Who Buys Poetry Books?

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.


Collin Kelley said…
WomPo is being a bit presumptuous it seems. I regularly buy books of poetry -- actually more than any other type of book. My cash flow has been light lately, but I've got several books I want to order in the coming weeks.
Jill said…
I agree with Collin! This week, I bought 8 poetry books (dang internet...). And I have stacks and stacks of fiction, most of which languish while I continue to buy poetry!
January said…
Agreed, but I think we may be exceptions to the rule.

I do know a few poets who choose to check out books from the library as opposed to buying them. They rarely buy books at a poetry reading, and they choose to download poems instead of purchasing collections. Maybe it's a question of economics over the desire to support other poets that drives their decisions.

I just enjoy reading too much not to have a steady stream of poetry books in the mail.
Anonymous said…
There must be something in the air – I've been posting on this subject lately, triggered by Salt's "Just One Book" campaign.

Regarding people getting books out of the library, rather than buying – I'm lucky enough to live in a city with a fantastic library service. In a country as small as New Zealand, public libraries can be an essential source of income for small press publishers. But the libraries will only buy new poetry for as long as borrowers come in asking for it. So I say go for it! If you're passing by a public library, go in and get a poetry book! Ask for anything you're interested in that they don't have – show that poetry's audience may be poverty-stricken, but passionate. And if a small percentage of those borrowers go on to buy their own copies, all the better!
Jeannine said…
Yes, even though I get a lot of poetry books as review copies, I still buy a lot of poetry books - a couple a month, I would say. Plus, I order individual books of poetry for my poetry classes, not anthologies.
Go to Open Books in Seattle sometime - there are always people in there perusing the latest and greatest books by real, gasp, living poets! If there were more such outlets for contemporary poetry shopping, there would probably be more book buying...it's nice to peruse a book before buying.
Unknown said…
I try to "buy the book" at every reading I attend. What I can't use or don't want to keep, I donate to local high schools or give to poet friends. I know a few poets locally who have stacks of poetry books all over their house. Maybe we're not the norm here in Richmond, Virginia.
Anonymous said…
I probably bought around 10 last year. I ordered most things online.

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