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.
Tried and tested methods:
- Press releases – remember ‘writer writes book’ is not news, find an angle and make it newsworthy
- Book launch
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
By Emma Lee