Selling Poetry

Accept you’re in for the long haul

Poetry rarely sells quickly. There may be a peak of sales as news of a new book or pamphlet gets out, spikes of sales as a review appears, but most poetry sales happen at readings or when a potential reader starts noticing your poems in magazines and sticks your name in a search engine. Waiting for reviews can be frustrating but yours isn’t the only book the editor or blogger had been sent that week and you have to wait your turn.

Publicity

Tried and tested methods:

  • Press releases – remember ‘writer writes book’ is not news, find an angle and make it newsworthy
  • Book launch
  • Readings
  • Mailing lists
  • Blogs – announce on your own blog if you have one and consider writing guest posts for other relevant blogs that feature guest posts
  • Social Media – inform, don’t broadcast; update your profile(s) to include your new publication; add your publication and a link to where it can be purchased in your email signature.
  • Reviews
  • Advertising – if budget permits
  • Special offers and discounts – if your book is linked to a season or anniversary offering a limited discount tied to that season or date of the anniversary may generate interest but be wary of long term discounts
  • Competitions – check any legal requirements and ensure the prize is proportionate to the effort required to enter. A free copy of your book is fine if entrants simply have to answer one question or retweet a message but looks mean if you’re asking entrants to do something more complex or that will incur costs
  • Promotional items – bookmarks and leaflets can be done at little expense. Factor in the return on investment: low quality items can suggest a low quality book, expensive items might not provide a reasonable return. If you use a QR code on publicity items, make sure it links to useful content that can be read on a mobile device.

Coordinate with your publisher

Check what publicity your publisher can do before you launch your own campaign. Duplicating press releases or sending multiple review copies to the same publication is wasted effort. Before you organise a launch or promotional readings, check your publisher can get copies of the book to you in time.

Most book prizes will only accept submissions from publishers, not authors. But don’t insist your book is entered. Some publishers’ budgets won’t extend to the entrance fees and publicity premiums charged by prize administrators. For instance, The Poetry Book Society’s New Generation promotion charged an entry fee of £20 plus 7 copies of the entered book and a publicity premium of £300 per successful title. So if a successful poet had two qualifying books, the publicity premium would be £600 for the publisher, who may decide they would get a better return on investment though other publicity.

Don’t use the guilt or fear factor

Your publisher will not disappear overnight if people don’t buy your book. Yes, getting poetry readers to buy books and support poetry presses and magazines is a good thing, but using guilt as a sales tactic will fail. Readers like to feel good, not feel pressurised into buying a book to save a press or because your journey from writing poems to publication was a difficult one.

Similarly the fear factor – fear of missing out (not ordering before the special offer runs out, not getting at the discounted price), fear of being left behind (everyone’s talking about this book) – might encourage a handful of early sales but isn’t a viable long term strategy.

Reputation

  • Poetry readers associate your name with quality poems they’ve seen in poetry magazines
  • Your publisher has a good reputation
  • You’re known for giving good poetry readings and being approachable
  • You don’t solely broadcast on social media but take care to share useful links, retweet and engage with followers
  • You don’t continually beg followers and connections to post reviews on booksellers’ sites, review sites or tell their friends your book is available
  • You don’t use your mailing list to bombard people with news about you, but use it sparingly to notify people of relevant news about new releases and readings
  • You’re seen to be supportive of poetry in general because you review, you blog, you support readings and events in your local area, you buy poetry books and pamphlets, you subscribe to magazines, you are a member of a scheme such as HappenStance subscribers or Friends of Cinnamon Press and/or you help promote poetry through social media.

Recommendation

Good reviews and recommendations from trusted, established sources do help sales. But constantly urging people who’ve bought your book to recommend it will backfire. Pestering book bloggers who write reviews for a review is not recommended either.

Price

Your book isn’t priced too cheaply (suggesting low quality or desperation to sell) or too highly in comparison with books of a similar quality and length. If you offer a discount, do it for a limited period, offer a discount for buying directly from you or at a specific event. Offering a long term or permanent discount makes it look as if you got your price wrong or it’s not selling.

Reviews

  • No one owes you a review. If you send a copy of your book and ask for a review, the answer may be no, especially if you demand the review appears in the next issue or within a week or before the publication date or put other restrictions on who can review, when they can review or how you want the review to appear.
  • Don’t panic over a bad review. If the reviewer is not your target audience, they probably won’t like your book; that’s not a problem. If your intended audience don’t like your book, that’s a problem, but it’s your problem: you didn’t target the right audience.
  • If you like a review of your book, publicise it: link to it or quote from it.

A good review from an established, respected reviewer can help sales. But firing off group emails to every blogger reviewer you can find or sending out unsolicited review copies can lead to no reviews. Target magazines and reviewers carefully: do they give positive reviews of books like yours? Approach with a query first and tailor your query to the publication – see my reviews policy and how not to approach book bloggers.

If you don’t like a review, take care about what you say, particularly on social media which may not be as private as you like to think. By all means ask a reviewer to correct a factual inaccuracy such as a publication date or their statement that your book is contemporary when it’s set in the past or future, but don’t complain. A reviewer is entitled to their opinion. Focus on publicising the good reviews instead.

Don’t obsess over sales figures

Instead of focusing on the numbers, look at what those numbers are telling you. They might act as a guide to whether your current publicity campaign is working or not.

Mostly poetry book sales happen at readings and those sales aren’t captured in the sales figures.

What’s in it for your readers?

The ‘What’s In It For Me’ factor: what will make people buy your book? Most poetry readers want a book of quality poems that speaks to them in some way, it may surprise or challenge them, it may be that you’ve touched on their favoured subjects or you speak to their world view. Why should a reader buy your book instead of a book by another poet?

Focus on your next book

Publishers don’t like writers who only write one book, no matter how well that one book sells. They prefer writers with the potential to deliver another book in due course. Give your current book chance to sell before launching another.

Your second book will help sales of your first as new readers become interested in your backlist so it’s a good idea to have your book available as an ebook even if it’s no longer available in print.

In the meantime, you still need to read, research and write.

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Kick-starting New Poems

In the post-holiday, January gloom (it’s been foggy every morning this week so far) and lousy weather, it can be difficult to find inspiration to start new writing projects and easy to sink into despondency. Here’s some ideas that might trigger new poems:

  • Pick a colour and write down images or themes associated with that colour, eg green is suggestive of new beginnings, red suggests passion (love or anger), blue is calming. If you walked into a room decorated primarily with that colour, what would it tell you about the person who lives or works there?
  • List your previous addresses – if you’re a frequent mover, stick to half a dozen – pick one address and random and chose an event unique to that address – perhaps you celebrated a milestone birthday or a new job, heard a piece of significant news – and write about it.
  • Pick one of your songs at random and write down what images or themes come to mind when you listen to it. Does a particular fragment of lyric stick in your mind? Is there a particular memory associated with that song?
  • Try re-writing a story from the viewpoint of a minor character or an inanimate object. Either chose an episode from a favourite book or film or a well-known tale. Sometimes changing the point of view can add a new perspective to the original.
  • Dig out the recipe for your favourite winter comfort food and think about the smells, tastes and textures of the individual ingredients and the final dish. Does it conjure up any particular memories or sensations? At what occasions have you cooked/eaten that dish? Is there a story linked to it?
  • Without staring or making someone feel uncomfortable, notice someone on your next journey or daily commute. Briefly, mentally note what they’re wearing and carrying. Later write down what you remember (what you remember doesn’t have to be accurate: you’re not writing about the person you saw, you’re creating fiction) and create a back-story for them, showing their character through their choice of clothes.
  • Small Stones: each day take a few moments to write down an observation. It might be nature-based, noticing snowdrops in the January sun, or a small act of kindness. Whether you polish your small stone into a pebble or leave it as a rough-hewn chunk is up to you, but collect enough of them and you might see a theme developing or at least have some notes ready for NaPoWriMo in April.
  • Get up from your desk and get some exercise. Sometimes doing something rhythmic such as walking, riding a bike or swimming, takes you away from the pressure to write. Sitting looking at a blank screen or blank piece of paper is the worst place to look for inspiration.
  • Read. If inspiration still seems slow, pick a poem from a book and magazine and either note its themes or an image to write a new poem of your own or write a response to the poem you’ve selected.

What do you find a useful source of ideas?

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How to Submit Poems to Poetry Magazines

If one of your New Year’s Resolutions was to submit more poems to magazines (or start submitting poems to magazines), here’s how:

Check for submission guidelines

These might be on the magazine’s website or in the magazine itself. If there aren’t any guidelines, use a standard submission format (keep reading).

Select your Poems carefully

It might feel like you’re making progress as a writer if you send out several batches of poems to a list of magazines, however, if you’re sending formal poems to magazines that prefer experimental poems, you’re wasting not only your time but the editors’ too.

At least try to read a copy of the magazine you want to submit too and not only get a feel for what poems they publish, but also the style, length and any preferences for formats. Ideally you’d subscribe to a few magazines so you can keep up to date with what’s getting published.

If there are no submission guidelines, choose three to six suitable poems for submission.

Presentation Matters

You want to look professional. Any elaborate fonts, images imbedded in documents or pretty-coloured paper will mark you out as an amateur. Editors would like to read your poems so keep the presentation plain and simple and let the poems speak for themselves.

  • Use a plain white or off-white background or paper
  • Use a true-type font such as Verdana, Times New Roman or Arial
  • Type each poem on a new page (use the Ctrl and Enter function in Word)
  • Avoid typing two spaces after a full stop or period. Touch typists might have to unlearn this habit
  • Unless you use an initial capital at the beginning of each line, turn off the ‘start each sentence with a capital’ function on your word processor and double check your word processor hasn’t defaulted to copying the format of the previous line and inserted an initial or lower case capital contrary to your intention
  • If you’ve used a letter with an accent, umlaut, etc, search for ‘Character Map’ and copy and paste the required letter from there if you’re using Word because Word uses its own special characters which don’t always copy and paste into an email and may not show up properly on an editor’s screen – this is particularly important if you are copying and pasting your poems into the body of an email rather than sending in an attachment
  • Poems are generally single-spaced with a double space between stanza unless the format of the poem itself calls for a different layout
  • Put your name, address and email address on each page even if submitting electronically. Some editors may still print off your submission and pages will get separated
  • Double check and correct any spelling or typing errors
  • Save your document in the right format – most magazines will take Word Documents (use .doc extension) but check the guidelines

Covering Letter/Email

Always send a covering letter. It need not say more than, “Please find attached/below poems for consideration for publication,” but it’s better than a bunch of poems turning up in an editor’s inbox with no indication that they were a submission for their magazine. Double check you’ve got the name of the magazine and the editor(s) right before hitting send.

Including a list of publication successes is not necessary, but if you do include one, keep it brief and to the most important or most recent.

If the submission guidelines ask for a writer’s biography, keep within the guideline word count. If a word count is not given, keep your writer’s biography to a 50 maximum. Reading previous issues of a magazine will give you an idea of how long and what format you biography should be in.

If a biography is not asked for in the submission guidelines or there were no guidelines, you don’t need to include one.

Before Sending

  • Give your submission a final proof read, check you’ve got the email address, magazine name and editors’ names correct
  • Double check you’ve complied with any submission guidelines, especially note if the editor takes attachments or wants poems in the body of an email – you don’t want a rejection simply because an editor doesn’t open attachments
  • Make a note of what poems you’re sending where
  • If you’re posting your poems, enclose an SAE with sufficient postage for your submission to be returned and a big enough envelope for your submission to be folded no more than twice to fit (the editor may simply not bother replying rather than using their origami skills to let you know their response)
  • Send and good luck!

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A Poem a Day in September 2013

September was also a month for writing a poem a day, although via a closed poetry group on Facebook, unlike the international NaPoWriMo in April. I took the challenge on and have listed the titles of my poems drafted during the month below.

Do any of the titles grab attention?

01 Soar Valley Way
02 I’m tired of the colour orange
03 Stationary Transports
04 Why schedule road works for the school holidays?
05 Anniversary by an Oak
06 Querying a Birthmother’s Catechism [nothing to do with Carrie Etter’s similarly titled poem]
07 [Untitled] – this won’t be its final title, just an indication this poem is still a very rough draft and so doesn’t have a title yet
08 It’s a café window with frosted glass
09 I won’t do the interview you requested
10 I am developing an envy of the doormat
11 Sunburn on an Overcast Day
12 Things I learnt on Pinterest
13 Movements in Scarborough
14 Narrow Gauge
15 So an American singer bought a ring belonging to Jane Austen
16 Exhaust
17 She’s published her story
18 Smile, Baby
19 A Blackwork Heart in Coral
20 On hearing the theme tune to “Dallas”
21 Approaching a Second Anniversary
22 In a conservative meeting room
23 The Replacement Sofa (working title, likely to change)
24 At Scarborough Castle
25 I woke up in someone else’s life
26 The Magpies Lied
27 Ghost Dance
28 She hated talking about the old days
29 Mark Darcy had to Die
30 The Rabbit Hole, wherever I find it

Now I have a pile of poems to edit… and my blog posting schedule might become more regular.

The advantage of doing this as a closed poetry group was the opportunity to workshop the poems without the poems being considered published (and therefore not eligible for submission to poetry magazines or entry to competitions).

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Poets and Recognition through Publishing

Salt’s announcement that it’s no longer publishing single poet collections but focusing on its anthologies, came with a press quote: “There’s never been a better time for poets to write”. Note the emphasis on “to write”, not “to find an audience” or “for poetry to be read” or “for poets to find readers.”

Unfortunately, it’s true. There’s never been a better time to start writing poetry. There’s been an expansion in creating writing courses from one-off workshops to postgraduate courses in Creative Writing, an increase in mentoring programmes, arts organisations are offering conferences in how to market using social media or how to be a writer in residence (for those who can find both the funds and time to attend) and more of a poetry presence in healthcare settings as well as more poetry prizes, particularly in regional and local competitions. The writer Blake Morrison recently observed that “there are still writers who make their way without ever having gone on a creative writing course. But whereas once they were the majority, now they’re becoming the exception. That’s in part because literary agents and publishers have begun looking to creative writing programmes to find new talent.”

In its last round of funding decisions, Arts Council England scrapped annual funding for poetry presses such as Arc, Enitharmon and Flambard and made a huge increase in funding support for writer development schemes. That’s writer development schemes, not reader development schemes.

Competition for the few publishing slots there are is fierce, which in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but where are all these creative writing graduates and emergent writers going to find their audiences?

There’s a difference between writing and getting published. One doesn’t, and shouldn’t, necessarily follow the other. Writing something doesn’t entitle the writer to see that something published. Writing a poem is about creating the best poem. Publishing is about attracting a readership or selling books. It doesn’t just consider the merits of the poems themselves, but also whether the poet can do publicity and do so without any support from a publisher with a zero marketing budget. It doesn’t help that poetry review outlets are diminishing as well: those that are left receiving far more poetry books, pamphlets and magazines than they can review.

So if poets need a form of recognition other than getting published, what form should that recognition take?

Not all poets are natural performers or teachers. Not earning money from poetry means earning money elsewhere which means less time writing and editing poems. For those that say poetry is a vocation, do it as a hobby without the expectation of earnings: fine, just don’t expect very good poems to result. Brilliant writing doesn’t happen overnight, if poets can’t find time to practise, they can’t improve. If you spend eight hours a day in a job to pay the bills, eight hours sleeping plus time on family and other commitments, time on the administration side of being a poet (accounting, sending out poems to editors, dealing with editors’ responses, etc) that doesn’t leave much time to actually write, practise and improve.

Not all writers will want to undertake a postgraduate creative writing course either, whether through lack of time, lack of funds or knowing that an academic course isn’t the best way of learning for them. What about those exceptions, now a minority, who made their way as poets without attending a creative writing course? The merry-go-round of attending a course and earning by teaching and/or performing doesn’t leave much time to write let alone develop a readership. Poets need readers and, if established poetry presses can’t find readers, how will individual poets?

Currently a single poet collection will sell less than a thousand copies. Bricks-and-mortar shops rarely stock single author collections beyond the bigger names from larger publishers. Book sellers, suspicious of vanity and self-published books, are very reluctant to even take books by local poets. Online ordering is relatively easy, but wholly reliant on the buyer knowing the book exists. It’s very difficult for a casual browser to discover a poetry book.

Salt’s decision is not surprising and it should act as a wake-up call to those who think developing writers without developing a readership is a good thing.

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Who do you write for?

Do you write for yourself or for readers?

Purely in terms of writing, there’s nothing wrong with either approach. When considering publishing the piece of writing you’ve been working on, there’s a big difference. Two things have prompted me to think about this question recently. Firstly writing thirty draft poems during April. Secondly a long comment made on one of my reviews.

To comply with NaPoWriMo’s target of 30 draft poems in 30 days, the focus has been solely on getting a draft written free of concerns about whether the result, after editing, would be publishable or not. The task now is a sifting through of these drafts and deciding which ones do offer a reader something and which are more personal and not worth trying to get published.

In the comment on my review, the writer explained what she was trying to achieve with her poems and wrote about what she was doing and why she’d chosen the approach she’d taken. What puzzled me was that I stopped reading her comment part-way through and had to go back and read it again to try and understand why I found it difficult to read.

It wasn’t the writing, the style or the vocabulary she used: it was the focus.

Writers talking about their own writing often do sound pretentious or precious. All artists do, simply because the finished piece has to stand on its own merit. To an audience it doesn’t matter if you dashed off a poem in ten minutes or spent months agonising about the comma in line three. What matters to them is whether the poem’s any good. Talking about how you wrote your poem is irrelevant and doesn’t act as a guide to whether it’s any good. The method might be interesting to other writer or to someone who wants to learn to write, but to a reader it’s meaningless. Some writers will happily talk about their methods, but most know that such a conversation isn’t going to add anything to the finished poem so they find it awkward.

This was why I had to read the comment on my review again. I’d switched off because it was all about the writer, what she’d tried to achieve and how she’d tried to achieve it. Not once did she mention the reader or give any indication that a reader might be involved in her work. I’d stopped reading because I’d felt excluded.

Once a piece of work is published, readers are definitely involved. Readers are individuals with their own emotional baggage, their own ideas and their own responses to what they are reading. If your poem mentions a swan, some will see a swan on a lake, some will see images from the ballet Swan Lake, some might think of Leda’s story, some might think of Proust and at least one will remember the time they were attacked and chased because they got too close to a nest. Whatever it was your swan was to represent, it needs you to communicate that so your reader is guided towards your intentions because if you don’t, the person remembering being attacked is not thinking about a swan’s grace and about to think your poem’s failed. It takes a writer’s skill to guide and communicate to a reader.

When I look through my NaPoWriMo drafts, I won’t just be looking for poems that are technically competent or that carry an important message, but for poems that can reach out and draw a reader in. They’ll be the ones I’ll be working on to bring up to a publishable standard. I know before I look that there are three that are only written for me. They will be edited, but they won’t be published. I’m the sole reader; they won’t appeal to a wider audience so I won’t seek to get them a wider audience.

That’s the difference. There’s nothing wrong with writing for yourself, but if you aren’t writing for readers, there’s little point in trying to publish that work. When seeking to get work published and reviewed, you need to ask who you’re writing for and whether your writing involves readers.

Most writers start by writing for themselves whether that’s the book they wanted to read or because a poem won’t leave them alone. But when the editing process begins, that’s when most writers start looking at markets and readers and begin looking at what they’ve written with a readership in mind.

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Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel”

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

This year the 11 February saw both the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Bell Jar” and the 50th anniversary of the death of its author, Sylvia Plath. Whilst her death was undeniably tragic, I can’t see Sylvia Plath’s life as one of tragedy. In my review of the film “Sylvia” I argued that her life was not foreshadowed by her death. Even “Ariel”, the collection she was working on just before her death, contains moments of joy. The first poem, “Morning Song” ends, “Your handful of notes/ The clear vowels rise like balloons.”

I was introduced to Sylvia Plath’s work by a Ted Hughes poem, “You hated Spain”. School taught me that men wrote poems about war. Either women didn’t write poems or women’s poems weren’t worth studying. I didn’t believe either option. When I read “You hated Spain”, I wanted to find out more about this woman whose poems were yet to be written. I started with “Ariel” and worked backwards. Finally: proof that not only could a woman write poetry but also that she was worth studying.

I don’t believe you either have to be “pro Sylvia” or “pro Ted”, I enjoy poetry by both poets and don’t blame Ted Hughes for Sylvia Plath’s death. She’d left the manuscript for her “Ariel” poems carefully organised so the first poem started with the word “love” and the last ended on “Spring”.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Ted Hughes faced a difficult task. Unable to see into the future and predict if there would be enough demand for him to be able to persuade a publisher to publish any further posthumous books by his late, estranged wife, did he alter her manuscript to include her most recent poems or did he go with her original order and risk the most recent poems being left unpublished? With hindsight, it’s easy to say he should have left her manuscript alone. But now both versions are in print: Ted Hughes’s arrangement and Sylvia Plath’s original. Readers can make their own minds up.

In this 50th anniversary year, I’d strongly recommend readers do read the original Sylvia Plath. It’s what I’ll be doing.

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