with audiences whose last interaction with poetry anthologies was probably at school.

There are downsides, of course. By publishing your work on the internet you are giving away something for which you ought to have been paid and there's is a heightened expectation from consumers of music particularly that it ought to be free or at least available on an inexpensive subscription model.

Like it or not, Astley's business operates in a market economy. Telling your market that it's wrong or exhibiting poor taste is not how it works.

Profile image

Georgina Titmus

Fri 12th Jul 2024 19:25

I agree with Neil.

Profile image

M.C. Newberry

Thu 11th Jul 2024 17:29

I have some personal experience in this area. My collection of
verse "Singing Words" was published with my financial input.
My comic-crime novel - now in re-titled form as "Baytown" - is
being issued in ebook form after a printing error slipped by that
I could not accept in the paper edition with which I also had
some financial input. Even in the last stages, the printed word
can provide unwelcome expense and disappointment to any
author despite the involvement of the paid "professionals" in the trade.
Maybe modern technology has its advantages in an ever-faster
more time-conscious world. I recall my late elder sister's own
delight in Kindle editions, for both convenience and useful variations in print size.

Profile image

Stephen Gospage

Thu 11th Jul 2024 08:49

There is still something special and important about printed books, and poetry collections which are properly edited. It would be a shame if the literary world became a total free for all.

Profile image

John F Keane

Wed 10th Jul 2024 19:56

Guy is coping hard. People just don't buy printed poetry books. Or printed books.

Profile image

M.C. Newberry

Sun 7th Jul 2024 18:12

"Amateur stuff...?" One can almost hear the plaintive resentment
from the self-asserting "professional poet". I tend to think that
any writer has an obligation to produce words that use correct
spelling and punctuation in their work and THAT is the
definition of professionalism; The gift of imagination and its
rewards, whatever form they take, are the bedrock of poetry
and all credit to those who forge their own path against the
established self-interest of "the professional poet" and that world.

Profile image

Graham Sherwood

Sun 7th Jul 2024 09:38

Sadly the whole print industry is in rapid decline, the last bastion being children’s books although these are swiftly being replaced by audio bedtime stories. I have given up hope of having a paper book published and now add all my content to my website.

If you wish to post a comment you must login.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

Find out more Hide this message