In this episode of the Self-Publishing Poetry Podcast, we will answer ALLi members’ most pressing questions about the art and craft of self-publishing poetry books. Trish Hopkinson is a poet and literary arts advocate, Orna Ross is a poet and director of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
Trish Hopkinson is a poet, blogger, and advocate for the literary arts from Utah, USA, where she runs the regional poetry group Rock Canyon Poets and folds poems to fill Poemball machines for Provo Poetry. Her poetry has been published in numerous literary journals, online and off, including Tinderbox, Glass Poetry Press, and The Penn Review, and her most recent e-chapbook Almost Famous was published by Yavanika Press in 2019 and is free to download here.
You can find her online at trishhopkinson.com.
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About the Host
Orna’s work for ALLi has seen her repeatedly named one of The Bookseller’s “Top 100 people in publishing.” She launched at the 2012 London Book Fair, after taking her rights back from Penguin in 2011 and republishing her books herself, with the titles and treatment she’d originally wanted. Orna writes award-winning poetry and fiction, runs a Patreon page for poets and poetry lovers as well as an active author website. She is on a mission to help eradicate creative poverty through digital publishing and enterprise. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram: @ornaross.
Read the Transcript: Self-Publishing Poetry Books
Orna Ross: Hello there. Welcome to the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Self-Publishing Advice podcast. It is that week of the month where we look at self-publishing poetry, and I’m here with Ms. Poetry herself, Trish Hopkinson. Hi, Trish.
Trish Hopkinson: Hi, Orna. Happy to be back.
Orna Ross: It’s great to have you here again, and while we have you, we are running a special today, a special member question and answer session for poets.
So, we regularly do a Member Q&A at ALLi. I know you have your ask me anything on your poetry website, but we don’t, at ALLi often focus on questions- wise, specifically around poetry. So poets, this is your chance. If you’re thinking of publishing a poetry chapbook or book collection of any kind, if you have any ideas about that, if you even think it’s something you might like to do some time, this is your chance to ask questions.
So, if you are present on the call, do hop into the chat and let us know that you’re here and where you are zooming in from, and if you have questions there, if you want to leave them in the chat box, we will try to get to those. We did put out a call, however, and we have some questions already lined up, so we’ll do those first. But if we have time, we’ll certainly get to your live questions as well.
Does anybody even buy poetry, anyway?
Orna Ross: So yeah, I think we’ll start with this one, which is, does anybody buy poetry, anyway?
One of our members who has published, has put together, I think, a couple of chapbooks and a collection and it isn’t selling, and she’s asking the question, does poetry sell?
So, what do you think?
Trish Hopkinson: Well, I think it certainly has re-emerged, it’s definitely a really great time for poetry. I know that Amanda Gorman’s books have sold out and they’re doing millions of other copies, reprints, and I think that’s going to help elevate poetry in general. We love to see any poet be successful.
Certainly having a poet at the super bowl was awesome, at the inauguration, other things to help elevate poetry. But, yes, poetry, just like any other business, or any kind of book sales, it takes some effort to market and often poetry publishers don’t have the budgets that other publishers might have for fiction or nonfiction.
So, a lot more of that pressure is on the poet themselves to self-market and be able to get the word out and, prior to the pandemic, one of the best ways to do that was really to go do readings and have the opportunity to sell and sign books through reading tours, whether they were just local or within your geographic area, or if they were expanded, depending on if you did. Some publishers do have some budgets for poetry tours, but when you’re self-publishing, even more of the onus is on you to potentially make sure that you get the word out there to folks.
So, yes. I mean, it does sell, it does sell. Does it sell like some of the other mainstream fiction authors? Not likely. Certainly there are some poets who do really well for themselves in the mainstream market, but we do have to work a little bit harder. And we do support each other a lot, but it isn’t just poets who read poetry, I think that certainly is a myth. While a lot of us, a lot of the poets, do enjoy reading poetry and do purchase poetry books, there is certainly a market out there of non-poets, other literary folks, who just love poetry, who do want to purchase it, and it’s a matter of really getting the word out there. So, it can be challenging, especially so during the pandemic.
Orna Ross: Yes, I am so glad you said that about, that myth that’s there, that only poets read poetry, it’s so, so, so not true. I have had my eyes opened around poetry since getting involved with self-publishing because it does change things a bit, in the sense that I think self-publishing poets have been much faster to get on board digital publishing and the possibilities of marketing online as opposed to live. So, it is more than possible, and we are seeing some self-published poets who are selling, not just in their hundreds of thousands, but shifting millions of copies, which is absolutely a new phenomenon. And it’s new only for one reason, not that there are more people reading poetry necessarily than there were before, though there might be, I think.
Trish Hopkinson: I’m pretty sure there are, at this point, post-pandemic, post-administration changes in the US, some other things. Certainly we’ve had a resurgence, maybe, of people turning to poetry.
Orna Ross: Yeah, and Catherine actually has just left a comment to say, she also is saying that poetry is having a Renaissance right now. And I think, hard times, poetry always surges, but what really makes a difference, I think, with digital publishing is that you go from having your local territory, you know, an indie poetry publisher working in their own country, even if that country is the United States and has got millions of people, trying to reach poetry readers in traditional ways, poetry, as you say, was much more a live, intimate, room-based experience, and it’s hard to scale.
You cannot scale that, but when you have the whole world and all the people who like to read poetry now become your potential audience. You’re not reaching all of them, of course, but the potential is there. Then, if you know what you’re doing, you can actually, step-by-step, build your audience and we’re definitely seeing that happening.
And the other thing you said that I was so interested in was, if you’re published by an indie press or even, you know, one of the big poetry publishers, you are still going to have to do the lion’s share of reaching the readers, kind of, marketing. So, they will do, maybe, if you’re lucky and there’s some budget there, they may do a traditional media campaign for you or a local reading or a launch you know, some kind of connection with bookstores or something, they may do something like that for you. But the day-to-day, establishing your poetry platform, letting people know what you’re about, your website, all of that, and your social media accounts, they will all be in your doing and really that’s the hardest bit. So, if you can do all that yourself, it does kind of beg the question as to why you would then give all your rights away and get, you know, less than 10% of the actual income from your book, when you could publish it yourself and get, if you sell on your own website, almost 95% or more, or through the self-publishing platforms, up to 70%. So, these are real questions that poets are now considering, I think for the first time, and the pandemic has helped us get more poetry readers online, more poets publishing online.
So, short answer, that was two long answers from Trisha me to your question, but short answer from both of us, I think, is a big yes.
Trish Hopkinson: Yes, absolutely.
Should I self-publish my poetry?
Orna Ross: Great. So, I’ve touched off my take on the next question, which is, am I better to get a publisher or to publish the work myself?
I’ll just add to what I just said there a moment ago to say that it doesn’t need to be either/or, it can be both. And we are seeing lots of people doing both, but if you’re somebody who has huge experience with the literary journals and what I will call the traditional poetry market, what do you think? Is somebody better off to do it one way or the other?
Trish Hopkinson: I think it really depends on your personal goals. Certainly, one aspect of publishing with a traditional poetry press or independent press, which a lot of them are, or with a university press is you may have additional connections or ways that that book might be taught in a poetry class, which is one way to really elevate book sales.
So, you may have a better connection there with, say, academia, if you’re publishing with a traditional press, and that is one way that you can get more book sales. But then again, it sort of just depends on, do you know some of those professors or are those professors really following specific presses and getting the word out there is still going to help you potentially do that, but making sure your book is readily available through major markets online is a safe bet. So, if you are going to self-publish, make sure you have an ISBN, make sure that you have good places to potentially sell it so it’s easy for students to find. And then being connected with academia, knowing some professors, is not a bad way to go, to get the word out there, to see if they’re interested in teaching your poems at one of their classes. And some poets go to the extent of actually grading lessons to go along with their books that they hand out to professors, hoping that they’ll have a few hundred students be required to purchase their book.
So, that is one way to go, and it may be a little easier to go that path if you are traditionally published than it would be if you’re self-published, but if you have a nice CV, with a lot of good references, and people are knowing your poetry and you have that reputation, then I don’t think a professor would say, oh, you self-published, so I’m not interested in teaching your poetry. I don’t think most professors would care one way or the other, it’s more about the work and what their students will gain from studying it.
So, that’s one way of potentially getting your work out there. I think both work. I think it is a little harder to self-publish and get the word out there. Certainly you can lean a little on the press. You will have some additional connections that you’re not making all on your own. So, it just depends on your platform and how much you’re willing to push yourself and do that work. If you’re an introvert, you probably want a press.
Orna Ross: Yeah, except that you’ll still have to do the marketing yourself. So, in that sense, you’re getting some support, but I don’t think it gets over that necessarily. I mean, I think social media is fantastic for introverts, in the sense that you can control what you put out there. It doesn’t have to be what we’re doing here, which would be an introvert’s nightmare. You can do it in so many different ways and that, I guess if you’re not going to go the traditional route, I think it has to be social media has to come in at some level, you know, the Instagram poetry thing as we’ve discussed before is a major phenomenon, and all of the social media platforms have their poetry corner, where there is lots of activity with poetry readers and writers.
So, that would be probably the way that you would go, or something. You have to find, whichever way, as Trish said, it’s very much about your personal goals, but one way or the other, you want people to read it or hear it and to consume it and to hopefully value it enough to give you some money for it.
It’s not generally very expensive to buy a poetry book, when you think of the amount of time, love, labor, and everything else that goes into it. So, you want that as an outcome. And very often, I think, it’s as much about that as setting that goal for yourself, rather than assuming you have to just give it away because, you know, our first questioners question, does anybody even buy it anyway?
Yes, they do. And whether you get paid or not paid, actually, the first step in that is very much down to you. If you set it as your creative intention that you want to be paid for your poetry and you want to reach lots of readers, then you’ve got a much better chance of that happening than if you’re going in with an either conscious or unconscious belief that it can’t happen for you, or it doesn’t happen for poetry in general.
Trish Hopkinson: And there are other opportunities that I would just add that, you know, I typically make more money doing things like interviews or paid guests blog posts, or solicitations to write poems for specific events, things like that. You’ll get higher rates being paid for those types of things, than you will, probably, on royalties, or even if you self-publish your actual books. If you think about, I mean, even, let’s say you, you take a pretty good run and you sell, I don’t know, a thousand copies, you’re only going to make so much off of that book before then, you know, you might have some sales later or, unless you’re really continuously doing readings and other things, it will slow way down. And you might get paid a lot more for some of the other things that I mentioned, which are spinoff effects of having a published book and proving yourself that reputation as an expert about, at least your poetry, and maybe poetry in general.
So, it’s looking for all those opportunities and using your platform for all of them, including selling your books, but also the other stuff that can potentially really pay you more of a true hourly wage.
Orna Ross: That’s a terrific point, and actually I think we should make that our theme of next month, that we would look at all those spin-off opportunities, because I think that’s a really good point.
And we have a blog post actually, which is business models for indie authors. And in there, there are various ways in which you can and loads of our members do, and particularly those who write in the more literary genre where there aren’t lots and lots of readers just waiting for the next book, like in a romance genre, thriller genre where the audience is spoiled for choice. Let’s be frank, there are so many amazing poets and amazing literary fiction writers going around, and not as many people who read those kinds of works. Again, emphasizing what I said at the beginning, with a global audience, you definitely can reach readers, but it’s not like they’re lying around just waiting for it to happen.
So, lots of our members do use these various other ways of supplementing income. So, it would be really interesting to apply that to poetry, which is not something we’ve done to date. So, let’s do that next time.
Trish Hopkinson: That sounds great.
Orna Ross: Great. The other thing I would say about this particular question, before we get onto the next question, is that a lot of this also depends on how many books you have.
So, self-publishing is definitely a major learning curve. And if you feel you’re going to do a collection every 10 years, or something, you know, you write slowly and you’re quite happy to do that and it’s on the side of other activities and, you know, you’re not really what we might call a full-time poet, then it may well suit you better to have the support of a press. To do well self-publishing any work, you really only begin to see a good return from your investment of time, energy, love, labor, all of that, when you get to about book three, because then it becomes easy. You’ve established who your market is, because poetry itself, poetry is not one genre, it’s actually an umbrella genre for lots and lots of other genres.
So, you could write dark poetry, and then your readers are obviously not going to be interested in somebody who writes inspirational poetry. So, it’s not just about poetry is poetry, it’s not. You’ve got to find out, the kind of poems that you write, who is the reader. And often that’s more difficult for poets than it is for fiction writers or non-fiction writers, because the very nature of poetry is that you can write about all sorts of things and in quite diverse ways and in lots of different formats, but there will be a theme and an underlying kind of sentiment that will put you into a particular genre. And also where you’re from, very often, poetry is categorized by, you know, American poetry, Irish poetry, in my case, American poetry in Trish’s.
So, there’s all that going on as well. So, if you don’t feel like you have a good few books in you, and to have a good few books and you, I think you need to be on social media or some other kind of publication deadline and process schedule that’s going to draw the poetry out of you, so that you have enough to. Because you’ll write a lot more poems than you’ll actually put into a book, so you need to become quite prolific, in other words, to be a successful self-published poet, and probably a successful trade-published poet too. I can’t think of any poet actually, who just wrote one book.
Trish Hopkinson: That’s true. That’s true. But sometimes they can be spaced a couple of years apart. But they often, as we mentioned, they have other gigs going. They’re speaking, they’re visiting universities, they’re going to conferences or they have interviews, all the things that we can talk about next time.
What is a chapbook?
Orna Ross: Exactly. Great. So, the next question then is an easy one. What is it, and we’ve mentioned them a couple of times already today and the last time, what is a chapbook?
Trish Hopkinson: Sure. Yeah, the chapbook, I often just tell people it’s like a chapter of something more full length. So, it’s just a smaller size collection. Typically poetry chapbooks, and then there are prose chapbooks as well that might include flash fiction or flash nonfiction, or just very short stories, but chapbooks typically are 10 to 40 pages. If it’s 10 or less, those are typically considered micro-chapbooks, and then full-length poetry books or prose collections usually start around 50 pages.
So there’s a little bit of a buffer there. My first traditionally published chapbook was 45 pages or something, just under a full-length. But, essentially, different presses have different lengths that they prefer. The most common length is usually an average of around 25, 26 pages for a chapbook.
Orna Ross: Great, and from the self-publishing side, the minimum size book you can do through the print on demand publisher is 25 pages. So, they won’t take any less. So, there you are. That’s where you’ll start.
And just to say, because it might be useful for other people in terms of a process, how I do it is, I put most of the poems I write on Instagram, and I’m quite easy about them. I just let them come and put them out. Every second day, or so, I put up something, and it’s more for me about keeping that flow going, knowing that I get better stuff that way, the more poems I write, I get a better one. And some of these I put into chapbooks, and they are 10 poems long.
So, when I have 10 poems, I just do another chapbook and I don’t really, while they’re all available to be purchased and sometimes are, I don’t sell as much of those as then I do selections and collections from those on particular themes. And that works really well for me because there’s a kind of a filtering process whereby, by the time I get to a collection, I’m putting things together, I’ve dropped a lot of things that I’ve written along the way, but I’ve had the satisfaction of publishing them.
And then I also do one exclusive poem a month for my patrons on Patreon, and that is exclusive to them for a while, and then that will also often go into a book once that exclusivity period has passed. So, that’s one way you can manage it as a self-publishing poet.
And I think the thing to do is to find some kind of rhythm that suits you. So, the whole Instagram thing was really great for me because it made me write more. It made me get involved more with other people in my particular genre of poetry, which tends towards the inspirational, spiritual kind of stuff. I write far more, far more often than I did before, before I did it, but that might not work for you at all. It’s a very individual thing and you have to try a few, in a spirit of exploration and experiment, try a few things and see what works over time.
So, this is not a short term, quick fix thing, it’s something that you integrate into your life, into your writing life and into your life in general.
Trish Hopkinson: Yeah, absolutely, and I do something similar, even though I choose to share my work after it’s been published in a lit mag or journal, because it’s a little bit different than self-publishing, they often want to be the first one to publish your work in those cases. But it’s similar for me, my rotation isn’t as quick as yours, but I make sure that I’m sending work out so that I do have something to promote on my website from time to time. And sometimes those come in little spurts, so I may have two or three publications within a couple of weeks, and then I just promote those, spread those out, because I want to make sure I’m sharing things on my website, my platform, and it’s not just all about me promoting me but rather it’s the things I’m giving back to the community as well, and, sort of, alternating between those so that my readers get excited when they see me promote my own work and in the interim, they’re getting other helpful things by reading my website.
So, I know you do a lot of that too through all of the Alliance work and your own, like you said, your Instagram and other things where you have certain cadence for certain things, but there’s always something for your followers, depending on what information they’re looking for, they have the opportunity to get that.
I believe that having a steady schedule is so important, whatever the platform is, you mentioned Patreon, but certainly a lot of that can also be through your social media and other self-promotion, and I think one of our questions was, can you make money from Patreon?
And there certainly are a lot of self-published poets that do things similar to what you described. And then, through the pandemic, I’ve seen a lot of Venmo and PayPal tipping when you’re doing a reading or an event, or if you’re teaching a workshop, those types of things, where you can get either some additional Patreon followers or some tips through Venmo or PayPal, or other platform that you’re using, and that is a great way to add to that supplemental income that we were talking about before. So, lots of other opportunities.
Orna Ross: Fantastic. And so I think what we’ve both been talking about here has covered the other two questions, which was, how can I get more readers for my poetry, for my chapbooks, for my poetry books?
We’ve certainly covered some ideas in this session, and we’ll do more next time so stay tuned for that, which will be this time next month and we will cover that.
Before we leave this part, in a few moments we’ll be reading out our #indiepoeteryplease winners for this month, and Trish is going to read one of her poems as well. So, that’s a different segment of the show to the advice, but we do have a couple of questions in, so let’s just have a look and see if we can help with these.
How do I implement a daily routine for writing and promoting poetry?
Orna Ross: So, Paul Amory, I’m writing a first collection of Northern soul songs of loss and redemption. So, two different questions, first of all, do you have a daily routine, Trish?
Trish Hopkinson: Sort of, I don’t really, because I am toggling so many different things. So between my day job and just other personal responsibilities, and other poetry activities that I do outside of my own website and my own publications, there are often quite a few things on my to-do list and really, I just prioritize those the best that I can.
I do spend time every day, either promoting through social media or by posting on my website. I used to post, very religiously, daily on my website, now it’s more like four to five posts a week. Sometimes there are days when I just can’t fit one in, but I’m always doing at least some social media promotion every day, it’s very rare that I skip over that. So for me, it’s looking at everything that I have to do, prioritizing that, and sometimes I’m able to spend more time on my website. Sometimes I’m spending time, like with Orna today, so this hour will take up some of that time that maybe I would have spent elsewhere, but I just work through that, and that’s one thing that’s nice about controlling your own business. If you are self-publishing, then you can control all those aspects and you can set those rules and timelines for yourself that work for you. And the important thing is really to be consistent. So, whether that’s daily or weekly or how frequent it is, just make sure you’re consistent so your followers know when to expect to see something new from you.
Orna Ross: Great, and I’m similar to Trish. One of the reasons I’m in writing and publishing and indie is because I’m not great with strict routine, but I do plan and I do have one thing that is routine, and that is my first thing to do every single day, is write.
And that’s because I always have a mountain of a to do list, and if I don’t do it first, the calls of everybody else take over and it just doesn’t happen, and I know that from experience. So, you’re on your first book, Paul, I think a lot of what’s happening for you now is just getting used to putting that out there and finding out yourself, you know, trying out this routine, trying out that routine. It took me quite a few years before I settled and I now have a very good routine whereby when I’m on, I’m on, and I’m working very productively, and when I’m off, I’m completely off. But for a number of years I was, kind of, all over the place. I never knew when I was on and when I was off. So, it takes a bit of time, I think, to settle into being a self-publisher.
The first book is hard because you’re learning so much about how to do seven different processes, there are seven different processes in good publishing.
So, it’s a big, big learning curve. So, it’s impossible to have a routine and be on a steep learning curve at the same time. You’ve got to go through the learning, it’s on the second book that you would begin to settle more into a routine, but I mean, you should be trying now and looking at yourself and observing what works for you, but it probably will be book two before things begin to settle down. So, if you’re feeling like there’s a lot to be done at the moment, that’s completely normal.
How do I deal with criticism as a poet?
Orna Ross: And then you also ask another very good question, which is, how did you learn to deal with criticism in your early days? Trish, can you remember?
Trish Hopkinson: Well, I, kind of, have an edge there because I was a non-traditional student and I really started writing seriously by taking creative writing classes as part of my English degree, which I didn’t really start attending live classes until after, well, it was probably after 2010, and I graduated 2013. So I was almost 40 and had a successful career. So, I was pretty open to criticism and don’t get my feelings hurt very easily.
Orna Ross: She was a tough old boot by then.
Trish Hopkinson: I totally was, and very open to learn and seeing any criticism as being helpful. Even if it came negative from a person, just determining whether there was anything in that for me to learn or not. And for the most part, I’ve been very fortunate and haven’t had a lot of experience with just mean criticism, but I think in general it’s really, really important for everyone to remember that you’re the artist, this is your art. So, while if people ask you questions or they’re confused about something, or they say, well, I just didn’t like that, you get to decide if that changes your art. And if that’s a single opinion, or even if it’s a lot of opinions, you know, if it’s not helping you accomplish what you want to accomplish within your art, your writing, then it’s completely up to you and very fair for you to ignore all of that feedback.
I would though say, feedback is super helpful. It does challenge you. It does make you a better writer. So if you can learn to take it, figure out how to reconcile that feedback and recognize that the bottom line is it’s your creation and you get to choose and decide, then it can definitely help make you a better writer.
Orna Ross: Without a doubt. I don’t think I have anything to add to that, except to say I have had mean. I had a guy who followed me around being very mean for a long time, and very publicly. So, I will say that the tougher the criticism, the more potential learning there is there for you, if not artistically, and sometimes yes, as Trish says, it’s an opportunity to learn, sometimes, as she also says, it’s something to ignore, but there may be emotional learning in it for you.
There may be that kind of toughening up process, particularly if you are young or a young artist. So you could be 99 and a half and be a young artist, if it’s your first work and you’re putting it out there and you’re quite sensitive about it. So, the only way to get a bit tougher is actually to ride the wave and realize that anybody who is criticizing, it’s 99% about them, and maybe 1% percent about you, and it might even be like, my mean guy was a hundred percent about him, I think. I decided it was anyway. So, it’s very much about where they’re coming from, what kind of poetry they like, what they’re looking for on that day.
You know, I just read one of those in a weekend supplement, a woman was paid to write this review where she spent the whole review writing about this amazing novel, and criticizing it because, as far as she was concerned, the novelist had written too many books like this before, and she wanted something different, and so she just slated this book, you know, it was all about her. So yeah, you will have to, if you’re going to put yourself out there, you would have to accept that getting stuff back is part of the deal, and you will, we all do.
Trish Hopkinson: You can use some very simple self-talk, or ways to respond to those things.
So, I would suggest a couple of things, that I think have been valuable to me. If you’re not sure how to respond, or maybe you do feel a little bit of a tinge, like you felt like somebody’s coming at you or emotionally you’re upset, you could certainly just say, thank you, I’ll take that into consideration. That’s all you have to say. Whether you change your work is none of their business.
And the other thing that I would say is, if somebody really is being mean and attacking you personally, that you can always say, I don’t deserve that. And those two responses can give you quite a bit of power internally, and also give you something to say that takes the emotion out of it to just say, I will take that under consideration, or if they’re real meanies, tell them you don’t deserve it, make them respond to that.
Orna Ross: I should have had you around when my guy was there.
That’s fantastic advice, so thank you, Trish so much for that. Thank you everybody for the fantastic questions, which have helped lots of other poets who are listening or watching.