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.
Let me explain. Poetry collections categorized as "avant garde" or "experimental" written by less known poets tend not to sell a great deal of copies. Probably less than poetry collections categorized as "mainstream" by less known poets. The reasons are multiple. Some may argue that these types of books lack "accessibility" and "appeal" -- I don't know if I agree with that, but I throw that out there as one possible reason. I do believe that this perception does carry a great deal of influence in promotional opportunities a book may receive. These types of books by less known poets are very rarely reviewed in places that have a substantial readership, if anywhere at all. They're also less likely to be taught in college courses (course adoptions are a significant percentage of NTB's sales). Libraries are less likely to order books by new and unknown poets. Few bookstores shelve them. Word of mouth is limited.
Also, a significant factor in how well a book sells is based on how successful the author is at promoting it. Truth is, many poets with first books don't fully grasp this. Or often they don't know how to promote effectively. I recall one NTB author pursuing his hometown bookstore for months, trying to get the owner to order his book. After several months, this author got a local newspaper to write an article about a local poet making it good and how people could find his book at this bookstore. Finally this bookstore owner felt compelled and grudgingly ordered 5 copies, while complaining to me how persistent my author was. That was a lot of work to sell 5 copies. Probably not the best investment of his time.
Sometimes authors are limited (just like publishers) in what they can do. Many authors have financial limitations, job and/or family commitments that restrict travel. Some authors are shy or have difficulties in social situations. Some authors have medical reasons that limit how much promotion they can do. There are NTB authors who fit into each of these categories.
Sales certainly have some level of importance to me as a publisher because I can't continue doing what I do if I don't recoup at least some of my expenses. Also, I want as many readers as possible for my authors, as I do for my own work -- let us not forget that pretty much ALL POETRY PUBLISHERS ARE POETS. But when I consider manuscripts, I don't take into consideration sales potential. If I did that, I wouldn't have published any of the titles I have. The reason the majority of poetry today is published by small presses is because it has little sales potential. Else bigger, for-profit presses would publish more and would take chances on unknown poets writing weird poems.
Do I think 25-30 sales to be in any way impressive? No. Those are low numbers by any standard, even poetry. Do I think those same titles have the potential to sell more than that? Yes, in most cases they probably do. So let me phrase it this way:
Do I find it shocking that a book from an unpopular genre, written in what some perceive to be a less popular style of that unpopular genre, written by an inexperienced, unknown author and published by a low-profile, small press with limited means only sold 25-30 copies for the press?
No, not at all.
Because I know how difficult it is to sell poetry books. As both a publisher and an author. Sure, I've had instance where it was easy to sell some books, but most times, it is not. Not in substantial numbers. I've published 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th collections by poets with NEA and Stegner fellowships, whose earlier titles won national awards, who teach at universities, who've been published in some of the "biggest" and most "prestigious" poetry publications out there. It's still really difficult. It's still a great deal of work. I'm sorry if that bums you out or bursts your bubble but maybe this is something you need to hear.
I'm not saying that as a publisher I've done everything right (I haven't) or that there isn't plenty more for me to learn (there is). But don't blame low poetry sales on the only people out there making poetry books happen at all. If you have ideas, by all means implement and share them. Do the job better, if you can, but please stop calling poetry publishers the problem even though, admittedly, it's true that there wouldn't be a low book sales "problem" if we didn't exist.
No books, no problems!
Editor & Publisher of No Tell Books