It was only last year that the Scottish poet Donna Ashworth was given a publishing contract. Now the 48-year-old has ended 2023 with five of her books in the Top 20 poetry chart – three of them, including Wild Hope and I Wish I Knew, in the top five.

Nearly 70,000 of her hardback books have been bought this year – anthologies that have reached out to a new generation, won over by her poems about life and its vicissitudes. Ashworth also has 1 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. Yet despite its rising popularity, there is concern within the industry that the Caffè Nero Book awards, which succeeded the Costas this year, decided against a poetry section. Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy were all past Costa poetry winners.

Ashworth wrote poems in her teens before an eclectic 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, penning History Will Remember When The World Stopped during the 2020 Covid lockdown. It became her breakout 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”.

“I’ve had a great life but, like most, have had struggles and problems,” she said.

Rupi Kaur posing against a fabric backdrop
Rupi Kaur kicked off the Insta-Poet movement before she was spotted by a publisher. Photograph: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Her success chimes with the rise of meditation, mindfulness and yoga, which help with both personal issues and a complex world. She is a cheerleader of Instapoetry, a style of short and direct verse, put out and shared online, a genre kicked off by Canadian Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey in 2015. Like Ashworth, Kaur was subsequently spotted by a publisher and has since had several bestselling anthologies, while Milk and Honey is still at No 3 in the 2023 chart.

“We saw how well Donna was doing on social media and with her self-published books, so we went for her,” said Susanna Abbott, publishing director of Black & White.

“Donna connects with an audience, mainly women in their 30s and 40s, because she is so authentic and really cares. She is about seeing glints of light in an often dark place or world.” Yet the poet herself said: “Shops were initially wary of me, and did not know in which section – poetry or self-help – to place my books.”

Her books are now selling well in Asda and WH Smith, some Waterstones, and directly from her publisher. “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.”

Not just from Ashworth and Kaur, but the likes of Brian Bilston, Twitter’s unofficial poet laureate. He was crowdfunded to become a published author by Unbound before his Days Like These became a hit this year from Picador.

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“Poetry writers and readers are also now younger and have a much wider demographic,” added Palmer. There are more poets of colour, while poetry is quicker off the mark than books or plays in addressing current events. It is also regularly sold in pamphlet form, often through the Poetry Book Society.

William Sieghart, who in the 1990s set up the Forward Prizes for Poetry and National Poetry Day, has witnessed the sea change. “There used to be half a dozen or so poetry publishers, run by white middle-aged men producing poetry for white middle-aged men. It was the narrow perspective of Poetry Corner.” Sieghart, who has also put together a trio of successful anthologies called The Poetry Pharmacy, regards poetry these days as “a secular liturgy, filling a void”.

Yet “self help” poetry has 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.”

But some traditionalists are chartbusters too. A new translation of Homer’s Iliad and the famed Penguin Classic of his Odyssey have made the 2023 Top 20, remarkably winning over mainly young readers.