(Author’s note: No science was involved in the writing of this essay; nor was there any systematic process of interviews. No, this is based on firm anecdotal evidence, told to me by various poets in various stages of sobriety over the course of several years, as well as my own experiences since my first book appeared in 2008. If you get a book deal you’ll be in for something like what I’m about to describe. It may go a bit better for you. In some cases, it could be worse. But it’s generally something like this.)
One hears, with some regularity, about how poets would sell scads of books if they just went “out there” to move copies. Now, one does not hear this from publishers, nor from the general public. Sadly, it is poets themselves who entertain such notions–and often in inverse proportion to the amount of stuff they’ve gotten into print. Among many poets, there also seems to exist the subsidiary illusion that when one’s book comes out, all papery and glossy on the cover with a picture and everything, the accolades and public recognition will come. Bullshit. Unless you’ve got a full-time publicist (and most small presses don’t have one of those, let alone individual poets), it’s a slog. And it starts with the book launch.
The launch goes well, as these things are reckoned, with ten area poets showing up, as well as your sister-in-law who happens to be in town on business. Then there are the seven people who make it from your place of work (of the twenty who said they would), as well as fifteen or so people you know socially. You give away a copy of the book to a local novelist of your acquaintance who launches the book, of course. As well as two representatives from your publisher. Of the thirty-eight people who show, a whopping twenty buy books, while five others plead poverty and say they’ll get back to you–and one of them even does.
Have a new book out? Get on the radio. Not the top forty station, mind you. The local programming show they run at 10 AM on a Sunday morning on that local station that plays all those godawful pop songs from the 1980s during the week. Someone’s listening, sure. Not a whole mess of people. Probably mostly people who woke up early due to particularly bad hangovers. Maybe one or two will buy your book after hearing you read some pieces on the air. Maybe not. Possibly, even, probably not. Though they may swing by the local independent bookstore where you dropped off some copies of your book, and sort of remember hearing you on the radio and maybe buy a copy. Maybe. In a few cases. If said book store hasn’t already surreptitiously moved your books to that overstuffed “local authors” shelf and failed to inform the bulk of the staff that it and books like it are over there.
Or you can get yourself booked into a reading as a feature. Provided that the twenty-five-year-old recent MFA from Some Fucking State University who “curates” the series likes your work enough, you get your shot at the mic. Along with assorted friends, mentors, and ex-lovers of the event-runners. And their friends, of whom half will head to the bar when it’s your turn, because you aren’t their friend. And they may ask you to do it again. Maybe. A year-and-a-half-from now, because it’s a monthly reading and the venue owner likes to have them booked well in advance. And a few people will probably buy a copy of your book. Well, maybe they will. At least you can give a copy to the host in something resembling gratitude and eat the costs.
And if you’re at a reading whose host has some connections, and you hit it off really well, he or she might suggest your name to the local literary festival. Though not for the main slot. They’re flying over Carol Ann Duffy for that, because people have heard of her. No, you’re reading with five other people on Sunday afternoon, a bit after the radio show you appeared on five months before airs. And two of your fellow readers liked your book enough to offer to swap. And perhaps a nice young woman (or nice young man, depending on your gender/sexual orientation) in the audience likes your reading, too, and she (or he, depending on your gender/sexual orientation) might buy the book, and there’s even an outside chance of getting laid, but you’re still talking low sales. (Of the books you swapped, you read the first third of one when you come down with a cold three weeks later, and two years on, you’ll be “meaning to get around to” the other one.) And possibly, someone a bit higher up the food chain, possibly even Ms. Duffy herself, will wander in. Could happen. She’ll tell you she liked your reading and ask you your name, but she was only able to change a ten-pound note in Heathrow and only has a dollar left from the cab ride and can’t buy the book, and besides, she really has to talk to the organizers about something.
And you might even get a review in a prestigious journal. The journal has a subscription base of 1,800 people, of whom 200 subscribed because they’d heard the thing was highbrow but give it a desultory look-over. Five subscribed online while high. Another 250 are shipped out to university libraries. Some 600 are subscriptions from former and would-be contributors largely looking to see what work of theirs might be appropriate to send in, given what’s been running lately. Thirty subscribers graduated from the same creative writing program as the editor, while another ten are undergraduate chums. Then there are the thirty or so contributors of poems, fiction, and critical articles. The reviewer of your book won’t buy a copy; she has the review copy. The editor might, except that the magazine reviews sixteen or so books of poetry a year, and he knows five of those under review, who take priority. Most of the poets look at the issue to check for typos and to make sure that the poems next to theirs don’t suck. Ditto the fiction writers. Of the seven contributors who read the review, one buys the book reviewed immediately after yours; two decide that your book doesn’t sound like their thing at all, four think they may well buy the book some day, and one actually buys it when you’re booked for a double-feature together nine months later. The subscribers, of the 400 who make it to the review in the back of the magazine, skim the review as a rule, noting the kind of poetry it is. Of these, 146 decide they might be interested, and nine actually buy it (out of the twenty-one who decided they should), one of whom because he lives in the same town as your publisher’s second cousin (who owns a bookstore and actually has your book on the shelf).
Announcements on Eratosphere, Sonnet Central, the Gazebo, the Critical Poet, PFFA, Poet & Critic, and Dr. Whup-Ass’s Bitch-Ass Poetry Round-Up net you exactly eighty-six messages of congratulation–and about twenty actual sales. Of course, some of that is because on the Sphere, that fuckwit Cantor posts that message about Rhina Espaillat reading somewhere or another in Toronto, and everyone piles on to congratulate her (even though no one congratulating her lives anywhere near Toronto or plans to go there for her reading), and then some newbie trying to get to fifteen posts by whatever means necessary (so that he can post a poem he wrote about hobbits on the crit board) posts a “Wish I could of made it” message on a month-old Carmine Metrics reading announcement, and within two hours of posting, the goddamn thing is halfway down the page with no responses and two hits, which were you checking for typos and Tim Murphy trying to click on the Rhina link but opening your announcement by accident instead, and you have to bump it back up yourself. Which is embarrassing.
And then, of course, there’s the university reading. Which doesn’t take place in the swank old college downtown, where you went some years ago and a couple members of faculty vaguely remember you. No, you’ve got a friend on the English Faculty of Batshit Community College, an upgraded technical school, half of whose students speak Lithuanian as their first language. But it’s a reading, and you haven’t done very many readings recently—which is why you’ve only sold one book over the past month, and that to an ex-girlfriend (or ex-boyfriend, depending on your gender/sexual orientation) who found you on MySpace when she searched for old flames a few days after she found her husband schtupping her younger sister (switch around pronouns and nouns according to gender/sexual orientation). Though you don’t know about that last bit. Hell, you’d forgotten you even have a MySpace account.
At any rate, the night of the reading arrives, and it’s the first poetry reading ever held at Batshit Community College. So the dean is there, and your friend and two other members of the English faculty are there (the fourth member is at his daughter’s school play), and five students show up—because your friend has offered his remedial English classes (of three sections of thirty students each) extra credit for turning up. So you do the reading and ask if there are any questions. There are. Or is. A student asks you why you use so many big words. You say you aren’t sure. The students are poor, as are the faculty, so no one buys a book, though you give one to the dean as a goodwill gesture. Your reading is the last poetry reading ever held at Batshit Community College.
There are, of course, book store readings, generally booked at one of the shrinking number of independent book stores in your area. Most of your friends can’t make it because it’s in the middle of the day, and they have work. Which is fair enough, really. But as you read to an initial crowd of five, some folks do stop and listen. You might sell three or four books.
As for open mics, they happen frequently in the bigger cities but showing up at an open mike is, to a great degree, self-promotion on the part of each reader (which is to say the overwhelming majority of the audience). And there’s nothing wrong with that per se. But the role of the featured reader (you) is significantly de-emphasized. And as a consequence, the book may sell a few copies if you’re a regular, but don’t expect masses of sales. There may well be none. Open mics aren’t designed to sell books.
And then, of course, there are the poetry conferences. So, you spend a crapload of money to get to West Chester, Pennsylvania for the big do. Or perhaps apply for a scholarship and get one, meaning you only have to pay $400 for the damn thing instead of $1,000. Oh, and you still need to get there. (Repeat for Sewanee, Bread Loaf, or wherever.) You get your books placed in the bookstore—and are promptly astounded by how many fellow poets of your acquaintance have books and chapbooks. You spend your allotted $50 in one day and from there, swap four or five books with folks who heard you have a new book out (though it’s been nearly a year now). Maybe four sell in the book store.
All of the above nets thirty-eight sales by my count, out of a first book print run of 500 or 1,000. Sure, one repeats the process in all of these cases, coming up with pretexts on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever to remind those who might be idly surfing the web in the middle of the night that the thing exists (even while reckoning with no particular exactitude the moment where the gentle reminders will become tri-state-killing-spree-inducingly annoying). Sales will creep into the triple digits and, if one sticks with it, crawl up from there, much like a wounded cockroach trying to find that crack in the kitchen wall before it dies. One would like to say that it’s worth it, that at least the book is out there—and, provided that a few people who live at high altitudes buy it, your genius, such as it is, will survive the polar ice caps melting and the collapse of the power grid when the fossil fuels run out.
But the thing is, it’s horseshit. One should do this stuff because it’s profitable (cue uproarious laughter) or because it’s fun. Perhaps the tens of thousands of MFA candidates would add a third category—because it leads to tenure-track jobs. But there’s so damn much of it that it stops being fun far too often—there are so many poets with so many books on so many presses swarming so many internet radio sites, readings, conferences, and all that other horseshit—mainly for “exposure”—that we’re all a bit fatigued. But what to do about it?
If you’re seeking a tenure-track job in this economic climate, May God Have Mercy On Your Soul. For the rest of you poets out there, slow down! The book is less of a game-changer than you think it will be. Make sure—sure!—it’s about the work and not some horseshit prestige (and by “prestige,” I mean doing that local radio show that thirty people catch at 6 AM—you’re on your way, baby!). And as for the presses, can we all agree that book contests are a cynical, corruption-prone disaster? I’m not talking about the Foetry stuff necessarily, but rather the number of books funded by the contest’s also-rans that sink without a trace because, fuck it, no one has a particular stake in moving them. Fewer books from presses that could then spend more time promoting what they do publish wouldn’t fix the glut, but it might alleviate it. Perhaps fewer publication opportunities would even cut down on Po-Biz over-publication more generally. Well, one can hope where the latter bit is concerned.
But I wouldn’t promise that, and I’ll wrap up by noting that my own Across the Grid of Streets is still available in both hardcover and paperback, and…never mind.