5 posts

The Six Stages of First-Time Authorship

book sales

PROLOGUE: I wrote this way back in the late spring of 2016, after my first book released. For some reason, I decided against publishing it because it cut too close to the bone. Today, with two books to my credit, I better appreciate the humor in it. If you can’t laugh at yourself and the crazy pursuit of poetry writing, what can you laugh at? Ha-ha. Enjoy. Especially if you’re a poet or a would-be poet. A reader of poetry, you say? A little insight for you. And hopefully a chuckle or two.


Everything happens in stages. I learned this in the Self-Help aisle. I couldn’t help myself. And now I’ve discovered it is true of first-time authors who publish first books. Not just via my own lens, but by studying other authors of first-time books. And though I call it “The Six Stages of First-Time Authorship,” I might as well call it “The Sick Stages of First-Time Authorship.”

Admittedly, results are skewed. Mostly, I examine first-time poetry books, meaning it’s a special subset of authors whose works, in 99.7% of all cases, never see the light of a bookstore bookshelf. Instead, the books sit on a dark, unchecked (except by the author–every day) shelf of Amazon. A dot all-is-not-calm bookstore.

Stage One: Euphoria

Holy Toledo Ohio, my book is out! And no, Ma, it’s not from some cheesy vanity publisher. It’s the merit system. Go-o-od stuff. Told you so, doubters! Confucius would be proud! Must tell everyone I know! No, no. That’s too obvious. Must tell everyone I don’t know, too! How do I spread the word without seeming to spread the word? Show me the way. I’m there. I’m a worker bee. I’ll do the social media scene, even. I’ll send you a copy if you write me a review. What’s more, I have this feeling that some big reviewer from some major paper is going to stumble upon this book (God works in mysterious ways–and, part-time, for me!) and decide to write it up. The darkest of dark horses, this book! It’s only a question of who (The New York Times Book Review?), where (page 37? I’ll take it!), when (give it three weeks, tops!), and how (Kismet)! Woot!

Stage Two: Happiness

I’ve sent copies to every relative I know (one, “Aunt Irene,” I made up). And friends (some “acquaintances,” really, but whatever). They, in turn, will suggest this book to people THEY know. And on Goodreads, many of my friends (whom I’ve never met) have marked it as “To Read.” YES! All of these “To Reads” will soon convert to 5-star reviews once they’ve read it, I’m sure. OK, OK. I’ll be a big boy about a few 4-star reviews because that’s how I am. Magnanimous. Give it a week. Or two tops. The book is only 72 pages, after all. So that’s around 32 reviews right there. In the bank! Right out of the gate! And everyone knows reviews beget reviews like Biblical people begat Biblical babies. Can you say  “catalyst”? Can you say “momentum”? Can you say “royalties”? Ka-ching!

Stage Three: Reasonable Hope

I’ve been checking those Amazon sales stats every few hours and hey, not bad, especially in the category of POETRY>CONTEMPORARY>REGIONAL>LIVING(MARGINALLY)WHITE MALES>STAGE 3. (Surely it can’t just be the 3 out of 87 people at the office who said they bought it after I group e-mailed the entire company. Twice.) And all 32 of those “To-Reads” on Damn-Good-Reads? I got one review out of them so far. But it’s just the beginning, I’m sure. Almost sure. Even tsunamis start somewhere. As is true with them, a little lift would do me good…

Stage Four: Reality

Holy sinking Amazon jungle mud! I’ve never seen sales stats sink so fast. By the day, even! And the number of “To Reads” on Goodreads has held steady. OK, to be honest, it’s down one. And the number of reviews has held steady, too: one (Cue Three Dog Night: “ONE is the loneliest number that you’ll ever see…”). And the number of “Currently Readings” is steady, too (Zero Mostel would understand). I sent reviewer copies weeks ago and followed up with “Did you get it…?” e-mails just like I’m supposed to. Marketing Man! That’s me. The guy listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence”! Is this all there is? Doesn’t a man get rewarded for his hard work (marketing) and brilliant ideas (writing)? Or is that a Horatio Alger myth or something?

Stage Five: Despair

Well, THAT was fun (not). Back in Stage Two some party crasher said the only money poets make is at readings where, if they’re lucky, two people might buy their books. Might. “Yeah,” I thought. “But my book is different because it’s by ME and, last I checked, I’m special.” Or so I thought. (OK, I don’t want to think. Too much. Because it’s getting me down. And yes, the Buddha would be very disappointed in me. Too much self. Just a hyphen away from -ish, he’d say. Or something clever like that, damn him.)

Stage Six: Enlightenment

All this time dreaming. All this time beating the hollow drum. A couple of months lost! A couple of months I could’ve been writing! You know: Book Two. As in “Lather. Rinse. Repeat.” As in “Do it again, only better.” It’s what writers do. And the second time around (one hopes), no more stages. Just back on the saddle and writing again. It’s all that matters. Writing. Every day. In the words of another poet — one of Biblical proportions — “All the rest is vanity, a striving after wind….”


Nota Bene: After Book Two, I’ve learned. I started writing right away. I am no longer a self-deluded man. Of course, every poem hungers readers just like you hunger for chocolate chip cookies, but reality is a good teacher and writing is a good habit and joyful challenges are the stuff of our workaday lives. On to #3!

When Poems Overdose on Language

too much

Dial 911. I think my poem’s on something.

I thought the house smelled a little odd this morning. A bit more organic than usual. My first thought was the dog, who always looks guilty, but no.

Turns out, it’s that poem I wrote yesterday.

My fault, in a roundabout way. I left some “language” poetry lying around the house. Ron Silliman, Gertrude Stein. Rae Armantrout (oh, forgive me… rae armantrout).  Typically it’s under lock and key.

What was I thinking, you ask? I wasn’t. I was just writing, having a little fun. And my poem, it started watching The Young and the Reckless on TV. Like any adolescent, its brain hasn’t fully developed. Ask and it will have no raison, no d’être.

Last night, on the counter, I’d also left open a recent New Yorker to a Dan Chiasson review of Mai Der Vang’s debut poetry collection, Afterland. Dan quotes a Mai poem (“Mother of People Without Script”) with impunity, with little regard for rhyme, reason, or innocent bystanders (read: impressionable poems-in-progress):


Paj is not pam is not pan.
Blossom is not blanket is not help.

Ntug is not ntuj is not ntub.
Edge is not sky is not wet.

On sheet of bamboo
with indigo branch.

To txiav is not the txias.
To scissor is not the cold.


To scissor is not the cold? What could it mean? To scissor is the hot, maybe? My poem didn’t care. It clearly swooned at the whole idea of inhaling language like this.

As is typical of the young, my first draft rationalized: “What does it matter if my words carry no meaning and every meaning at the same time? That’s for the reader to climb through. The reader comes, interacts, and makes meaning from words, beautiful words. I just provide, in my lettered bounty.”

I even found a few glossy M.F.A. brochures lying around. Lord.

Once I challenged it, my poem started getting uppity. It grew loud with its opinions, heady with its possibilities. “You only need imagination,” it said in its post-, post-, post-modern voice. “Mine is to stir the embers of your imagination. From there, the fire is yours.”

Then it passed out.

Eventually, I had to ask myself: Did I really write this? Can wordplay be taken this seriously? Are there still “language editors” out there, even “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” ones, ready to click ACCEPT so many years after the heyday of avants being off their gardes?

And why me, anyway? Rehab is expensive stuff, and detoxing poems is neither easy nor cheap. You know and I know that health care is fraught these days. Kind of like poetry sales. And poetry marketing. And yes, the raising and writing of poetry into good, rule-abiding citizens.

Pray for me, friends, and do not judge me. Better yet, pray for my poem, and do not judge it, either. It’s on an IV now, getting 50 cc’s of meaning per hour.

You’ll see. A little revision. A few dactyls here, a few trochees there. It will be on its metrical feet in no time.

Meanwhile, I thank all of you for your expressions of sympathy. See you in the hospital gift shop…


“This Is Your Book on Drugs…”


Remember the old anti-drug commercial with the egg and the frying pan? “This is your brain on drugs,” it said. Drop egg into pan. Pipe in amped sound of sizzling.

I love metaphor, especially sunny-side up metaphors. Only having your first book of poems accepted for publication can be cloudy-side up at times. Think of it metaphorically: “This is your book on published and released.” It becomes many things, but few of them are what you imagined in the starry-eyed, naiveté of your pre-published days.

Soon, you learn, and your education in book publishing is a wonderful lesson in metaphor as well. Almost a year after my first was published, here are but a few that come to mind:

A published book is a mote of sand on the South Beach of life.

A published book is not a cry in the wilderness, but a cry from a seat in the last row at the Super Bowl of Published Authors. After a Hail Mary reception. For the win.

A published book is an unholy mackerel in the biggest school the ocean has ever educated.

A published book is a Who on the day Horton loses his hearing-aid.

A published book is a sales statistic you cannot easily pronounce on amazon dot all-is-not-calm.

A published book is a pile in a book bag in your study. Like your little brother who kept tagging along instead of running off to get himself sold or something.

A published book is the one you actually have time to reread. And critique. When it’s too late.

A published book is a falling ex-tree in a forest. Does it make a sound?

A published book is the sound of one person reading. Maybe you. OK, definitely you.

A published book is sharp. Like that needle in the haystack would be. If people could see it.

A published book is not a Billy. It is not a Collins, either.

A published book is not a Barnes & Noble shelf squatter.

A published book is an x-ray. When held to the light, it shows no signs of New Yorker.

A published book is a first edition looking for the Godot of its second.

A published book begs attention like a panhandler in New York City. Pedestrians see it as fire hydrant. Pigeon, maybe. A sidewalk crack, perhaps.

A published book is read by your family. Well, some of your family. OK, your spouse. Because you read it aloud. While she’s trying to eat her burrito and do the crossword.

A published book is a glowing book review written not in a room of the New York Times but in the rheum of your eyes every time you browse through it. After a few wines.

A published book is hundreds upon hundreds of Goodreads “to-reads.” It is one “currently-reading.” Maybe you. Or your Secret Sharer. Or Joseph Conrad. Who is dead.

A published book is your son in left field after he got hit on the head with a lazy fly ball. You’re still proud of him, and though he’s not batting clean-up or winning gold gloves, you don’t give up on having more children.

Nota Bene: Good News, gentle readers! My second poetry collection has been accepted by a publisher and will be released around the New Year! Metaphor: A second published book is… as great a joy as the first!

Stupid Questions


In the education world, the saying goes, there are no stupid questions. But in the big-boy world, the expression has deep roots. One place where it is most prevalent is sports, where breathless victors, still caught up in the power and the glory of their heart-stopping wins, often find a mic thrust into their faces with the question (from a supposedly college-educated sports journalist), “How do you feel right now?”

Stupid question. And I long to hear the athlete who replies, “Horrible. This is the worst feeling I’ve ever endured. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to the locker room for a good cry.”

But no.

In the writing world we have stupid questions, too.  How often are established writers drilled with stock questions begging stock answers? Too often. Here are a few of them, along with answers we might appreciate, if only the interviewed grew weary enough to wax playful:

Q: Where do your ideas come from?

A: Aisle 7, bottom shelf, Wal-Mart automotive department. They’re made in China, my ideas.

Q: What inspires you?

A: Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as hors d’oeuvres, salad, main course, and, if need be dessert. On a Friday night when all weekend’s breaking loose.

Q: Where do you write?

A: Where I’m sitting at any given moment. Often a chair. Cliché, I realize. Do you need the brand and model, in case you want to add inspiration to cart?

Q: Who do you read?

A: Poets. To steal ideas.

Q: But who are the great poets?

A: Your list is as good as mine. Pay no attention to those poets behind the curtain. Words to live by.

Q: What do you recommend to someone just getting into the poetry-writing business?

A: Turn back, oh man. No. Really. I recommend that you do not read any poets, classical or contemporary, and, whatever you do, don’t write every day. Or what you know. Or to show vs. tell. Poison to writers, all of it.

Q: Do you make a living as a published poet?

A: My God. Like Scott and Zelda before the crash. Have you never seen drunk poets dancing in public fountains? They’re in damn near every city in Europe. Also Des Moines.

Q: Do you believe in MFAs?

A: Would they disappear if I didn’t? Me, I am letterless, as was the case in high school, where the quarterback got all the girls.

Q: Is poetry dead?

A: Why do you think zombies are so popular now? Read Poetry and Rattle, why don’t you.

Q: If I had to subscribe to one poetry magazine, which one would it be?

A: The American Conservative. For erasure poetry.

Q: Is there any question I didn’t ask that I should have?

A: Don’t mock me. And thank you.


Reading Your Book Like Mom Would

50s family

Is publishing poetry with references to family hazardous to your health? In a weak moment, I decided to test the theory by reading the proof of my poetry collection (I still remain bookless–where’s Dan-O when you need him?) with my mom’s possible reactions in mind.

Bad, meet move!

Like most of us, I know my mother all too well. Of course I hope she responds to the book positively, but reading from her vantage point changed everything. I noticed stuff I never noticed before, using her eyes, and I can already hear her reaction: “Oh, Kenny!” (for only Mom still calls me “Kenny”). “Why are all these poems about death?”

“Uh, they are? Not all. Just some,” I might argue. But mothers get to define “some” in their own ways.

“Some?” she’ll ask with the patented incredulous look. “Where’s my cheerful little boy?”

“Ma, death is one of literature’s great muses. Don’t you ever wonder where you’re going to go? It’s the stuff of so many myths in so many cultures!”

“Have you been skipping Mass again?”

“Think of Orpheus. Persephone. All those trip to Hades to figure out what happens. And what about the Divine Comedy? Nine circle of Hell, Ma. Nine!”

“That would be Irene’s book group get-togethers, but I don’t see…”

“Don’t you realize that guys like Homer and Faulkner and Joyce wrote about it? It even came for the archbishop in that Willa Cather novel!”

“Willa who?”

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Ma.”

She’ll grimace, I know. “That’s fine and for the church to settle, but we don’t have time for death, and I told my friends about this book because I was so proud. Now what are they going to think? They’re going to think, ‘What a depressing boy she raised!’ Where’s your sense of humor. Can’t you write something cheerful? A poem about jelly beans or something.”

“There are cheerful poems in there, Ma. Honest. And I don’t write for the Easter bunny. Here. Let me show you some pages with upbeat poems.”

“It’s OK, dear. I browsed through already.”

“What? You didn’t read them all?”

“Most all,” she’ll say. Mothers get to define “most” and “all” too, you see.

And so it goes. And so I am amazed. Deep analysis sometimes reveals new layers of poetry, but who knew reading with the eyes of a mother does, too? And how did the New Critics miss this?

Weekend Update: I have no clue how my alleged books are arriving: United Parcel? Fed Ex? Good ole United States Postal Service? The latter was the last hope of the weekend, however, as the noonish mailman has come and gone leaving only bills and other clichés in the box.

So there’s a downside to weekends after all. Maybe Monday? Stay tuned!