Thursday, September 8, 2011

the ease of selling poetry books

Some have focused on my following statement as being defeatist or having a bad attitude in regard to poetry's potential:

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!


Reb Livingston
Editor & Publisher of No Tell Books


Nicholas said...

Difficult it may be, but 25-30 is shockingly low. Do you believe this represents the best the press could have done for these authors--that the failure is the poets' only? I do not. Sorry, but I do blame Gatza: for publishing more books than he could handle. Spamming the market with books that sell <30 copies each is neither good business sense nor responsible editing.

It is *because* selling books is difficult that BV's model (such as it is) is such an awful idea.

shanna said...

Go, Reb, go! I tried to get at some of this yesterday (in stray FB comments to other people's posts, my bad), but you've done a much more articulate job here.

Reb said...

Nicholas, it's not a model I personally would follow as a publisher, or one I would personally select to do my own book. But I hardly consider putting out 30 poetry titles to be "spamming" -- it might not be good "business" sense, but I don't think it's irresponsble editing either. I don't think any poetry presses would pass the "good business" test -- there's just different degrees of business competency. Poetry publishing IS bad business. But fuck business. Also, we wouldn't be having this discussion if Gatza was a millionaire and publishing 30 poetry titles. We'd be trying to convince him to do 60.

Nicholas said...

Hi Reb, I say 30 books (or whatever) is too much not because it's a large number in absolute terms, but because of those sales figures. If he only put out one book a year (all else being equal) and still sold 25-30 copies of it, I'd say that was too much too, and that he should stop.

If he were a millionaire, I'd still say he ought to cut down his list to the point where he is able to promote each book effectively enough that its sales figures aren't so dismal. Look at Bloof: maybe two books a year. Look at Tiny Hardcore. That's what you do when you have limited resources and want to make sure you're helping your authors, not just giving them a line in their CV and pissing their work into the wind.

It just does not make sense to continue pouring resources into editing, typesetting, designing etc. book after book when your sales are at that level. Never mind profits ("fuck business", as you say); what about the objectives of publishing literature? Are they really best met by a huge catalogue of work that no one buys?

Reb said...

Nick, I'm not saying that I don't share some of your ideas of what makes "sense" -- in the first two years of No Tell Books, we published 4-5 titles and that was too much, and I scaled it back to 0-2 a year. I would never run NTB like BlazeVox. But GG can do whatever the hell he wants with his press. Why are people trying to tell him otherwise? I don't buy this line that he's hurting poetry or the "market" or anything else by doing what he does. GG has every right to pursue his vision, in his own way, whether it makes sense or doesn't. He's not receiving tax dollars or misusing public funds. Nobody is required to publish with him. The poets who agree to publish with him know how he operates. They can make their own decisions if it's something they want. While some poets may not know how his model operates when they submit (and to that I say, maybe they ought to better inform themselves before they "spam" their manuscript to a bunch of publishers, well I don't really mean the word "spam" but you understand what I mean)--the poets are informed of the deal when the offer is made, BEFORE a publishing agreement is settled. It's a huge stretch to see these unaware poets as victims. Up to that point all they've done is send him their manuscripts for consideration. He responds with his offer, which they can take or leave.

Nicholas said...

All that is fair enough, and if there's anyone who still thinks Gatza is actually "hurting poetry" or "scamming" people or whatever, your post+comment will hopefully set them straight. I just don't think you've countered the vast majority of criticism (disclaimer: that I've seen), which is more along the lines of Gatza/BV having brought these troubles upon him/itself. The latter seems true, and fair, to me.

Reb said...

I don't think I can counter (or would even try) that the sheer volume contributes to the low sales and ongoing financial straits of the press. It does. I'm not advocating for tiny presses to publish 30 titles a year. I'm not suggesting that poets should work with a press that runs this model. What I'm saying is that no poet has been harmed. I understand that some poets may have expected or wanted a different publishing offer. One time I interviewed with a place that gave me a job offer that was very different than I expected and hoped for -- and it turns out I didn't know much about the company to begin with, else I probably wouldn't have interviewed. I found the offer to be appalling and declined. But the company didn't hurt me.

Nicholas said...

Can't quarrel with that. Seems I misapprehended your point with this post--thanks for the clarifications.

Reb said...

I think that's easy to do with all the related discussions going around that are focusing on different aspects of the topic. What I object to are the terms like "de-legitimize," "scam" and "vanity" being thrown around. I disagree with the idea that if something doesn't sell or isn't successful, that it shouldn't exist, that marketplace should dictate or be the indicator of art. Also, I'm taking personally comments about poetry presses in general ruining or not doing enough to promote poetry, that it's somehow our fault that the books don't sell better. That if only we had higher expectations or worked harder things would be different. This seems to be coming exclusively from people who either have never run a poetry press or have only done so for a very short amount of time. Nobody has shown a proven model that guarantees vast sales of poetry by lesser known authors. Even presses that have a breakout success have other books on their list that don't sell anywhere near as well. There are certainly exceptions, books that have done well, and there's things we can all learn from those instances and try to replicate. I'm all for sharing information and ideas. I want more presses to share this kind of information, but I understand why few do -- because it opens them up to a lot of unfair criticism from people who haven't done a fraction of what these publishers do. I really hate the blaming, attacking and criticizing -- and I've seen a lot more of that than I've seen of anything constructive.

Nina Alvarez said...

This thread was VERY helpful. Thank you, both Nick and Reb, for the dialectical discussion. Shed a lot of light.

Joshua Lee Rogers said...

Thanks for the blog post I found it helpful. I've been trying to promote my poetry book "The Phoenix of the Dark Oceans" and having very little success haha. I can't even get people to download it for free as its on a kdp promo until the 15th. So far I've had about 35 downloads. It's definitely a challenge to try and get this book out there. This blog has said some helpful things for sure and I appreciate it.

Mr. Grovey said...

I can agree that is VERY difficult to generate sales for a book of poetry, but it is not impossible. A few years ago, I released my 1st collection, "My World, My Words: Confessions of a Cluttered Mind." Through very hard work (and with no marketing budget), I was able to sell about 300-400 copies. I have a new collection, "The Book of Jacob" coming out next month and I WILL find a way to meet my sales goal of at least 1000. I wish everyone well with their projects, just prepare to work hard to get the word out. It can be done!

Jesse Heddinger said...

How did you promote?

Vote Rozzo said...

I have written a poetry book and short story book, I find it impossible to get an agent let alone publisher. I have three cookbooks that yield no profits. I can't get on Television though I have tried. I was in the news papers only once, I tired getting endorsement deals. If I self publish a book of poetry what would that do? I'll only be shut out again anyway and sales? Dismal?

Grasp Fire said...


Thanks for this article. I think the answer is, advertise everywhere, as much as humanly possible (and within reason financially). It doesn't make sense to spend a ton on advertising when you're uncertain how a book will sell. I just published my first book through Ingram Spark, so it's technically self-published, although I'm on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, etc. I'm 470,000th selling on Barnes & Noble though :D So obviously I'm still learning, but this is one way right here as I'm typing this to hopefully reach "the right person". A sale is a sale, but yes poetry is I believe the lowest selling genre, so my expectations weren't huge to begin with, however, I have hope! It's only been a few days since my book went on sale, we'll see! Thank you again for writing this, much obliged! It's nice to hear success and even failure stories.


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