Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why Doesn't Poetry Sell, January 22, 2008

Why Doesn’t Poetry Sell

I’ve taught writing for nearly 20 years, so I’m well aware of the fact that it is considered poor form to give your conclusion before making your argument. In this case, however, I’m making an exception. Why doesn’t poetry sell? I don’t know, or more precisely, I don’t understand, why poetry doesn’t sell.

I’ve had plenty of reasons offered to me. It’s too intellectual or too obtuse. It’s irrelevant or indecent. It’s too expensive or poorly marketed. And my favorite, there just isn’t a market, i.e. no one is interested in poetry. I could argue passionately against the veracity of any of these reasons, but today I’ll present a coldly logical case against only one, the last one.

First, a bit of perspective, to help you understand what I mean by “not selling.” I’ve had two collections of poetry printed. The first one sold about 1200 copies, and the second, just released last August, is nearing 1000 copies. That’s a smashing success in the minds of most poets and an abysmal failure in the minds of every other kind of writer. Even the best-selling collections of contemporary poetry, say Billy Collins’ The Trouble with Poetry, max out around 10,000 copies. Fiction best sellers, on the other hand, routinely reach 6 digits and occasionally exceed a million copies.

Those numbers make clear that, relative to other types of writing, poetry doesn’t sell, and I’ve already told you that I don’t know why. Now I’ll explain why I don’t believe the argument that poetry doesn’t sell because there is no market for it.

My reason for not believing this depends upon simple, albeit admittedly specious, math. Given the number of colleges and universities in NC, CVCC and Lenoir Rhyne can be seen as a correlative representation of the population of Catawba and Alexander counties. The creative writing classes I teach at CVCC average 20 students per year, half of whom are consistently interested in writing poetry. The numbers are similar at Lenoir Rhyne. Given an average life expectancy of 70 years, that means at any one time there are approximately 1400 people in the two counties who are interested enough in writing poetry to take a class in it. It seems reasonable to expect that those 1400 people would buy a copy of the one or two new books of poetry that come out of their county each year. I buy about 30 books of poetry each year, myself.

Combined with the 500 or so people from outside the two counties that have bought a copy of my most recent book, if the 1400 poetry-lovers in Catawba and Alexander County had bought a copy, then I should have sold closer to 2000 copies so far. Similarly, if the ratio of poetry-class-takers to overall population holds true across the country, then the poetry best sellers should have no difficulty approaching the million copies mark as well. According to this figuring, then, poetry should sell.

I’ve read that only poets buy poetry these days. Unfortunately, however, even this appears not to be the case. Even if only those who express an interest in writing poetry bought poetry regularly, say once a month, then poetry would clearly have a solid market. I’ve heard the death of poetry pronounced more times than I can count, and obviously, it’s still here. But if poetry is not important enough to shake the money tree of even those who appear to care about poetry, then who can say to what depths of obscurity and penury the poets of tomorrow might sink?


  1. Thoughtful article, Scott. I'm glad you've decided to take your musings online. One of the problems I see with general poetry sales is the proliferation of chapbooks. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that nearly every day of the week I get an email or a post from somewhere announcing a new poetry collection. Which do I pick out of numerous books that intrigue me? I can't afford them all, obviously. Who, then, sells? Is it the person most vigorous in promoting his /her own book? Most poetry publishers do some promotion but not much. The books are in a bookstore to thumb through, but have to be ordered online.

    I find your sales record fantastic amidst so much competition!

  2. I just read a blog today where a man was upset with the fact that he spent $500 on getting his poetry published and hasn't sold one copy which he has available on lulu.com

    You should considered yourself to be wildly successful with a 1000 books so; as from what I've know about poetry books, is that most people sale less than 50 of them. Why they don't sell, I'm not certain of. But I will say this, why buy a poetry book, when you can read all of the poetry you want online for free, all it takes is a one second Google search. It seems to me, that if someone wants their poetry to be read, he or she would better off posting it online at a good poetry site, rather than trying to do it through selling books.

    Good luck

  3. Scott, what an interesting article!

    But, how did you manage to sell all these copies? You are the first poet that is able to sell so much. What's your secret?

  4. I love this Article....Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. I have to say, that I could definitely relate with you on many parts. In 2005 I wrote a keepsake books of quotes for the nieces and nephews, a friend of mine read it and was impressed, encouraging me to make additional copies and publish it...and so I did, selling over 1,500 copies by word of mouth alone. It really inspired me to keep writing and that my work had a place in hearts of people verses a "market." I, now have a solid fan base and have learned that the money will not come by books alone, as a poet you have to literally become a "GRAFFITI ARTIST" and spray paint your Poetry everywhere on everything, products, mugs, calendars, start up magazines etc... in order to actually get noticed.

    Thanks again for this

  5. Thanks to you all for your comments. Fortunately for me and most poets, "selling" the poems is of secondary (perhaps, even tertiary) importance. The writing itself, including the participation in the broader conversation and the engagement with life such writing implies, comes first. I suspect being read comes second for most. Selling is the gravy, albeit one might wish for enough compensation to be able to spend more time writing. Since writing this, I've had two more books published, each of which has sold in the neighborhood of 1000 each, and I have a new book coming out in August. The greatest joy I've experienced in all of this hasn't been the sales but the reading of the poems and the subsequent connecting with people in a meaningful dialogue.

  6. I think you make an excellent case for poetry. I for one never really believed that poetry didn't have a market or couldn't sell. I think that the big league publishers have stayed away from it because other genres bring in a bigger pay day. But if there was a focus put on poetry, there could be some big time sellers.

    On the education side, I'm not sure how much is being done in the classroom to introduce new poets. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Milton, Keats, and all the greats are dominating the poetry discussion in high schools and colleges. I've yet to hear of many contemporary poets who I'm sure have great work get any recognition from the academic community. The classics are great, as they are classics, but people should have a few new icons.

    I'll be sure to plug you when I release my first poetry book. You can grab my debut novel "The Virgin Surgeon" on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Great post.