A Word About Poetry (observations on publishing poetry books)

NOTE: The following thread is comprised of bulleted highlights from answering questions about publishing poetry books (real trade paperback or hardcover poetry books, not the saddle-stitch chapbooks you get at Kinko’s or OfficeMax). I didn’t bother quoting the questions.

What I’m about to say may sound pessimistic but it’s coming from a combination of personal experience, observation, and input from some very pragmatic veterans of the industry. Back in 2001, as my first book production project I self-published “Midnight Sketches”, a collection of poems and short stories. I don’t consider myself a poet so it was more a combination of a labor of love and a perfect way to see if I could master the technical/design aspects of book production. Since then, here are a few things I learned:

  • These days, poetry tends to be something alot of people like to write but not alot of people like to buy. As a result, outside of the academic presses that usually only publish the works of Literature professors and Poets Laureate there aren’t too many publishers that will take on poetry as book projects.
  • If I were you, I would seriously consider starting off by self-publishing your collection — only if you’re willing to dedicate the time (months, sometimes over a year) to learning how to properly produce the book, invest the money into it as a labor of love, AND you are willing to constantly do poetry readings where you’ll sell copies in the back of the room. Might even want to consider putting together an audio CD version of the book, too. If you decide to self-publish, there are plenty of articles in this Guerrilla Publishing section here that can help you get started — take the time to read them all.
  • Unless you’re a Maya Angelou, a Diane DiPrima or a Jim Carrol, without the constant poetry readings to sell your books (and maybe even some touring), there’s a good chance your sales won’t go reach beyond friends and family and the occasional Christmas influx. The return of investment is often slow at best, hence the reason many publishers outside of those rare Lawrence Ferlinghetti types won’t take that chance on publishing unknown poets, if any poetry at all.
  • There’s a huge difference between “regular” poets (sometimes called “Book Poets”) and Spoken Word poets. Spoken Word poets are basically the revival of Beat Poetry mixed with a strong Hip Hop influence and often lyrical in nature. For some reason these two art forms often don’t mix well to say the least. Spoken Word poets often don’t study classical poets (or disregard it entirely) and Book Poets (especially those in academia) often don’t respect Spoken Word works as having much literary merit. I mention this because you really need to know your market and which way your poetry tends to lean so you’ll know how and where to promote it. A lack of understanding the difference between the two WILL make for some awkward appearances and poetry readings — and it’s not a matter of IF but WHEN. If your style is more like Yeats and the crowd is expecting Sonja Sanchez, don’t expect a standing ovation…
  • If your sales pass the 5000 units mark, then you might consider shopping around for either an agent that represents poets (rare) or begin that quest for a publisher again. If you pass the 10,000 units mark, some of those few poetry publishers will probably reach out to you before you contact them. Either way, that’s ALOTTA READINGS…

Hope that helps shed a little light on what to expect. Good luck on the quest…