A good question . . .
It certainly works for Candlestick Press, which has two titles in the top ten poetry sales in the UK listed in the current Bookseller. Everything at Candlestick is themed: Five Poems about Teachers, Ten Poems about Gardens, Thirteen Poems of Revenge. These are adorable little publications. They reach the parts other poetry doesn’t penetrate.
But nearly all the Candlestick Press publications are anthologies. That is to say, the contents are poems by several poets. Not all of them are famous or classic or dead, but some certainly are. And the editors tend to have kudos (notably Carol Ann Duffy with the Christmas pamphlets).
Themes certainly seem to boost anthology penetration. The Emma Press (keep an eye on this new imprint) first did an anthology of “Mildly Erotic Verse” (great title), has since done one on Motherhood and there’s one on Dance in the making. Send your poems now and join the Emma Press Club (another neat marketing idea).
Second Light did Parents, as well as embracing ‘Women’ as a general theme. Grey Hen has done anthologies about the sea; the bee; the Brontes, birds; trying circumstances; and “aging older women”. Bloodaxe has cats, and Irish Poets. Faber & Faber has trains.
Does the theme sell the publications? It certainly makes them stand out. Themed books lend themselves to gift purchase too, presumably. Poems about golf for a golfer. Poems about dance for dancers, motherhood for mothers.
What about single author collections? Diana Gittins’ HappenStance pamphlet Bork!, which is a sequence of poems about chickens, has certainly sold a good number of copies either to poets who keep hens, or to people with friends with hens. Many purchasers have sent for two or three copies, not one, which suggests gifts are in the offing.
I’m willing to bet Kate Clanchy’s Newborn has sold more widely than her other books, though of course I don’t know. Slattern won more prizes but I bet Newborn sold more copies. it makes a great gift for a new mum. The cover picture of the baby is a winner – I bought it myself when my daughter had her baby. And doesn’t Picador have The Book of Birth Poems edited by no other than . . . K. Clanchy.
I conclude: themes are Good Things.
This is not why I’m about to publish two pamphlets with themes. Sometimes themes just happen. The first, and most imminent themed item, is Rosemary Hector’s Knowing Grapes. The central idea is (you guessed it) fruit. The next is Helen Clare’s Entomology. Theme: insects. Will Knowing Grapes sell to fruit lovers? Will Entomology sell to . . . insect lovers? Are there any insect lovers?
Okay – the theme helps with distinguishing one pamphlet from another. But so does the picture on the cover and the name of the author and a whean of other things. The theme can also be a smokescreen. Rosemary Hector’s fruit poems, for example, are not really about fruit. Or not just fruit. This is even more true for Entomology, which may be about love.
Alas, there’s only one way to find out what these new pamphlets (and they aren’t even in the shop yet) are really about. You have to read them. You can’t read them yet though because they’re not published yet. Sometimes new publications are described as “eagerly awaited”. It's spring. Please start cultivating your eagerness now.
In the meantime, Richard Osmond’s Variant Air, which is in the HappenStance shop, has a sort of theme. But the lynchpin is more of a style than a theme – and it belongs to Gerard Manley Hopkins. If you’re a Hopkins afficionado I think you’ll find this publication particularly compelling. But don’t take my word for it. There are better words inside the pamphlet.