My debut full-length poetry collection, Solving the World's Problems, was released by Press 53 last September. I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what has happened since then and share any lessons I've learned during my first year as the author of poetry collection. (Click here to check out my 8-part series on getting it published last year.)
One thing I learned right away is that the most common question someone asks you when you've published a book: "How many books have you sold?" Or, "How are your books selling?" And I quickly learned to answer in this way, "It's doing pretty well...for poetry."
I have sold quite a few books personally. I've received my first royalty check from my publisher. Neither are going to pay my mortgage, but there's a great joy in being compensated for something I would be doing anyway for free: that is, writing poems.
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However, I work in the publishing business, so I know relative book sales, and I can tell you that sales are usually not spectacular for debut authors in any genre--but they're especially lean for poets. So it's the first question often asked, but I prefer to get past talking numbers.
Numbers aside, I learned quite a few lessons about selling poetry books. The first thing is handling how to get the word out about the book. In some ways, I have a very good platform for a poet.
I have a lot of followers on social media sites, edit the Poet's Market book, write a poetry column for Writer's Digest magazine, and well, there's this Poetic Asides blog too. All of that helped, but not as much as one (namely me) might expect.
Here's how I achieved the most sales:
- E-mail list. I've long maintained a personal e-mail list of writing contacts, and this list has helped me sell out two limited edition self-published chapbooks in the past and get a good jump start on pre-order sales for this book. If you're one of those folks, thank you!
- Remix challenge. I made quite a few sales directly as a result of a little challenge I created for readers and writers: the Remixing the World's Problems challenge. I challenged writers/readers to remix the words in my collection, and I'll be announcing a winner for the best remix on October 15--with that winner receiving $500 from me.
- Live events. Beyond e-mail and challenges, live events really helped me sell books. While I was featured at some larger events like the Kentucky Book Fair and Austin International Poetry Festival (making sales at both), the most profitable events were usually the more intimate ones in which I was one of two or three featured readers.
Lesson learned: A little creativity in promotion can work wonders, but also a more intimate approach. Look for local and regional reading series and see if you can be a featured reader. As a published author, you have an added level of authority.
There are a few (obvious) opportunities that I missed as a debut author that I don't plan to let slip by again with the next book. They are:
- Book launch party. I really didn't know how to handle this a year ago. And really, I didn't put aside the time and resources to make it happen. Big time missed opportunity to bring friends and family together to help get it off to a good start.
- Author contests. I did enter the Pulitzer contest knowing full well that I had next to no shot of winning, but I did not take advantage of entering several other book contests, including the Georgia Writers Association (as a Georgia resident), Ohioana Book Prizes (where I was born and raised), or others. Not saying I would've won those, but I'll never know now--and I surely had a better chance than with the Pulitzer, right? Don't discount the power of winning a reputable contest.
- More live events. I have been to plenty of live events over the past year to promote the book, but I think I could've done more. And as I mentioned above, these are great places to sell books and connect with new readers.
Here's the thing: No matter how prepared you think you are there will be missed opportunities. Don't beat yourself up about them. Rather, pay attention and try to do a better job next time. I'm sure I'll have a whole new list of missed opportunities with the second book. As with writing, selling books is a process.
What Am I Up To Now?
Most importantly, I'm writing. The work of a creative person is to create. It's not to write a poem and call it a day. Or write a book and call it a day. Or two books. Or three. Creative people create, and that's what I'm doing for the sake of creating.
These creative acts are important for other reasons too. For starters, I've had a few new poems published online here and there over the past year, and nearly every new publication has coincided with a few new book purchases on Amazon. I'm not able to track it directly, but I'm pretty sure each new publication leads to more books selling.
Plus, I know from other genres that authors tend to build book sales over time by writing more books. Someone reads and enjoys your new book and then hunts down your older title(s). This isn't selling out; it's building a readership.
The entire enterprise of being a creative person, regardless of medium, is a process. After more than two decades of writing poetry and one year as an author, I'm enjoying the process more than ever and focusing on the art and the craft...and hoping it doesn't take another 20 years to get my next collection together.
Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of the poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He edits Poet’s Market, Writer’s Market, and Guide to Self-Publishing, in addition to writing a free weekly WritersMarket.com newsletter and poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine.
He honestly believes writing has done more than he's done for writing. Before and beyond getting published, poetry has helped him deal with the real problems in his life. Material things come and go, but sanity is priceless--and poetry has helped him in that regard time and time again.
Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.