Is The Term "Poetry Bestseller" An Oxymoron?

Posted by maria nazod on Friday, January 20, 2012
I have recently been on a roll trying to promote my first book of poems. And I am realizing something; it's a recent trend, I'm not sure if you've heard of it, but it's called poets like to complain. We poets have several topics of lamentation. I have listed them off for future reference:

1.) We like to complain that we don't make any money. 

2.) We love to complain that nobody reads us.

3.) We really, really like to complain that nobody reads us and that we don't make any money.

4.) We LOVE to complain that we have neither agents nor publicists like those fiction writers do, thus we have little hope of promoting ourselves. 

Long before my first book of poems, "A Hymn That Meanders" was published by the wonderful Wising Up Press, I've been guilty as charged in repeating these lamenting mantras. However, upon the publication of my actual book, I have also realized that as poets, as have a few things that we need to be HAPPY about as well. 

Now, I should warn you. I am a cockeyed, relentless optimist; an unlikely paradigm for a myself, a woman whose main topics that resurface in her poetry include heartbreak, neuroses, loss, and death. So, take my impressions with a grain of salt, maybe even the whole shaker, but here are some of the positive discoveries I've made since publishing a first book of poems:

1.) Poets have a much, much longer shelf-life than most other genres. Hooray! In other words, whereas it may take us a longer time to learn the ropes in order to wriggle our way to self-promotion, we have a much longer grace period allotted for our books to take off. According to an excellent blog that features a series of first book poets, according to poet Oliver de la Paz, we have an average of two years until our first book of poems really takes off. So, whereas for the average fiction writer, if a book doesn't receive some immediate attention starting from the first 6-8 months of publication, well, you're screwed. Whereas for poets, we have about two years to get our asses in gear, to set up readings, to send to reviewers, to send to first book awards, and to blog relentlessly on the topic--just some of the inexpensive marketing tactics that I have acquired.

2.) Poets have to sell much, much less in order to make a bestseller list. According to Timothy Ferris, the New York Times Bestseller of "The Four Hour Work Week," says there are more than 200,000 books published in the US in a year, and less than 5% ever sell more than 5,000 copies. On top it it, getting onto the New York Times Bestseller List is akin to breaking through a forcefield of Fort Knox security-level proportions. Many bestsellers have been on that list for YEARS. 

Now, as a poet you may read these stats and weep, right? WRONG. As a lesser known genre, yes, we have a harder time becoming known on an international level or of selling many copies of our book, However, to our advantage, because there are fewer of us, because PoetryLand is an insular, teeny tiny little dribble of spit in the teeming literary ocean, guess what? The word spreads easier and faster about who we are and what we do. And please see item #1 when I say that we have MORE time to do this. In other words, as a poet, you may just have to reserve having a Michiko Kakutami review for your Whiting Award, however, making a weekly GENRE-SPECIFIC bestseller list such as the Poetry Foundation's is entirely possible. You may need to sell as little as sixty books in a given week. So, whereas our readership is smaller, the statistics for success are actually skewed in our favor. We just need to view our genre in relation to our audience. And we can make our smaller audience work to our advantage. Use readings to help to spread word-of-mouth reviews about your book. Attend conferences where you will become re-acquainted with other poets who will then have incentive to purchase your book, conveniently right at the conference itself. 

3.) Being published by a university or independent press does NOT in render your book ineligible to win a major book award. Because, guess what? Almost all poetry publishers are independent, including W.W. Norton. There have been several PEN New England Award Winners that have been published through university or independent presses, such as University of Pittsburgh or Perugia. So, when you apply for those first book awards,you can be realistic about it. We're all lumped into the same boat together. I usually begin to feel intimidated when I enter those book awards in which ALL books published in the past year are eligible to win. I'm not going to lie; I see Tony Hoagland's name under the Previous Year's Winners and I begin to sweat. I recommend NOT LOOKING at any of the past winners while entering these really prestigious book contests, because it will make you feel like a deflated raft. 

So, is all hope lost for poets, or can we make our tiny following and even tinier readership work to our advantage? I believe that every landscape is different; some soil is fertile so that any vegetation can come to fruition. Other landscapes are arid, less adaptable, so you have to work within those confines and try to see what other seeds germinate. I believe poetry marketing to be so; you have to try a bunch of different systems and see what takes root. Accept the landscape and try to make it work to your advantage. 

In my next blog, I am going to specifically talk about some of the specific marketing tools that I've been using to self-promote. Also, to be fair, I will be talking about some of the REAL gripes and grievances that we face as poets. So stay tuned. 



Tags: poetry  first book of poems  bestseller  maria nazos  a hymn that meanders  poetry bestseller 


About Me

Maria Nazos I'm a poet, I just wrote my first book, and I believe in destiny but I sure as hell don't wait for it. Check out my blog for my random thoughts, events, and upcoming workshops.