What’s Expected of a Poet? About Poetry Book Promotion, what kind of sales numbers to expect, and how much promo is enough?
On Facebook today, Rattle editor and poet Tim Green posted the following:
“In five years, Red Hen Press has sold 105 copies of my book. This doesn’t include my own copies that I’ve sold at readings, around 200, but still—105 copies, despite the fact that it’s a fairly good book, and that I have a fairly large “platform” within the poetry community. More people will read this Facebook post in the next 20 minutes than will have read that book. This is why I don’t get all that jazzed about publishing anymore.
To put it another way: When I think about having published a book, my primary emotion is guilt.”
I’m writing this post as I think there is a big bunch of poets out there who feel exactly like Tim. What, exactly, are reasonable sales expectations for a poetry book? What kind of promotion can your publisher reasonably expect you to do, and what is up to the publisher? What kinds of things are out of the author’s hands totally? I’m going to go into what we can and can’t do, and get really honest about my own experiences.
I hope I am not shocking and crushing any new poet’s dreams here, but Tim’s number, around 300 total sales over five years, is fairly normal for poetry book sales. It’s rare for a poetry book to break 1,000 copies, rarer still to get to 10,000, and only people who win the gigantic prizes and former Poet Laureates make it higher than that. Your Mary Olivers, your Billy Collins, and this month’s Poets & Writers poster lady poet, Louise Gluck, they sell poetry books in numbers that make a profit for non-POD printing runs. The rest of us? Well, it’s more normal to struggle than not to struggle.
As I’m gearing up to promote my 4th (!!) book, I’m wondering about what I’ve learned, how I can apply that, and what is the smartest, least expensive in terms of time, energy, and money path for promoting poetry? (I’ve also got an essay on this very topic in the new 2015 Poet’s Market, if I can shill a bit within an article about shilling…) I’m thinking every book has had different successes. My bestselling book, in case you’re curious, is still my first one – not sure why, if it’s more accessible, closer to the zeitgeist, whatever. All three of my publishers have been small, independent presses without a PR department or much funding for things like ads, tours, etc. I think that’s probably the norm for most poets.
So think in advance about what you’re willing to do, what you can afford to do (traveling for readings can get expensive in a hurry, even if you’re lucky enough to snag a few paid readings), and how much energy you have and for how long you plan to promote your book. I noticed that last year, for instance, was the first year for Unexplained Fevers, and the seventh year for Becoming the Villainess, and Becoming the Villainess still outsold Unexplained Fevers, even though I was actively promoting the new book. There’s something “momentum”-y about poetry book sales, once it starts taking off it starts to have its own life. That’s what you want, FYI, that’s what we get when we’re lucky.
If you teach, if you’re an editor, you may have a better “platform” from which to sell books. But it’s not an automatic thing, you still have to send out your e-mail announcements to your e-mail lists, send out your postcards, go sell books at AWP, set up your readings where you’re pretty sure you have an audience like your hometown, etc. You don’t control the critical reception for your book, either, although you can help send out review copies yourself to interested reviewers, or make sure you provide your publisher a list of likely review places. You may not be able to afford – especially in this economy – a cross-country reading tour. The last two books, I sure couldn’t! But the good news is, maybe now, those things aren’t necessary. Maybe social media and online ads are replacing some of the old-fashioned promotion techniques. I don’t know!
And the bad thing is, the thing that can create the kind of angst Tim talked about, is that no one ever really tells you, “This is enough. You’ve done enough.” Even poets with successful books (or that I consider pretty darn successful) feel that pressure. When do you give yourself a break? In my case, with my second book for instance, She Returns to the Floating World, I was very ill for the main time I should have been promoting the book, like, in the hospital a lot sick, and my publisher, a very sweet and smart woman, also got sick, and passed away very soon after the book came out. It wasn’t my top priority, and it couldn’t be hers, either, quite rightly. So even though I loved that book, and I loved my publisher, I just wasn’t able to do what was necessary to make the book really hit. I feel like I’m still working to get the word out about Unexplained Fevers. I don’t feel like I’ve done enough for that book yet.
I’d love to hear about your experiences and your advice on poetry book sales, promotion, and general feelings of guilt about not doing enough. I was reminded that once, publishers had PR people, they funded tours, they bought ads in big magazines. Now, only the few and far between can afford to do that, and they only do it for a few of their books. So a lot more comes back on us, the writers.
Sorry to have been absent – lots of boring wrestling of my crazy autoimmune problems this last couple of weeks, plus, another of my former homes in California (this time, the Napa apartment-rental one) struck by a natural disaster, this time earthquake. For the record, that’s: all the places I lived in California have now been hit by either fire or earthquake, which could be a California cliche. I’m grateful I’m not there now, but thinking good thoughts for all my friends in Napa. (I know people think everyone in Napa is wealthy, but there are a lot of working class folks there who work in the wine industry – people like our apartment complex next-door neighbors who were retired vineyard workers, for instance, and sweet/generous/lovely, always bringing us sacks of avocados or other produce, along with anecdotes about working in the industry.) And Napa’s only hospital is so small that I worried about them getting 70 patients at once. I used to walk in there with my asthma or food-allergy-related anaphylaxis-y things and there would only be one other patient there, usually, and they barely had staff for that!
But now it’s almost fall and I have a bunch of new info, so:
–Read this interview at Zingara Poet about the Redmond Poet Laureate gig and whether I think you should get an MFA (trick answer: it depends!) here: http://zingarapoet.net/2014/08/25/interview-with-redmond-washington-poet-laureate-jeannine-hall-gailey/ Thanks to Lisa Hase-Jackson for her kind and intelligent questions! The interview was done a while ago, in case you were wondering why I refer to being Redmond’s Poet Laureate in the present tense.)
–My review of Matthea Harvey’s new book, If the Tabloids are True What Are You, is up at The Rumpus! (Spoiler alert: I really liked it!)
–I have a poem in the new perfume-based anthology, The Book of Scented Things, in which many poets were given samples of a perfume and asked to write about them. It’s a solid anthology, particularly if you are, like me, sort of a perfume junkie – here’s an early review, which mentions my poem, “Safran Troublant” along with Juliana Gray’s charming “Vanille Abricot” and Elissa Gabbert’s “Consider the Rose.” (Mary Biddinger, Sandra Beasley, Hilda Raz – it’s like a gallery of poets I like!) There are a number of great male poets in here too, in case you were wondering: friends like Jericho Brown, Matthew Thorburn, and John Gallaher as well as Matthew Zapruder, Brian Turner and Ander Monson. The editors did a great job putting this book together, so thanks Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby! The book officially releases in October – find more info here.
So, I had a little good news today, which was my poem “Whispers of Home: Redmond” will be featured with the 4Culture Poetry on Buses 2014-2015 project web site, which is pretty cool. Somehow I’ve become a civic poet!
I also want to thank Diane Severson for her kind words featuring my little book, Unexplained Fevers, in her writeup of all the Elgin finalists for the SFPA prize on the Amazing Stories blog (Unexplained Fevers’ write-up is all the way at the bottom of the page, as books are listed alphabetically.) It turns out the voting has just been extended til the end of the week, so if you are a Sci-Fi Poetry Association member (or want to be) please go ahead and vote (for me, if I may ask so boldly?) (Voting rules are listed here: http://sfpoetry.com/elgin.html) Yes, there are some great books on the list, by writers I really admire: Sally Rosen Kindred, Brian D. Dietrich, Noel Sloboda, and more!
I’ve had a nasty summer virus that has flattened me since Sunday, unable to talk on the phone, sing, work much, even take my nightly walks around the woods near my house. So…here are some reading and viewing summaries, rated for appropriate sickbed reading:
–My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead – a sort of non-memoir-memoir which includes fascinating bits of research about George Eliot, Middlemarch, and other cultural details of her era. A little slow, but fun for those who are interested in Eliot, her life, and her era.
–Muppets Most Wanted: Meh. I just wanted a little more from this movie, although, admittedly, I did watch it while on a lot of cold medicine and very little sleep. There were a few giggles but doesn’t rise to the level of the last movie, which in my mind, didn’t rise to the level of some of the best classic Muppet films.
–Austenland: A movie that seemed much more amusing to me than it did on my first viewing – hey, a movie that improves with cold medicine! A woman who loves all things Austen spends her life savings to go to a grown-up sort of Jane Austen summer camp, but surprise! Instead of living a fantasy, she’s treated like a poor relation, is seen as awkwardly single, and manages to get in trouble with the people in charge, just like her favorite books’ heroines.
–I read the last little bit of Flannery O’Connor’s gigantic collected letters, The Habit of Being, which involve Flannery writing letters and stories like a fiend on her deathbed, literally unable to get out of bed, getting blood transfusions to extend her life, and suffering from anemia and kidney infections – not an especially glamorous ending, and so surprisingly moving because of her steely attitude towards her own health and frailty. If you can be said to have lupus “like a boss”…Anyway, not especially smart sick reading, since it’s a bit depressing and reminds us of our relatively short lifespans here on earth (she was dead at 39.)
–Delicious: A Novel by Ruth Reichl. I’m not far into this one yet, but it’s a bit of light reading about starting out at (a thinly disguised Gourmet) Delicious! Magazine, where the young assistant Billie discovers a trove of a correspondence between a young girl and James Beard. Not a masterpiece, perhaps, but fun for people who love food writing! Which I do!
–Lucky me, I got Murakami’s new book on the very first day it came out from the Redmond library, bless them! Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage suffers, perhaps, from some of the same clunky redundancy that plagued IQ84 (that book needed an editor to take out half of it) and the translation is either really bad or Murakami’s sentence structuring and language has suffered since his last book? (I suspect the former, not the latter.) Anyway, same old Murakami – magical sex dreams, suicidal tendencies, train stations, aimless 30-something man who barely knows about the internets plagued by a loved one’s unexplained disappearance, some pop culture references – I don’t want to sound jaded, because you know Murakami is among my favorite writers, but…I haven’t been blown away by this book yet. Would love to hear your thoughts on this one!
Speaking of Japanese cultural phenomenons…Two fascinating discoveries (courtesy of my little brother Mike, who supplies much of my Japanese cultural knowledge) – the movie The Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise? Based on a Japanese novel (also made into a graphic novel) called All You Need is Kill, which I recommend checking out if you like Japanese sci-fi. And, the lovely cover art for “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter” named “Cocoro” by Masaaki Sasamoto may be related to the classic Japanese text “Kokoro,” a novel about a young troubled student. The word has many meanings, but one of them is “the heart of things,” which makes Masaaki’s cover art’s name make a lot of sense.
Here is the cover art for The Robot Scientist’s Daughter again, in case you haven’t seen it in a while (coming out Spring 2015 from Mayapple Press!)
Supermoon! (Perseid shower the next two nights as well!) And a little Anna’s hummingbird that guards the feeder in our back garden:
Well, the reading and panel at Auburn Days was fun, got to chat with other local city and county Poet Laureates, which was fun, but I came home feeling a bit under the weather, and woke up this morning in the full grip of an eevil upper respiratory/sore throat thing – on one of the hottest days of the year! What’s the logic of that? So we had to postpone my shot again, this time til Thursday.
Thanks to Joannie Stangeland (http://joanniestangeland.com/2014/08/blog-tour-2014-snapshot/) and Jose Angel Araguz (http://thefridayinfluence.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/my-writing-process-blog-tour/) for tagging me in this round of the Writing Process Blog Post. They’re both wonderful poets! I think I may have done this before, but I guess an update might be in order:
What am I working on?
Right now, I’m finishing up edits for my fourth book, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, which is coming out in spring 2015 from Mayapple Press, and adding poems to my fifth manuscript, about, among other things, apocalypses, scientific scams, neurological short-outs, which is currently titled Field Guide to the End of the World.
I’ve also (shhhh) been working on some short personal essays and pieces of short fiction. I can’t say I’ve mastered the other two genres yet, but it’s kind of fun to pick up some books on writing in other genres and experiment a bit!
How does my work differ from others in its genre?/ Why do I write what I do?
Everyone’s writing mirrors their interests, the way their brain works, the language they use every day, the books they read.
I think my work reflects my interests in pop culture, science and archetypal mythology. If the question is, why I write poetry at the exclusion of other forms, well, I’m working on it!
How does my writing process work?
I often write poems after interacting with other kinds of art – visual art, music, novels, comics, movies, sometimes even just reading a news headline or seeing a particularly interesting or funny image in a magazine. I often write late at night, when my subconscious is more awake and my inner critic is a bit quieter. My earlier work was very much inspired by mythology, but I feel like lately I’ve been more inspired by science and science fiction, which means my next two books have a bit of a different flavor than my first three. In The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, for instance, there are references to radioactive elements, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Madeleine L’Engle, and The Day After Tomorrow. In my newest poems, I’ve been inspired by things like as mundane as Anthropologie catalog and even having HGTV on in the background!
I’d like to tag poet Natasha Moni, a medical student whose book The Cardiologist’s Daughter is coming out this fall! Her web site is http://www.natashamoni.com/blog
Thanks to Robert Brewer, who put my post on reviewing poetry books up at Writer’s Digest today – check it out!
I hope it encourages you to write about one of your favorite poetry books for one of your favorite journals.
And since I didn’t get my weird shot today (see previous post), I slept in instead and will encourage you all to check out Auburn Days this Sunday, where I’ll be reading with a bunch of local city Poet Laureates at 2 PM and then serving on a panel called “What to Poet Laureates Actually Do?” at 2:30. Check out the entire schedule here.
Auburn is a ways out for us but Auburn Days are always a curious amount of fun. I love meeting the people there and always have a good time reading. I hope to see some of you there!
Updated Note: Due to a fairly violent allergic reaction early this AM (to goodness knows what) the first shot has been postponed til Monday. Thanks for your good thoughts for that day, now!
So, dear readers, it is with great trepidation that, because of the autoimmune issues that have plagued me since my teens, and in particular, the ones that have made eating out in a restaurant, going out in the sun, etc…impossible in the last four years, I’m trying out a new biological agent (technically chemo, a monoclonal antibody that suppresses your IgE reactions) called Xolair (real name: Omalizumab). Xolair is a once-monthly shot you get for six months, which helps asthma, allergies, angioedema (tissue swelling,) hives, and possibly even food allergies (it’s in testing for deadly food allergy treatment now). Since I have all those things, if it works, it’ll be lovely. I’m starting with one 150 mg shot, to ramp up to 300 mg in a few months if the results are good.
But the side-effects are scary. It doubles your risk for all cancers (from .02 percent (control) to .04 percent, but still), has a 2 percent risk for anaphylaxis, and a much higher risk for less frightening but still less fun things like headache, joint pain, and reactions at the injection site. A lot of people report feeling flu-like for three days after the shot. Oh, and did I mention the possible hair loss???? Yes, that’s something I’m hoping to dodge.
So it’s not a dream drug by any means. But since, for the last four years, I can’t even touch wheat without having a severe reaction, I’ve been pretty unable to travel due to things like ‘spontaneous idiopathic anaphylaxis’ – not any more fun than it sounds – and I’ve had asthma and allergy problems since I was a teen, it seems like a good risk to take. Some doctors give patients steroids before the shot, but because of my bleeding disorder, which makes steroids complicated, I’ll be going in armed only with Zyrtec and Benadryl, along with my epi-pen and inhaler (required by the doctor, ‘just in case.’)
Will you wish me luck? Another down side is you have to wait several hours in the doctor’s office after the administration, as they make sure you don’t react to it right away (although you can react after your first or second shot, and even more than 24 hours after.) So I’m stacking up books, my Kindle, and my laptop to while away the hours after I get the shot. Since I’ve had reactions even to shots as innocent as b12 shots, I’m (understandably, I hope) a little skittish. I thought seriously about making a will yesterday. (I’m 41, for God’s sake, and not immortal, so I guess it would be a grown-up thing to do anyway.) But still.
You know, one day you’re worried about your poetry book, getting your bangs trimmed, your 89-year-old grandmother’s (very similar to your) allergy problems. The next you’re all, “I hope I don’t die from this experimental chemo drug.” So, hopefully you’ll hear from me again soon, all happy that I took this crazy expensive drug and that it will have immediate positive results like, I can touch wheat again without having anaphylaxis, or I can walk briskly without having an asthma attack, or I can walk out on a summer afternoon without going red with sun-welts. (Note: results usually do not emerge for four-six months of treatment.)
Here is a picture of a grumpy heron at sunset at Juanita Bay in Kirkland, apropos of nothing. Walking around at sunset is so nice here these days…
First, thanks to Silver Birch Press for posting my self-portrait poem, “Self-Portrait at 39:”
Next, I have been starting to think about the realities of getting “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter” finished up and ready for putting together for early review copies, so I’m currently stressing out about blurbs. I have two really nice ones already, but waiting to hear on the last one…It’s the worst kind of anxiety, because you worry, not that the person didn’t have time to read it, but that they read it and they hated it, and you’re often asking people who aren’t lifelong best friends, but people you know just a little…
Also, okay, has anyone noticed the abundance of apocalypses in the comics, in the news, on HBO, even on Lifetime? (Yes, it’s woman-focused, called “The Lottery” in a futuristic dystopia where the government mandates fertility testing and no one has had a child in six years!!! But still, Lifetime is doing apocalypses!) I’ve even been putting together an apocalypse song playlist. And I’ve been working on a fifth manuscript that kind of teeters between autobiography and apocalypse. This poem (posted above) is part of the autobiography part.) I tried to write a poem today called “Apocalypse with Love Note from the Swamp Thing.” I don’t know that it will make it into the book…
Well, after a tough week – two fillings with no novocaine (I’m allergic), a blood draw, my grandmother in the hospital, and a couple of cold rainy days – we decided to take an afternoon off to tour Woodinville – visit Willows Lodge, pet their Vietnamese potbellied pigs, check out their herb gardens, try the ice cream at the lavender farm, and take a walk on the Sammamish River Trail as Mount Rainier shone in the background. We were celebrating that my b12 was shown to be in normal range for the first time in ten years (thanks to a new prescription called Nascobal, way for effective for me than the shots!) Also, my grandmother got out of the hospital, and my brother and sister-in-law’s continued exploring of the East side as their new home! We visited a new restaurant, The Commons in Woodinville, with good coffee, wine, excellent beer and cider on tap, and nice salads, fried Brussels sprouts, and delicious salted caramels.
I also worked on a new “personal essay” – a new genre that I’m trying out – and sent out an essay and a short story. It’s always nerve-wracking trying out genres outside your comfort zone! But that’s what rainy days are good for. I’m usually a zombie for a day or two after dental work, but this week, the day after the fillings, I did get to meet with a writer friend visiting Seattle for work, and that was a lot of fun! (Hopefully I wasn’t too zombie like!) We talked creative non-fiction and poetry, which was great and very encouraging.
Seattle-ites, in summer, I have to admit, aren’t very good at knuckling down and getting work done during our three sunny months. That’s why a few days of rain are not only good for our gardens and grass, but our creative and work projects! But now, another long stretch of sunny days in front of us, and I’m planting a big pink dahlia in my garden (though none of my dahlias thus far have survived, I’m an eternal flower optimist!)
Concerts, Poets in the Park Recaps, and Tech Troubles
Here are some pics from our Poets in the Park adventures – which was great except for a tiny bit of wind and I had a bit of an asthma attack in the middle of my reading, and didn’t have my inhaler with me – I muscled through, but I can’t have been at my best. It was great to see so many friends from all over – some driving all the way from Kingston and Tacoma – and to hear so many great poets. There was even a mini-bookfair hosted by Poets in the park! I got to introduce my little brother and his wife to a lot of my friends, which was great, and my brother hadn’t heard me read since my first degree in college – so, about twenty years! Crazy! They seemed to really enjoy the readings, especially Elizabeth Austen and Kelli Agodon. (Below: the girls from Two Sylvias, me and my little brother and his wife, Kelli A and e, and my little brother and I checking out the bookfair!)
The OK Go concert was in a tiny venue – Neumos in Capitol Hill is I think the smallest venue I’ve been to for a concert, even for acts like Aimee Mann down in California, where she performs in smaller venues– and they had a teensy bit of technical trouble. I was worried about fitting in with the hipsters there, but I have to remind myself Seattle has a very low bar! (Life Lesson: stop worrying so much. Go have fun!) Anyway, the band seemed to have some trouble with their instruments, but they did sing a couple of their popular songs (I have to say that I like their older alternative-power-rock stuff better than their newer psychedelic funk stuff) as well as a duet from Les Mis, and the confetti cannons continued to function perfectly, as witnessed below. It reminded me of when Glenn and I used to go on dates when we were first dating (cough, Lisa Leob and Third Eye Blind Concerts, if that gives you any time frame reference) and also reminded me to get out into the “real world” and have fun more often. Seattle is a great music town, and has great acts in all the time – you just have to get out and go through the inconveniences (traffic, crowds, two-hour wait times, etc).
Speaking of going out into the “real world” – today I’ve had my phone, internet and cable out all day – darn lousy Comcast/Xfinity Service – a strangely helpless feeling, one I never got when I had a landline phone. And of course today I planned to send poems out and be actually productive (given the rest of the week was a wash for that sort of thing.) I’m actually thinking of going back to landline phone service, because the cable goes out frequently and has poor connection quality. (As a former telecom worker, I probably notice these problems more, and sound quality especially annoys me!) Plus, they’re better in emergency situations, when the cable would definitely go out and cell phone signals would be jammed. I was forced to be out of touch with the world for a little bit today, which felt more frustrating than relaxing (I guess I’m not one of those people that is all – oh, I’m going on a tech holiday, no phones or television, it so great!) The only thing it is good for is staunching the flow of bad news in the media, which has been pretty bad lately. So, I’ve caught up on some reading, done some chores around the house…and am so ready to have my cable/internet/phone working again! I’m posting this from Woodinville’s Barnes and Nobles, for God’s sake! What is this, 1992? #firstworldproblemsIknow
Anyway, I’m looking forward to a quieter week, catching up on and writing time, just getting out into the summer wilderness and having some fun after last week’s relentless bashing. Maybe even sending out some more CV’s and freelance queries…The first week of August I’ll start my shots of Xolair, which should help control some of my autoimmune problems, crossing fingers that there are no complications or side effects and lots of helpfulness from that! So I’m feeling optimistic, ready to crush some stuff, etc…for now, anyway!
It’s been a crazy week – bad news all over the television, heat waves, giant layoffs at Microsoft (where I used to work and husband G. works now) and helping my brother move in down the street (a good thing, but still stressful). But one of my coping mechanisms for dealing with a lot of bad stuff is to try to focus on 1. things I can actually do something about and 2. the small positive things that are happening around us.
So, tomorrow is the Redmond Poets in the Park Festival, held in Anderson Park. I’ll be reading at noon with the two other Redmond Poet Laureates (Rebecca Meredith and Michael Dylan Welch) if you want to catch me! There will a bookfair, lots of other fun readings, and best of all, it’s free and it’s supposed to be slightly cooler (in the seventies rather than the nineties!) Plus, free coffee with haiku! A lot of friends will be there, and it will be good to catch up. I love having poetry in my own backyard! (Click here for more info and a detailed schedule: http://www.graceguts.com/poets-in-the-park)
One of the things Glenn and I scheduled months ago to celebrate our anniversary/his birthday was buying tickets to a concert – we try to go to at least two rock concerts every summer, because Seattle has a ton of good ones. This time it’s OK Go – known for their cool music videos – at Neumos downtown. Maybe we’re getting too old for hipster Capital Hill music venues, but we’ll try to blend! Ha! Is this a quiet week ideal for going to a concert? Probably not, but we’re going to go anyway!
So, I did have some good news this week – a lit mag I’ve been trying to get into for over ten years sent me news that I’d made it to the next round of editors – something I’d never done! I was excited until I second-guessed myself and started thinking “is this even something I should get excited about?” But, in poetry, there are really so few big wins and so many discouragements – so I think I’m going to go ahead and be happy. At least if I get a rejection, I’ll know two poems made it into the final rounds! So, cross your fingers for me!