A Harsh Truth About Poetry Publishing…
When I started The Scrambler in 2003, it was originally a zine that I handmade in my living room. I did the first 5 issues that way and printed up about 100 copies each. I went around to some bookstores and dropped some off and said they were free and then I sent some out to my friends and family—many of whom didn’t really know what to make of it, but there it was. In 2005 I purchased my domain name and it just sat there empty for a year or so. I crudely made and put up a website and started to put up new content on it. It evolved as these types of things tend to do.
In 2008, I decided that I wanted to start publishing full length poetry books.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I sent emails to a few small press publishers that I followed, one of them being Reb Livingston of No Tell Motel and No Tell Books. I had already known her a little because I had interviewed her for The Scrambler. She responded immediately and was more than gracious with her time and advice. She helped me out by sending me practical things like a sample author contract that she used for No Tell, but also being honest with me about how much work and fun running a press would be. Since then, she has always supported Scrambler and been more than happy to help out when needed. Today’s beat is dedicated to her and the below quotes are from a blogpost that she wrote in response to the whole BlazeVox controversy a few years back. I think most of the quotes below still resonate with today’s independent small press community, especially people that are just starting out. I am glad that I had someone tell me these types of things before I started, it not only educated me but also helped to ground my expectations with some facts (which was definitely needed).
Publishing poetry is a thankless job. What begins as a labor of love can often sour rather quickly. Despite technological advances, such as print-on-demand, publishing books still cost money, supporting and promoting books, even creatively and with a shoe-string budget, costs money. Very few people, including poets looking to be published, buy many poetry books. If I sold anywhere near the number of books that I receive as submissions, No Tell Books would be making a small profit. No Tell Books is not making a small profit.
I do a lot of things knowing I am losing money because I believe it’s important to promote the books I publish. I also believe it’s important to educate people on diy-publishing and poetry. But it’s draining, really draining… Often I’ll travel to give readings at independent reading series. These are almost always on my own dime, but I go because they often bring big crowds. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ll read to a full room of 50-100 grad students, the girls in their pretty leather boots, the boys with their fancy scarves, all enjoying pricey cocktails and nobody will buy a single book afterward. But many want to know when is my next reading period.
These are some of the things that she shared with me at the beginning of my book publishing with Scrambler. But the fact that poetry books do not sell many copies may have been the most important:
No Tell Books’ best selling title broke even after three years and is now earning a very modest profit. This is by an author whose work has appeared in places like Poetry and Best American Poetry. This title has been taught at universities. How many copies does one have to sell to be the best selling title at No Tell Books after four years? 228. That is not a typo. This number doesn’t include what the author has sold herself, probably around 200 copies on her own. But the press doesn’t earn money on those sales.
So if that’s a best seller, what’s a flop? 74 sales after five years (again, this number doesn’t include what the author sold on his own, which was maybe 50 or so). (UPDATE: Gatza states, “In general, books by new authors sell around 25 – 30 copies.” Shocking? Only if you don’t know the first thing about poetry publishing.)
This is the reality of poetry publishing. There are certainly presses that sell more copies. A poetry title reviewed in The New York Times can sell 2-4k copies, it is true. But small, independent presses, those small shops, usually run by one or a few people, rarely see those kinds of sales. University presses, for the most part, don’t see those kinds of numbers for poetry. I attended a panel by the publisher of Grove/Atlantic and he said his press’ poetry sales was around 800 per title. They publish “big-name” poets, their books are often shelved by chain bookstores, they have good distribution, a strong reputation . . . and that’s what they sell. Publishing poetry is their charity–their poetry titles are subsidized by their fiction and non-fiction sales.
It is a harsh truth about poetry publishing, but not one that most unpublished poets know. Scrambler Books has published 16 poetry books out of a total of 19 published books since 2008. Some have sold well, others not so much. And that does not necessarily define them as successful. Each one I wanted to publish because there was something about the manuscript that I wanted to share with other readers. I have enjoyed working on all of the books Scrambler has published and each has been a unique, rewarding experience. This beat is not meant to discourage anyone. Rather, I hope it continues to add to the ongoing conversation about poetry publishing that places like Real Pants and Enclave/Entropy and Queen’s Mob Teahouse are having. And the new innovative ways that poetry publishers today are taking chances and currently selling books can and will only help with sales and getting poetry to more readers.