One of the best things about being behind a book stall at an event or convention is the conversations with fellow stallholders and interested browsers. At the start of December I was at the Nottingham Print & Publishing Fair and I had several fascinating discussions with people I’d never met before about publishing and the world of poetry. One young man who paused to look at the books my press has published noticed that there were several poetry titles on display. We quickly struck up a conversation about “poetry world” and how an aspiring poet would go about getting their pamphlet published by a reputable publisher. “Well,” I began, rubbing my hands in glee, before launching into a shortened version of my ‘How to Get Your Poetry Published’ workshop that I occasionally run at Nottingham Writers’ Studio. I won’t run through that monologue now – as fascinating as it is! – but I will expand on what I found of interest in the conversation, which was this: the young man’s response to the proffered information.
Now, obviously, not being psychic I can’t predict what the future has in store for this young man, but I felt that he had the potential to be successful in the world of poetry. Why was that? I hadn’t read any of his poems so couldn’t assess his work. So what was it about him that made me think that his chances of success were enhanced? Was it to do with his sex or the colour of his skin or his class or his age? No, it was to do with his personality, his individuality.
To those involved in writing and publishing “The Big Five” are the five large traditional publishing houses that produce the majority of English-language books published each year. But I’d like to expand on “The Big Five” in terms of psychology. Interestingly, researchers discovered the big five personality traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism – through a lexical approach i.e. studying language (something which should pique the interest of writers!). As you can probably guess ‘Openness’ is about being open to new ideas and experiences. Those individuals high in openness are more likely to be a creative. ‘Conscientiousness’ is usually discussed in terms of industriousness and orderliness. ‘Extraversion’ is about sociability and energy and how comfortable one is in the spotlight. Unsurprisingly, most writers would consider themselves introverts rather than extraverts. ‘Agreeableness’ is about sensitivity to conflict and concern about others’ opinions. Extreme agreeableness makes for someone who may be thought of as compliant, submissive or self-sacrificing, yet extreme disagreeableness makes for, well, a rather unlikeable person! Finally, there is ‘Neuroticism’ (an oft-misunderstood term) which is again, more to do with sensitivity to negative emotion, and anxiety/risk aversion.
As I wrote in an earlier post, publishers are looking for high-quality writing, but they’re also looking for authors who act professionally and who have (or are willing to build) a following. This young man clearly displayed that he was high in the traits that predict success in being a professional author. He listened attentively to my tips for how to get his poetry published and made a note of them (i.e. he displayed ‘Openness’ to learning something new and of benefit to his career, and showed good organization and ‘Conscientiousness’ by making a note of my tips). When I spoke of the importance of getting involved in the local poetry scene and performing work he told me that he was already busy organizing poetry events (thereby displaying that he had the necessary amount of ‘Extraversion’ to be in the spotlight and to happily gather people together in sociable poetry events – all brilliant for building a tribe and following). He was thankful and positive about the information I’d shared (‘Agreeableness’) and appeared to be low on ‘Neuroticism’. Finally, he bought a poetry pamphlet which displayed his seriousness, and commitment, to the pursuit of getting published. (For more on why poets need to invest in poetry publishers, please do read this post by the small press Fly On The Wall Poetry.)
This positive discussion brought into sharp relief recent social media interactions I’ve witnessed in which some new-to-the-scene poets have shown a remarkable lack of professionalism. Some have been low on ‘Openness’ to the idea that editing is a necessary part of writing poetry; other individuals have been very low on ‘Conscientiousness’ with plagiarism being the most obvious case. Not good. Some, high in ‘Extraversion’ and low on ‘Agreeableness’ have been quite happy to publicly give voice to their contempt for editors who reject their work. I’ve never once met an editor or agent who relishes sending out noes but unless a poet is open to that insight, as well as open to learning the value of being able to separate one’s poetry from one’s self-worth, there’s no point in offering up that useful lesson. Lastly, I’ve seen high ‘Neuroticism’ come into play, bringing with it low confidence and the sense that one is a victim and that literary magazines and editors (sometimes even other writers) are the big bad baddies who are prejudiced, or maliciously hurting them.
Thankfully, these instances of unprofessionalism are still in a minority, and the kind of positive discussion that I had with the young man at the Nottingham Print & Publishing Fair is in the majority, and one of many that I’ve had over the years with writers, irrespective of their class, sexuality, gender, race, neurodiversity, disability or age. Leading me to the conclusion that it is the “open” writers, the “conscientious” writers, the “agreeable” writers, the “confident” writers i.e. the professional writers, who are the ones achieving the success they want.
The even better news is that, unlike class or race or age or sexuality, which we have little control over, the “Big Five” personality traits are more flexible. A writer may have a tendency to introversion rather than extraversion, preferring to stay in their writing shed forever and a day, but if they’ve got a book to launch and they’re aware of the long-term benefits to “getting their book out there” then they can consciously go against their inclination, and do the thing that they don’t particularly want to do i.e. participate in events. Most of the time “the thing” doesn’t end up being as scary as it seemed, giving the writer much-needed ammunition for the next time they need to do a “big scary thing”. Likewise, the other four personality traits. We’re all far more flexible and adaptable than we think. And just like writing high-quality poetry or prose, professionalism – along with the skills to build a following – is simply another thing poets and writers of any background can work to develop.