Selling poetry books, they say, is like selling space heaters in Hell. Or ice cream cones in Antarctica. Or the truth at the Orange House.
Honestly, as the reports stream in from fellow published poets, I begin to wonder. That may be because I am not on email terms (alas!) with any heavy-hitter poets. I email St. Billy of Collins and hear the lovely sound device of crickets (an alliterative insect). I drop a line to the admirable Marie Howe, and she doesn’t stoop to pick it up. I send a quick “Hey, there!” to Tracy K. Smith and her secretary returns a boilerplate rejection slip (poor Tracy is so busy being Ambassador to Poetry that she has eliminated emails from her reading regimen).
But where was I? Oh. Selling poetry books. What works, poets wonder? Here’s a list of trial balloons my fellow published poets have cross-examined:
- Poet A: “Whenever I get a request for money from a charity or a telemarketer on the phone (and cursed be the names of Alexander, Graham, and Bell), I tell them yes on one condition: They go on amazon.com and buy my book first. Once that sale is confirmed, I write the check, but only for amounts less than that of the book. A girl’s got to turn a profit. Especially a poet girl!”
- Poet B: “After a year on the market, standing against the wall like the nerd with zits at a middle school dance, my poetry book needs some help. I contact my editor and tell her to slash the price of my book in half on amazon. I tell her most people find the hardcover price for soft-cover poetry books too much. She laughs and say, ‘Whatever.’ Whatever that means….”
- Poet C: “You’ve got to unplug that ‘Look Inside!’ feature on amazon, man. It’s not a peek, it’s a downright dressing down! Over half the book can be read for free! How you gonna sell books that way, huh? Huh?”
- Poet D: “Marketing savvy, dearie. I created a special Facebook account for my book and, after two years of marketing savvy, sold two books there. And the Twitter book. At least one sale in two years right there. As they say in Boston: How do you like them apples?”
- Poet E: “I send my manuscripts-to-be to all the Saints: St. Billy of Collins, St. Marie of Howe, St. Tracy of Smith, etc., and ask for a blurb. You get that heavyweight blurb on the back and see if that doesn’t make a difference. You might have to buy a few relics first. You know, pieces of wood that W. B. Yeats or Wallace Stevens supposedly touched, but it’s worth it.”
- Poet F: “Poetry readings. Lots of poetry readings. To hear my voice. While everyone else in the audience — chiefly other poets, who are tighter than two coats of paint — sit there and don’t hear my voice because they’re too busy preparing for their own voice at the mic. Yep. An open mic reading is good for one sale almost every time. Almost.”
- Poet G: “I mail my books to newspaper poetry editors (or book editors, if the newspaper is too tiny to staff a poetry editor) and ask them for a read and a review. Sure, it’s expensive, all those books and all that charity to the United States Postal Service, but every once in a while, you hit pay dirt. Usually it’s a small weekly in Nebraska, but Oh, Pioneers, does it feel good!”
- Poet H: “Keep a poetry blog and become a personality. This country runs on the cult of personality. This country is addicted to cults and all about the Kool-Aid. Why, this blog alone, the one I’ve nurtured like a broken-winged baby bird for six years, has sold two books. I know because 8,850 readers have clicked ‘TO READ’ on Goodreads dot com, and the working ratio on ‘TO READ’ to ‘SOLD’ is 3,000 to 1. It’s coming soon, I tell you! 9,000 ‘To-Reads-Means-One-Book.’ The Promised Land!”
- Poet I-Yi-Yi: “I do Goodreads dot com Giveaways. It works like this: I ‘give away’ hundreds of dollars to put a book up for free, then the anything-for-free groupies all sign on for it by the thousands. Finally, I mail my book into the void for free, never to be heard from again. Oh, wait. Do you mean ‘What sells poetry book?’ or ‘What sells Goodreads’ Giveaways’?”
- Poet JK: “Selling Poetry Books: What Works? Nothing. You write poetry for yourself. You do it for ego. You do it for art’s sake. But you don’t do it for sales. It’s a buyers’ market, and everyone’s sitting on their prose-grimy hands, waiting it out, waiting for a price they like: Free. And even then, many will take a pass. Sestina that, why don’t you?”
Oh, those bitter poets. They’re a laugh riot in their alphabetical way, aren’t they?
Maybe I should have titled this “Selling Poetry Books: What Doesn’t Work.” But who would read that, I ask you? The post would become the equivalent of a poetry book, languishing on the charts like Prometheus on his rock.
Damn those eagles of reality, anyway.
5 thoughts on “Selling Poetry Books: What Works”
With everyone over the age of 6 writing and trying to publish their poetry, it’s no wonder books by us minor poets don’t sell. Tough kitty, as my cat says. The creative writing industry has done its job, flooding the poetry market with its incessant propaganda that writing verse is a necessity for all. Furthermore, competent poetry is legion, but who wants to buy and/or read competent art?
Still, I’ve been selling my latest collection at a steady rate since 2016, giving local and regional readings, becoming friends with other poets on FB, and joining various poetry sites. I have one small carton of copies left, whining in my closet to be adopted. As long as you don’t expect to make a living selling your verse, writing it and knowing there’s a small but appreciative audience out there can be deeply satisfying.
If you are a regular (i.e., are on friendly terms with the proprietor) of a local shop or eatery that has a private room, you might see if they’d let you do a poetry reading there. I read in a tea shop to a group of just 5 total strangers. We all drank tea in the small place. By the end of the reading, they’d accepted me as one of their regular group. I sold 8 books!
The one time I sold over 20 books was by going back to my hometown, 1,000 miles away, and reading at the library to people I mostly hadn’t seen in 40 years. I spent a lot more than the cost of books to get there, but never have I felt so much a star (except for the time I read to a GED class,
and they wanted to take selfies with me). Alarie
Great news, Alarie! I guess my interviewing didn’t quite go far enough. I should have ventured to Poets L and M! I think it helps to be gregarious and a go-getter. And retirement doesn’t hurt, either. Full-time teaching is full-time teaching!
I know I’ll never sell many books, so I do this thing for love. My publisher vastly overpriced the slim volume (I doubt it sold any copies). I was so embarrassed by the price that I provided it to friends and family at cost. I recently secured a reversion of rights and have just republished the paperback and a Kindle edition at drastically lower prices. Of course, now, anyone who knows me and wants the book already owns it.
But here’s one idea. People don’t go out to poetry readings much (not where I live anyway). I’ve had the most success with a semi-captive audience. Because my husband used to work at a retirement center, I’ve twice given readings to the Book Club there — and it was the most appreciative audience ever! They oohed and aahed and asked questions. And bought my book, too.
Retirement Center = Home for the Elderly?