On the WomPo Listserv, there’s a discussion going around about who is buying poetry books. With some exceptions, including poet-instructors ordering collections for their courses, it seems to be the general consensus is that it’s not poets buying the books.
According to Publishers Weekly, bookstore sales fell 2.6 percent in April, to $969 million. I wonder is poetry sales even count for a full percentage point. And I doubt these figures take into account indie bookstores.
I suppose poetry has longer shelf lives than most other genres, especially for dead poets. That’s certainly true at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, and if you visit to your local Barnes & Noble, peruse the selections by the usual suspects: Whitman, Angelou, Plath, Ginsburg, Eliot, etc. But modern poetry? Who buys these books?
Personally, I try to support as many poets as possible, including a few of you in the blogosphere. My guess is that I have about 150+ poetry books, which includes collections, anthologies, and journals—you may have more. Seems silly to count them. I try to pass on as many books as gifts. And when I do, I consider the recipient and try to find something that will match their sensibilities. We all give these books in times of joy and loss, for celebration and comfort. It’s like a contract between the poet and reader, as if to say, “Here dear reader, I hope my work touches some part of you. Maybe I understand a little of what you’re going through. Be well.”
It’s our family and friends who buy our first collections when they are published. They make up our poetry network. I doubt a modern poetry book will ever appear on the New York Times Best Sellers List, or be the book of the month on Oprah’s Book Club. But we need to keep reaching out, buying books to help save an industry that seems to be either slowing dying or undergoing a transformation. Because with print-on-demand, a book’s shelf life becomes irrelevant if there is no shelf.