Poetry is Underappreciated

I wandered across a discussion going on at No Tells and wanted to bring it here. What doesn’t interest me is the center of the argument that seemed to sprout up from HTML giant’s original post and which led to numerous comments on (apparently) several sites and blog posts. And, honestly, what these other sites (like No Tells) have said, already cover this specific issue more fully and more knowledgeably than I could. I’m not a publisher, I’m not even sure I would want to call myself a poet despite dabbling in the art from time to time. Instead, what stuck out to me was this chunk in the middle of No Tell’s post:

No Tell Books’ best selling title broke even after three years and is now earning a very modest profit. This is by an author whose work has appeared in places like Poetry and Best American Poetry. This title has been taught at universities. How many copies does one have to sell to be the best selling title at No Tell Books after four years? 228. That is not a typo. This number doesn’t include what the author has sold herself, probably around 200 copies on her own. But the press doesn’t earn money on those sales.

So if that’s a best seller, what’s a flop? 74 sales after five years (again, this number doesn’t include what the author sold on his own, which was maybe 50 or so). (UPDATE: Gatza states, “In general, books by new authors sell around 25 – 30 copies.” Shocking? Only if you don’t know the first thing about poetry publishing.)

This is the reality of poetry publishing. There are certainly presses that sell more copies. A poetry title reviewed in The New York Times can sell 2-4k copies, it is true. But small, independent presses, those small shops, usually run by one or a few people, rarely see those kinds of sales. University presses, for the most part, don’t see those kinds of numbers for poetry. I attended a panel by the publisher of Grove/Atlantic and he said his press’ poetry sales was around 800 per title. They publish “big-name” poets, their books are often shelved by chain bookstores, they have good distribution, a strong reputation . . . and that’s what they sell. Publishing poetry is their charity–their poetry titles are subsidized by their fiction and non-fiction sales.

I am somewhat shocked by this because I am new to poetry publishing. I had no idea what sales should be expected by a publisher putting out quality works (or crappy works, even). As I’ve seen elsewhere, part of the problem might be over-saturation with publishers and people wanting to be poets and make some sort of living or mark in the industry. Maybe there are just too damn many. But that’s awfully pessimistic and not an agenda or direction I would really want to push my way down. For one, I’m willing to bet that there has always been a bunch of people wanting to be poets, people who filled notebooks full of  verse and prose, and just didn’t have the numerous opportunities present to modern poets. Secondly, if there are that many people out there looking to be published, there certainly seems to be a market out there.

The problem that I see is that it appears to be a one-way market. A bunch of people wanting to be published but not overly enthusiastic about throwing their money down and seeing other people published. Part of me has to admit to being a part of this group, at least to the extent of really not being a poetry person. I will rarely buy literary mags because of the sheer volume of poetry in them and my lack of interest and chapbooks, well, pretty damn unlikely to get my money.  This is something I certainly didn’t bring up very often at AWP.

In glancing through some of the replies on the other sites, I see there have already been people pushing for better marketing, and poets re-thinking their ambitions, maybe not pursuing conventional publishing routes and instead just seeking to get their work viewed by as many people as possible. And the numbers pulled into the light by No Tells and BlazeVOX may support that. After all, if the best they can hope a new book does is 25-30 copies, it’s clearly not being exposed to a great number of people. And if you’re not being read, what does it matter who publishes you?

So maybe it’s time to go back to mimeographed pages stapled together and sold out of the back of the car or stacked in the public areas of universities? Or some sort of collection of websites that push poetry that can link to each other and push viewers from one site to the next? Or maybe it’s time to start buying up adspace in news papers and publishing poems in the ad space?

I don’t know. That’s why I’m putting this out there. Poetry seems under appreciated, at least by people with money to throw down on it. While many of us are closet Silvia Plath’s, we’re also not interested in reading what the uncloseted poet across the hall has published. And maybe the poetry scene is really dying a slow death, filled with people who continue to push the medium but who continue to have an ever quieter voice beyond the edges of their personal radiance.  We need to find aways of not just helping our small presses survive, but of pushing poetry back to the front and center, or at least onto the stage. Alright, back to work.

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