07 September 2011

Just Be Glad You're Not Trying to Sell a Poetry Book

I was working on a post about the BlazeVOX asking-writers-to-help-subsidize-poetry-publishing brouhaha, and its connections to the criminal idiocies of so much academic publishing, and what the idea of "legitimacy" in publishing does for us as writers and readers, but the post got long and banal and so boring that I started falling asleep while I wrote it, which is a bad sign, so I abandoned it, but I've still been keeping one eye on the discussion.

Today's post of note is from the blog of No Tell Books, a small, respected indie press:

No Tell Books' best selling title broke even after three years and is now earning a very modest profit. This is by an author whose work has appeared in places like Poetry and Best American Poetry. This title has been taught at universities. How many copies does one have to sell to be the best selling title at No Tell Books after four years? 228. That is not a typo. This number doesn't include what the author has sold herself, probably around 200 copies on her own. But the press doesn't earn money on those sales.  
So if that's a best seller, what's a flop? 74 sales after five years (again, this number doesn't include what the author sold on his own, which was maybe 50 or so). (UPDATE: 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.)
This is the reality of poetry publishing. There are certainly presses that sell more copies. A poetry title reviewed in The New York Times can sell 2-4k copies, it is true. But small, independent presses, those small shops, usually run by one or a few people, rarely see those kinds of sales. University presses, for the most part, don't see those kinds of numbers for poetry. I attended a panel by the publisher of Grove/Atlantic and he said his press' poetry sales was around 800 per title. They publish "big-name" poets, their books are often shelved by chain bookstores, they have good distribution, a strong reputation . . . and that's what they sell. Publishing poetry is their charity--their poetry titles are subsidized by their fiction and non-fiction sales.  

I know of prose books where the publicity machine exploded spectacularly (or didn't exist), the publisher seemed to do everything possible to bury the book, and it only ever appeared at tiny bookstores in uninhabited regions of the world -- and still managed to sell over 300 copies!

I was going to say that obviously America hates poetry, but that's not true. To hate it, we'd have to pay attention to it.