Monday, August 18, 2008


I thank all the respondents to my "Simple Poetry Buying Survey"--the raw data is featured in the prior blog post below. Sixty-four folks replied to my three-question survey; while the number of participants actually exceeded my expectations, 64 is of course hardly a “representative” sample of the, uh, "poetry market". Such naturally doesn’t prevent Moi from blathering off some analysis even as I caveat that my conclusions are anecdotal. My conclusions are also colored by my own experiences as a poet and publisher, while the survey results no doubt are also influenced by the POVs of the particular “communities” reached by my survey.

Anyway, I write this after noticing this week that my local public library continues to deaccession poetry-related titles (a journal by May Sarton and a biography of Andrew Motion; as for poetry titles, they don’t even bother putting those on the shelves but do offer them for sale for a quarter or so during intermittent book-sale fundraisers). This past week, poetry publisher BlazeVOX Books also announced a “Bake Sale” to help offset costs caused partly by how the publisher’s expectations of selling poetry books on Amazon has failed to materialize. All of which is to say, the survey results don’t reveal anything new in terms of the difficulty of poetry sales. But the results do reveal certain elements that may explain why even some poetry lovers don’t buy that many poetry publications.

Not surprisingly, survey participants are mostly poets who do buy poetry books. While it would have been interesting to hear why poets don’t buy poetry -- if only to mirror the fiction writer who said he doesn’t buy poetry because he’s not moved by much that he reads in journals -- it’s nonetheless interesting to see how various customers make their choices.

Let Moi first implicate moiself. I thought of this Survey because I discovered that I, an avowed Poetry Lover, don't really BUY that many poetry publications. Shocking. In recent years, I've been buying 500-1,000 books a year and yet my poetry-related purchases over the past ten months (as far back as my record-keeping goes) show me buying a mere 42 publications—which I’ll just increase by 50% to 63 publications as I know my record doesn’t capture every book bought. Still, that only raises the total to 63 publications! If I love Poetry so much and yet don't buy "much" (and I realize the definition of "much" is subjective but let me just say that I find I don't pass my definition of that threshold), what does this imply?

In delving deeper into how I came to purchase certain of my poetry publications, I discovered that I purchased only four of the 63 publications based on the work (specifically, based on sampling their pages at bookstores, then liking them enough to buy the books). As with other survey respondents, it seems that when it’s impossible to buy every poetry publication one wishes to buy, circumstance and factors extraneous to the work then became motivations for driving purchases: for me, such factors include what’s on sale to wishing to support a particular small press to focusing on works that relate to something I’m also investigating to desiring to support Filipino literature. Some of my reasons are echoed by several of the survey respondents.

Although textbook sales was acknowledged by just one (two?) respondent, neither did I see anything in the survey results to negate what I believe based on my experience as a poetry publisher and poet: the primary source of volume sales in poetry are textbook sales. This has implications, but I’ll leave that to others to explore.

Another major source of sales -- as validated by the thoughts of another poet-publisher, Mark Young who puts out Otolith Books -- are readings, so that poets who participate in such activities are more likely to generate higher sales. This practice, too, has certain implications. For example, as a publisher, I tend to use POD for poets I publish but who are unable to participate in many gigs. Still, “volume” continues to be relative, with several poets having told me in the past that if they sell more than two books at a reading, they consider such a success.

Another observation: as regards poetry lovers who read a lot of poetry but don't BUY much, this can relate ironically to how many of these poetry lovers end up editing and publishing journals and writing reviews; as a result of such roles, they receive a lot of comps (as someone who also edits and crits, poetry purchases represent a minority of what I read; in fact, when I took a look at Tom Beckett’s list of purchased books, I realized that I read, without buying, most of those titles just by reading through the review copies sent to Galatea Resurrects).

Here are other conclusions or observations bolstered by the survey results (as I interpret them):

--The internet has a significant effect on many levels, including but not limited to: (i) people getting their poetry-reading fixes online rather than through (purchased) print alternatives; and (ii) e-buzz, including blog buzz, are a factor in influencing purchases, even among readers who don’t normally pay attention to reviews….word-of-mouth seems the most effective “review”…

--in a world where more and more poetry books are published (partly due to print technological advancements), some purchase trends seem to be (i) a focus on SELECTEDS and/or COLLECTEDS (I would include myself in this), and (ii) buying in areas where one has always meant to pay more attention (e.g. the “classics” ) versus the art of one’s peers (though, if one has peers in the poetry world, comps and trades play a big role anyway)

--advertisements do not play a major role in influencing purchases, except for sharing information of a new release to a poet’s already-existing fan base

--A respondent amused me by flat-out admitting she bought one poetry book because it was by a friend who blurbed her book. But then again, poets, how many of you truly support the books of those who have blurbed you? Relatedly, how many poets support their own publishers by buying the books they release?

--reduction of poetry on bookstore shelves -- or reduction of bookstores, period -- reduces buying

--a dedication to small presses, or certain small presses, influence purchases

--now that the link between poetry-reading and poetry-buying has been further weakened by the internet, several poets are choosing to live as minimally as they write – i.e., some mentioned no longer buying books because they wish to live more lightly…(reminds me of a poet I know who placed all her belongings in a storage facility and now reads books mostly by going to a library)

--as regards Poetry’s “gift-economy”, one could devote a whole study on this aspect. By backchannel, I’ve received stories of how important poets’ generosities can be to young poets, especially young, broke poets. Here’s one story:
“I remember when I was 17 years old and living in a tiny town in Oklahoma having first moved away from home. I got the New Yorker because my mother had bought me a subscription to it, knowing how much I liked poetry. I wrote a "fan" letter to XXX through the New Yorker telling her how much I admired her writing and loved her poetry. I told her about how I wanted to be a poet. I didn't expect a response from her because I figured she got fan letters all the time. *chuckle at my naivety* Two weeks later, a box arrived in the mail, and I saw it was from her. She had sent me a signed copy of her latest book of poetry and a wonderful letter written by hand saying she hoped I kept writing and generally encouraging a 17-year-old girl who wanted to be a poet. I was SO thrilled! I put the letter in a frame and hung it on the wall. // Those kinds of things mean so much to people... If XXX had sent a form letter back saying, "Thank you for your interest, kid. Go ask your local library to buy my book," who knows? Maybe I would have been disgusted and thought poets were assholes, and gone on to pursue a career selling shoes. I have a hard time understanding people that don't get this.”

But there’s also this from poet-publisher Mark Young: “There are a lot of people out there who expect to be given a copy of a book because they have a nodding acquaintance with the author & who, put out by not being considered worthy of gift, won't actually support the poet by buying a book.” And here’s my take -- I will give a free copy of my poetry books to anyone who asks me for one; in my experience, that’s a low-risk proposition; even freebies don't interest that many people when it comes to poetry books.

I’m pressed for time so I’ll leave the anecdotes at the above -- more can be gleaned by going direct to the survey’s RAW DATA responses. I will say that in a world where the gift economy plays a huge role, buying needs to be proactive. My favorite example is, of course, that Poetry Angel who tithes 10% of her income to purchasing poetry publications. On this note, I hereby announce that moving forward, I shall “give back” to all the free reads I’ve gotten through Galatea Resurrects (GR) by incorporating a new purchase-structure. That is, in the past, I’ve compensated GR’s reviewers by offering books from my library or from titles I publish through Meritage Press. Moving forward, I’ll also choose a different poetry press per issue whose books I shall purchase if a GR reviewer expresses interest in them.

As for the rest of you, you know what to do.