The Marketing of Poetry

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.


Collin Kelley said…
January, this is fantastic post. I'm so glad to hear a poet say they aren't afraid to market their work to the masses. I've been accused of being an aggressive self-promotor of my own work, but if you want anyone else to read it, that's what it takes.

There are so many poets who recoil and find it beneath them to do anything to put their work before a larger audience. You either adapt to the technology, take the opportunities presented by the Internet or you sit back and get all bitter about why no one is reading your work.

"Got Poetry"!!!! Love it. Where do I sign up?
January said…
Thanks Collin! You're one of the few poets I know who is taking advantage of what's out there.

I think there's a way to market our work without being overtly self-promoting. No matter how much promotion we do, the work has to stand on it's one. But there's no reason why we shouldn't try to reach as many readers as possible.

So maybe a future post should be about what poets are doing to take advantage of new media.
January, I'm glad you came back to this issue with some new information and some more thoughts. I think back to Edna St. Vincent Millay and her trips across the country doing readings to huge crowds and wonder where poetry has lost all the popular appeal it once so apparently enjoyed.

On the subject of self-promotion, I definitely agree with both you and Collin on this issue. Additionally, I think we must also jump on each other's bandwagon, so to speak and relentlessly promote other people's poetry that we find important to us as well.

If you look at the difference between the indie and the large publishing house, you immediately see that the latter focuses on a small number of writers and promotes them professionally. Please don’t mistake me for thinking badly of indies, I publish all of my writing there currently and am extremely grateful for their existence. What I am trying to illustrate is that about half the reading public goes to a handful of large houses and the other half goes to a group of indies that is only slightly less numerous than the readership it serves. Among the indies, the promotion ranges from none to rather professional and they don’t repeat-print works (first timers only, please) although that is beginning to change. The net result is a very diffuse and huge group of near nameless poets for whom little or inconsistent promotion is generally applied and for whom the per capita sales of each author are rather small. When compared with the big houses, we can see how effective is their concentration on a small number of name-recognition level writers and strong promotional support for each of those names.

Still, the interest in those names doesn’t seem to approach the level of popularity of Millay, Frost, and a handful like them. It seems to me that something has happened to the perception of poets as interesting, odd, exciting people worthy of, perhaps for lack of a better word, gossiping about. I guess poetry now is about ordinary, if slightly eccentric, people living ordinary lives and legendary figures of immense popular appeal are not to be found in this group anymore. Maybe I’m just trying to take a poke at a windmill here as I really can’t seem to put my finger on why poetry has slipped out of the popular view. If it was just about professional marketing, wouldn’t the big houses already be so successful that the indie market would never have even been able to assert itself? I’m obviously missing something here and would be deeply indebted if someone would be so kind as to point it out.

I hope others will have something to say about this topic and so I’m going to post it to my blog and refer them to yours where this all started. Thanks again January for continuing your discussion of this important issue.
Edna was a rockstar. She had paparazzi.

And while I can't imagine that happening today, unless the authors of the world had their own reality show, I do think part of your job as a poet is getting your work out there through books, reading, submissions, etc.

No matter what you are selling, no one likes what they call a "shameless self-promoter" (and I'm not considering Collin this, as far as I can see, he's just letting people know his book is available and out there), but it's the people you're talking to who look for any pause in the conversation to mention their product.

There is a difference between marketing your book and being annoying. But it's that way with any product. Have you ever been watching a show or listening to the radio and the person keeps repeating his web-address or saying the title of his book way too many times. People get turned off.

But to let people know your work is available if they want it, that's different. To be available and open to talk about your work, not throwing it in people's faces.

I think when people hear "marketing" they think "sell out" and I think there's a difference. If a press chooses to publish my book, I'm going to do everything in my power (that's not annoying to others) to help it succeed because they supported me as an artist, I want to support them.

Great post. I don't think poetry needs to be some sacred text only a few read in their basement, I think a lot of people are missing out on some fine work and I'd love to see more people reading poetry and am not sure how that would be a bad thing.
January said…
So many good points to respond to in your post.

Ever since television became affordable, I think reading in general has declined steadily during the last 60 years. And since poetry has always had a reputation as being difficult to understand, it has languished in the high school curriculum. If half of the teachers in the U.S. taught the poem they enjoyed, whether they were from The Canon or not, students would develop more of an appreciation for verse.

And yet, low-residency programs for creative writers are on the rise. Now this I don’t understand.

Even with the number of poets publishing on the Web, reading in coffee houses, and self publishing, I can’t believe that poetry is on the decline. I find it harder to believe that in a country of 300 million people, there isn’t enough poetry for everyone. In other words, I think most poets have a fair shot of their audience.

So if one-half of all poetry book buyers purchase their books from indie publishers, how can we speak to this audience? The best efforts are sometimes grassroots, and this is what I hope to address in future posts.

I believe people are looking for ways to connect. The economy has all made us look at what’s real in our lives. Poetry provides a context for the unexplainable, the unimaginable, and the unfathomable.

Honestly, I think there’s no better time to seek out poetry readers. In a sense, we have their attention. What are we going to do with it?
January said…
Oooh. I was responding to Russell. Next I'll respond to Kelli!
January said…
"There is a difference between marketing your book and being annoying."

Absolutely, Kelli. I agree 100 percent. A poet has to be smart about his/her "brand." (Yes, a poet is also brand.) We have to be conscious about how we reach the market, and we should track how our efforts are received so we know how to do better next time.

But I wonder, are there any real poetry sellouts? There are no household poetry names beyond the poetry community in this day and age. Until we hit that point of saturation, I'm not even concerned about too much self promotion.

I think many of us are at a point where we need to test how much is too much self promotion.

Radio and TV are not the best modes of communication for poetry. But we need to tap into our own communities and speak directly to them. We need to grow our personal networks so they will go out and recommend our books or our readings to other folks. These are the people who will go out and spread the word for us.

For me, the goal is reaching as many people possible. It's not about getting famous or making money. And, in the end, I think we all benefit if one of us has that success.
Jeannine said…
This article talks about this same subject:

But I agree that poets should be at least trying to reach more people, not just with their own writing but with poetry in general. I think people would like poetry if they ever read anything written in, say, the last fifty years. But the distribution system of poetry books is really small and narrow and the same is true for poetry journals. The internet offers opportunities - but I don't think poetry publishers are taking full advantage of them yet. Are poets? Blogs, facebook, etc - they make it easier for people to get in touch with you if they like something you've written (which is nice) but I think it's a tricky thing to use them as marketing tools.
January said…
Great article Jeannine. Thanks for the link!

I don't think poets are taking advantage of what's out there. I'm not even talking about the technophobes, or those who wouldn't touch a computer if their lives depended on it. But for those who are willing, there's certainly an opportunity to widen their circles and reach a larger audience.

And I think we (those of us who have started using new media) can be the ones blazing the trail. The more successful our efforts become, the more open poets and publishers will be to trying new approaches. At least that’s my hope.
Lauren said…
First of all, beautiful name :)

This post was very thoughtfully written, and it certainly gave me a bit to think about.

"What is the target audience for poetry?"

January said…
The practical answer for the target audience is anyone other poets and writers, as well as active members of libraries and book clubs—avid readers. There are also niche groups depending upon industry verticals and demographics: from moms to techies.

But the impractical answer is anyone who has been moved by something but has never been able to find the right words. It’s anyone who has cried at a birth or a funeral. Anyone who has folded a shirt fresh from the laundry, mopped a floor, played a sport, or held a sick child.

In order for poetry to compete with all the noise out there, we have to expand the concept of target audience.

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