First, let me acknowledge that poetry is a time-honored craft that has always appealed to the counterculture. It has never been a mainstream genre like fiction, and probably never will. We write for ourselves, and we’re happy if anyone comes to our readings, buys our books, or recites a line from one of our poems. By nature, poetry is a not-for-profit enterprise. I get all of that.
Let me also acknowledge that I work for a top business school in its marketing department. I’m a marketer with an entrepreneurial streak. Poetry is my passion, yet I spend my free time trying to reconcile these two seemingly opposite sides of my brain: art and commerce.
We live in an age where anything and everything is marketable. It bugs me when people say that poetry cannot or should not be marketed. Why not? My goal is to find the widest distribution for my work. Fortunately, there are many more ways that people are finding and reading poetry because books and print journal are no longer the only delivery system for poetry. We have the Internet, which allows readers to tap into blogs, zines, and podcasts globally, not to mention online writing communities and social networks such as Facebook, My Space, and Twitter (to name a few).
If we concede that the delivery systems for receiving poetry are expanding, then the poetry community needs to respond proactively with new and innovative ways to reach a wider audience. I believe this is happening in pockets, but not as a whole. Has there ever been a successful marketing campaign in poetry? And what is considered successful these days?
I’m sure most of you know the “Got Milk” marketing campaign. Brilliant! Who knew milk needed to be marketed? I’m sure much research went into figuring out how to make milk a sellable product. Poetry is not milk, but I’m convinced that even a marginal increase would increase sales and page views, and create a positive ripple effect throughout the literary community.
I never begrudge a poet for finding success. Much has been said about Billy Collins and Mary Oliver being too accessible. But are we confusing accessibility with being popular? Let’s not forget that they are very good poets, working hard on their craft. But I would never resent Billy Collins for making an appearance on NPR, or Robert Pinsky appearing on Stephen Colbert’s show, The Colbert Report, because viewers want to hear poetry. Same with Matthew and Michael Dickman. I cheer their successes. Now, are they marketing themselves or taking advantage of opportunities to find a readership beyond the traditional, somewhat academic, poetry audience? Rising tides raise all boats. If someone reads an Oliver poem, then there’s a chance that reader might find poems by other contemporary poets. Those are the readers I think poets should target.
What’s troubling is the lack of information about who buys our poetry books. Publishers know a lot about fiction readers, or romance novel devotees, or readers of cookbooks, for instance. Conversely, it’s difficult to find information on the poetry market. I’m sure it exists, but the publishers aren’t sharing it. The NEA report Reading on the Rise only scratches the surface on this market, but the report was not written with the goal of increasing poetry readership. We can all build our own profile on who the typical poetry book buyer might be, but it’s all antidotal.
If the poetry community had a better handle on its target audience, poets and publishers could market their books with more confidence and certainty. Publishers could set better, more profitable price points. Poets would know where the reader finds out about new poets or poetry readings. And the community, as a whole, would benefit from the creation of new and different ways of reaching a wider, more diverse readership.
We need our own “Got Poetry” campaign.