I have been doing catalogue work, which involves crawling through lumpy data with the goal of counting how many poetry books were published in a given year. Something which comes up, to the point of distracting attention from the overall goal, is vanity presses. As you look at large amounts of data, it becomes obvious that a big share of the “gross output” is from presses which asked the author to pay and which barely tried to sell the books. This is discouraging – the big story is “2700 new titles in a single year”, as Randall Stevenson points out, but the possibility that 500 or 800 of these are vanity titles must affect the clarity of the picture.
I have tagged this as "exclusion" although it is talking about books that were published, literally. But, the reasons why someone would pay for publication are all tangled up with the reasons why they couldn't get legitimate publication. They pay because they are outsiders - the door has shut in their faces. When you list the v-p titles, you are making the invisible poets visible. It's a spook effect.
It would be nice to think that vanity publishing belonged to an era when the industry was very conservative and people were afraid of starting up small to micro publishers, and that the realm of frustrated poets had declined or disappeared. This does not appear to be true. The idea that there could be many people who wanted to be poets, but had no understanding of other people who liked poetry, and no ability to connect with magazines, readings series, etc., only in a repressed state of society, where people failed to act on their deepest impulses, does not hold true. The poetry world is still an “inside” surrounded by outsiders.
I got a book about poetry publishing by someone so stupid that the idea of their producing a book was ridiculous. One valid moment - he gets prices out of vanity presses as part of a sting operation. Yes, they want your money! The book I am looking at is by Johnathon Clifford and he contacted (in 1994) 11 publishers in this dubious area. One of them wrote back asking for an “author’s contribution of at least £3,500 with an average being in the region of £5,500”. This is higher than their competitors. So, the publisher has to pay for the printing costs (in the region of £1250) out of this, but the rest is pure profit. The author would get some cash refunded if someone buys a copy of the book, but that is fairly unlikely – at least outside the author's friends.
I did a catalogue search for the most assiduous vanity publisher, in the British Library holdings, and came up with 6906 titles. That is over several decades, and maybe half of that is poetry books. This sector involves a lot of people. The only interesting point is that they are outsiders – if they had friends in the business, they would know that bookshops, reviewers, etc. avoid books from these twilight publishers. The route almost guarantees invisibility for your work. Most likely this ignorance of the business goes along with ignorance about taste – if you don’t know people who buy and read modern poetry, your chance of grasping what modern poetry really is is restricted. Why would you pay five grand to get your book published, when a convinced publisher will do it for free? My assumption would be that vanity press writers produce bad poetry, based on psychological ignorance. I have to concede that I am not going to read a few dozen “author funded” books to check this out.
I don’t think poetry is a secret world, you just have to turn up to readings or classes and hang out with the people you meet there. This is why it has been an open world, since the 1960s; I can imagine there weren't many readings groups in the 1950s. It is baffling how there can still be people who find modern poetry impossible to find and mix with, when the ways of getting involved are so numerous (and so cheap). I can see that as at 1961 there were many frustrated people, because the number of titles coming out was genuinely low, but with the arrival of dozens of small presses in the Sixties it would seem that the frustration should have been burnt up – part of a general “derepression” which affected every aspect of national life. I am assuming that if you mix with other people, read recent poetry, listen to readings, listen to what people say about what they like, you will have enough empathy to understand the whole situation and to know how to write poems. Everyone knows poetry is about empathy. If you can't figure it all out by deploying empathy, you probably can't write good poems anyway. The outsider is the person in the room who doesn't grasp what everyone else is thinking and feeling. The information flow is there, but not there for them.
The overall picture is that, yes, 2000 poetry titles are coming out in a given year. Acquiring expertise in a field so large seems like a hopeless task. But visibly, people are in love with the idea of being a poet. And whatever defence works people may try to set up, the floodgates are open – the business is wide open, to an incredible extent. Any theory of exclusion crumbles in face of the publication figures – it is not compatible with the facts, as you can collect them just by logging onto the British Library catalogue, for free.
I don't want to name names, but aimlessly sculling around this swamp has produced three poets whom I take seriously and who started out by using either full-on vanity press or half-way (the publisher Outpsts). Analysing these cases might reveal a situation more complex than just being an outsider. Possibly, someone might be too busy to haggle with publishers - and go with Outposts because it was economical in use of time.