Posts Tagged ‘book sales’

Indeed, Why Poetry?

A Response to Daniel Halpern’s “A Few Questions for Poetry”

On Dec. 30, 2016, Halpern published a defense of poetry in the New York Times. As often seems to be the case with these kinds of defenses, he raises some valid points while making a few troubling claims, not the smallest of which is the stance that poetry needs defending.

Halpern’s evidence for this is that poetry books don’t sell, though of course they do, just not enough to make most collections commercially viable. That’s not to say that every book of poems loses money, just that the profits in publishing poetry are extremely modest. Breaking even on a book of poems is an accomplishment. I should know. 2016 is the first year in a very long time that I will have earned a royalty check on a book—both my 3rd and my 2nd collections earned enough to warrant a small check this year.

Yet writing poetry is about much more than turning a profit, and it might be argued the absence of commercial success is part of what makes poetry so valuable. It’s hard to accuse a poet of selling out to make a buck, after all. Poets write because they love the form or because they have something to say, not because they can make a living at it. In fact, there are many poets from all walks of life who write in a myriad of styles. There may be more poetry produced today than ever before. So far from being near extinction, poetry may be thriving now more than ever.

This fact was driven home to me this year, when I took over editorship (along with my MFA students) of Poetry South. We were amazed, not only by the number, but the quality of the submissions, and by the experience of the poets who sent to our small rag. Many were poets with multiple books, and most were previously unknown to us. Because of this, one goal for the magazine in 2017 is to publish a list of recent and notable books, mostly by Southern poets. We’ve started a bookshelf at LibraryThing that also shows up on our site.

Halpern is at his best when he argues that poetry is still important because it fights against extinction, though the danger is not that poetry itself will become extinct, but rather that careful, precise, musical, ludic, thoughtful use of language might go the way of the dodo without poetry to keep it alive. The act of writing or reading a poem exercises the mind in ways even the best prose can only approximate (which is not to say there is less value in prose, only that it’s different). Poems are made of patterns of sound and sense. They focus our attention or confound our senses. They can be profound or ludicrous, yet they always challenge.

So I beg to differ when Halpern appears to relegate poetry to the task of commemoration at a funeral, wedding, or other important moment in our lives. To be fair, he does acknowledge other roles for poetry, but keeps coming back to commemoration as his touchstone. The existence of sites like Poetry Daily is evidence that poetry is for more than commemorating the important moments. It is also for the everyday moments.

One of my students has started a poetry open mic series in our small Southern town that has proven quite popular and spilled over into the neighboring town as well. I remember the early days of the Poetry Slam in Chicago when there was a similar energy for poetry (and still is). Poetry is not only published in books, but it is found in coffee shops, bars, magazines, on buses, bulletin boards, or online. So book sales should not be the primary evidence of poetry’s current state of health. Look at who’s writing and reading and listening to poetry, and you’ll find that it’s doing all right.

But certainly there’s nothing wrong with a good defense of poetry such as Halpern’s. I would agree that poetry could use even more readers and listeners. However, if in defending it, you box poetry into a corner and relegate it to a limited role like commemoration, then there might be something wrong with the defense. Or if you make it out to be near extinction, that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I doubt either was Halpern’s intent, yet reading the defense made me wonder whether it is better to defend poetry or to celebrate it, to decry the lack of sales or to acknowledge the sheer number of practicing poets and readers of poetry, who clearly aren’t in it for the money.

Why Read in Bookstores?

IMG_0217It might seem like an odd question, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about as I drive around Mississippi to readings and signings. Bookstores would seem like the logical choice — and they are, though I’ve also read at colleges, libraries, etc. Recently I heard a talk by a publicist who said she tried to get her authors speaking engagements anywhere but in bookstores, and maybe with good reason. Bookstores usually don’t pay an honorarium, and books sold at other events are often sold by the author directly, so there’s a bigger profit margin. So I get her point, but…

I’m still more than happy to drive a few hours to a bookstore at my own expense, give a reading and sign books for awhile, all without seeing any direct profit, only that eventual royalty check. So why do it?

First, I’m a poet, so if I were in this for the money, you ought to question my sanity. Of course, I want my books to break even and even garner a profit, but my expectations in that regard are fairly low. So if it’s not about the money, what is it about?

One answer is that it’s about getting books into people’s hands. We write to be read (and we hope to earn enough through writing to make it more than just an expensive hobby). Bookstores are where people who love books hang out. It seems like a logical place to find people who might want to buy your book!

Another answer (still thinking about the economics of it) is that sales in the store during a reading/signing are just the tip of the iceberg. A bookstore reading does a number of things. It gets the store to order  your books and gets them to put up a notice about your reading. Your book is featured for a time. More people will see it, pick it up, and maybe buy a copy. Often by the time I get to a store, someone has already made a purchase.

You can post on social media about every signing, and usually the stores do, too. People see you as an active, interesting writer who goes to bookstores. And finally, when you’re at the store signing books, if the store will allow it, sign some more so they can sell signed copies later. These can’t be returned to the publisher, so they are books the store is essentially committing to sell. Even if only a few people show up to a reading or only a few buy a book while you’re there, you’ve likely sold several more copies through that store.

Which brings me to the main reason I’m happy to give a signing or reading in a bookstore: to support the store. Whether I sell a book or not, people will come into a store when there’s a reading, and they will buy books. Hosting readings, bringing authors to their public, is one of the roles a brick and mortar store can fulfill that the online megastores can’t. Having an author in their store promotes the store, and having live authors around helps promote reading. When I’m doing a signing, I talk to people about my book, but I also talk about books in general and about writing. Does it matter if they buy my book, if they are more likely to read a book?

In creative writing circles, we call this literary citizenship. It is part of taking part in the culture of writing and keeping that culture going by buying books, reading books, and writing about books. So if one person shows up or 100, connecting with each person, whether they buy my book or not, is important. So is reading at libraries, book clubs, universities, book festivals, and anywhere else you can find. Some may earn you more money than others, and hopefully that all balances out in the end. But I will always be happy reading to an intimate crowd in a bookstore or signing books and talking to a few people about what I write.