2010 Poet's Market, the bible of poets looking for journals to submit to. As in previous issues, this edition begins with a number of useful, practical articles. Mine is entitled "Finding Readers: How to Get Your Poetry into Their Hands." I wish the editor had not removed the word "Book" after "Poetry" as getting your book out into the world is the focus of my article, not simply getting your poetry out. Oh well, not major.
About this time last year I saw editor Robert Lee Brewer's call for proposals for articles for the next edition. I had an idea floating around in my head so I wrote it up and sent it in. Much to my delight, Robert accepted it. I was given a word limit and sent a contract. Money would cross hands! (I hate to sound avaricious, but it's really nice to be paid for one's writing work.)
My proposal included compiling a list of small presses, ones that published no more than a dozen poetry books per year, that were selective, that accepted manuscripts outside of contests, and that produced good-looking books. These included my own publisher, Wind Publications, plus Pecan Grove Press, CavanKerry Press, Steel Toe Books, Ahsahta Books, The Backwaters Press, and Mayapple Press.
I contacted each publisher and asked them to send me names and email information for two of their poets who had had success selling a goodly number of books. I asked what they did to promote the books they published. And I also asked each editor what advice they would give poets about increasing their readership for their own books. (I should mention that while I ended with seven publishers I initially contacted nine. Two did not bother to reply which told me a lot about how hard those publishers work for their poets!)
I then contacted two poets from each press. Surprisingly, a few did not reply. Who passes up an opportunity to get one's name and book title into an article? Apparently, some poets. But the responses I received from most of the poets were very useful. I asked them just three questions, all focused on what they did to help promote their own books.
The premise behind the article is that if you have a book with a small press and you want the book to be successful then you are going to have to work hard on behalf of your book. You cannot expect your publisher to do all the work. He doesn't have the money to do a big ad campaign—the consensus was that ads do not sell poetry books—and he works with a small staff and may, in fact, be himself the entire staff. If you're not willing to put in some labor, then please don't complain when your book sits on the shelf.
I received some excellent responses from the poets. I then compiled those responses and organized them into three sections: 1) Spreading the Word, 2) Lining Up Readings, and 3) Using the Internet. In this last section, if I were writing the article now, I'd have to add Twitter and new sites like She Writes and ReadWritePoem.
I was surprised that a few poets said one of their best strategies for getting their books into the hands of readers was to give away the books. That's nice, but it wasn't what I had in mind. Why should poets give away their work? Haven't they worked hard and long on it? I think we devalue our work when we just give it away or trade it away. However, my final piece of advice to poets with books was and is this: "Promoting your book is the business of poetry, but don't expect to make money."
Do expect, though, to work hard on behalf of the work that has taken you years to produce. Your book deserves your best effort. So does your publisher. And all those potential readers. I hope my article will offer some useful ideas for poets with books burning to get into the hands of readers.