Every day millions of words pour onto almost every social platform, even visual platforms like Pinterest and Instagram and YouTube, carrying the hashtag #poetry. Yet comparatively few of these poets are self-publishing poetry books.
Those poets who are author-publishing are often producing printed pamphlets, in time-honored form, to distribute at live poetry readings and events, as poets have been doing forever.
In many parts of the poetry world, it's as if the digital publishing revolution hasn't happened.
Here at ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors) we hope to change that. We have introduced a poetry stream to our podcast and we are going to be writing more about poetry in the coming months.
This failure by poets to self-publish is not, as you might think if you haven't been paying attention to poetry, because this is a dying genre with little or no readers. On the contrary.
For the past several years, poetry books have been experiencing a surge in sales. In the US, for example, the category has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 21 percent since 2015, making it one of the fastest-growing categories in publishing. The latest Nielsen figures for 2018 show poetry sales hitting an all-time high of £12.3m – nearly double what it was in 2012, when I started self-publishing poetry books
Social media poets, usually called “Instapoets” though they may publish on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr or any social media platform, poets like @brian_bilston, @RupiKaur, @Leti.sala, @Langleav, @nikita_gill and @atticus, are widely acknowledged as firing this publishing movement.
Almost half (47 percent) of poetry books sold in the U.S. last year were written by Instapoets. According to global information company The NPD Group, 12 of the top 20 bestselling poetry authors in 2017 were Instapoets, who combine their poems with images, creating highly shareable posts.
Yet few of the above poets have self-published a book. And neither have the vast majority of their poet colleagues.
Some of these poets have hundreds of thousands of followers (some have a multi-million following). They are clearly well placed to be as successful in publishing books as they have been in publishing posts. But they are either not publishing at all, or opting to trade-publish, presumably when approached by trade publishers who spot their large and engaged followings.
They are not alone. A skim through the poetry bestsellers on Amazon reveals far fewer indies than in fiction or nonfiction.
Have poets not thought to publish their work in book form? Do they not realize that they would make more money, and with their already proven skill at gathering the crowds, reach more readers?
Or is there something else going on?
Self-Publishing Poetry Books: Different Traditions
Numbers are impossible to find, but what does seem clear is that poets, together with literary novelists, academic writers and philosophers, have been among the slowest to embrace digital book publishing.
Perhaps it centers on validation and kudos. The traditional routes to success in these genres has been through poorly financed but highly influential magazines and media review pages.
If your definition of success is bound up with what other poets, agents and publishers think of you, then you may see a book as an opportunity to get the recognition that isn't forthcoming, no matter how many readers and followers you might have on social media.
But the traditional poetry world and the indie work do not gel well. There is an underground divide with the populist spoken word performance poets, rappers and Instapoets on one side and the traditional review outlets, literary magazines and universities on the others.
This brought into sharp relief by a controversy last year around Plum, the second book by YouTube political poet, Hollie McNish.
McNish, who hails from the spoken word tradition, won a Ted Hughes award in 2016 for Nobody Told Me, published by Blackfriars, an imprint of Little Brown. Plum, her second collection, came from Picador in 2017, was well-received, and rapidly became one of that year’s bestselling collections. The following year, poet Rebecca Watts was commissioned to review the book by poetry journal, PN Review.
Watts declined to do a straight review as she would any other book. “To do so,” she said “would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry”.
Instead of a review, Watts submitted a polemic in which she lambasted not just McNish but “the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft”
She also insulted McNish's work in the most personal terms. McNish,who was most understandably hurt and embarrassed by the article responded, dissecting the “review” here.
Watts work was is not criticism, carefully considered and substantiated opinion. It was politics, part of a power struggle between a passing elite and a coming group that embody change. No Instapoet has ever, to my knowledge, denigrated intellectual engagement or rejected craft.
This war is as old as art itself and the privileged always use snobbery, elitism and condescension as their weapons.
This struggle now sees the world of poetry sharply divided between gatekeepers and democrats, between those who want to keep a scarcity model in place, believing that to do so upholds art and craft standards.
And those who believe art and craft are best served by throwing the publishing gates wide open.
Self-Publishing Poetry Books: Different Strokes for Different Folks
It will come as no suprise that at ALLi, we fall into the second category. Yes, we understand that social media and self-publishing allow poorly crafted work to be published as “poetry” but we believe that matters less than the way they are revitalizing poetry and enabling more poets and authors to write and publish.
That is what is happening today with the Instapoets, many of whom are creating powerful work that combines the visual and the poetic, with one augmenting, shadowing or sometimes even undercutting the other's meaning.
That doesn't mean that everyone composing an Instapoem knows their craft, of course not. Just calling something a poem doesn't make it so. And I don't like every instapoet's work, of course not. Some of the most successful are not to my taste but I understand that is a matter of taste.
Not the denigration or rejection of the aspects of poetry I most enjoy: metaphor, allusion, rhythm, rhyme, surprising and remarkable word choices and word play.
I understand that “literary” poetry, like literary fiction, is not a thing apart. It is a genre like any other.
It's just that the followers and fans of this genre have the most power to make pronouncements in review outlets and literary magazines.
In matters of art, and poetry is the supreme literary artform, judgments of good or bad always founder. A poem either works for the reader in the moment–or it does not. We may then describe it as “good” or “bad” depending on whether it worked for us, but this is a subjective response, not an inarguable fact.
Many books that have been –ahem!–denigrated by a critical establishment have gone on to become critical and commercial winners.
Yet even some of the Instapoets fall into the trap of equating what they like as good and what they don't respect as bad.
“I think it is a mistake to generalize all poetry posted on Instagram as ‘Instagram poetry’,” Lang Leav said in an interview with British Vogue Magazine about what it claimed were the “best” poets on Instagram. “This tends to unfairly group ground-breaking, powerful poetry with memes and self-help quotes.”
She, no doubt, sees herself as belonging to the former group.
It's like those who don't want to be identified as self-publishing rather than being out and proud indie.
Self-Publishing Poetry Books: What Poets Need to Know
Thanks to self-publishing technology there is now no need for anger masquerading as literary criticism. There is now room for everyone and more poets should consider self-publishing their work in long-form, especially if they want to get outside the small magazine, literary press hothouse.
Here are some of the advantages of self-publishing for poets (many apply to other authors too).
YOU RETAIN YOUR PUBLISHING RIGHTS
If you want to publish a poetry book, you don't need to sign all your rights away to a trade publisher, particularly if you have build a large or engaged following on social media. Author-publishing allows you to deal selectively with each publishing right, rather than signing them all away in one contract.
For example, you might give a US publisher rights to publish in print, especially if you want to sell through bookshops, as they are generally better set up for bookshop distribution than you are likely to be, while retaining your ebook rights. If you have a large following, it makes more sense for you to publish the ebook yourself and distribute it on Amazon, Apple, Google, IngramSpark Kobo and other outlets, as your terms are better than those available to any trade publisher and the publisher will share so much less of the income with you.
You can also retain the right to record and publish your own audiobook rather than sign them over in a traditional contract deal that will treat audio as a subsidiary right that, more than likely, will never be exploited.
MORE CREATIVE FREEDOM AND CONTROL
As a trade-published poet, you will have little input into the publishing process: cover design, title, blurb, distribution outlets, PR marketing and promotion. You won't be in the room when these and the budget decisions that accompany them are taken. With self-publishing, you have full control over the process.
And you get to handpick every person who has a hand in your book’s creation, so you can make book that has a compelling cover, carefully edited and formatted interior and high-quality production values.
Publishing houses can fold, team members may quit their jobs or get promoted or fired, which all can have a bearing on your poetry book's performance. If your second or third bookd doesn't do as well as the first you'll be dropped. As an indie poet, you never have to worry about whether market trends will derail your process or your progress.
HIGHER AND MORE FREQUENT PAYMENTS
Less than ten percent of the net receipts will make its way to you from a trade-published poetry book. Yes, the publisher will invest in editorial and design upfront but the bookseller, wholesaler, distributor, publisher and agent all have to be paid from that book cover price.
When you self-publish, you invest in your expenses upfront but get to keep a far higher percentage of the profits. Up to 70% on online retail platforms and almost 100% of those you sell from your own website.
And most trade-published authors only receive royalty payouts twice a year while self-publishing authors receive their own book sales income immediately and are paid monthly by online retailers.
FASTER AND MORE FREQUENT PUBLISHING PROCESS
The trade publishing process can be quite slow, taking anywhere from 12 to 36 months after contract for a book to hit shelves. Self-publishing your poetry book will bring it out much faster. And you can bring out more books than a trade publisher is likely to invest in.
YOU CAN CHANGE AND GROW, STEP BY STEP
As creatives, mistakes and failures are just steps along our way but with your trade-published book, you're stuck with the cover, the marketing approach, the content with which you started. As an indie poet, you can change your books as you learn and grow, giving them new titles and covers if you need to. If you discover typos or other infelicities, you just fix them and upload the fixed file.
THE READERS ARE THERE
Finding good books is not a problem for readers today. Online algorithms are very effective, and getting better, at guiding us towards the poetry we are most likely to love and poetry books are no exception. Readers can easily read the signifiers which tell them whether a book is for them or not, including cover, book description, reviews, and a pre-purchase sample. And book searches through categories and keywords are highly effective discovery tools, if not necessarily as pleasant as bookstore browsing.
In short, the poet who invests time and attention into producing a good book and marketing it well has nothing to fear from publishing’s new abundance model.
Self-Publishing Poetry Books: Going Beyond
So now there is a choice of approach. You can spend your time trying to submitting to the literary magazines, letting rejection hone your craft. Or you can get on and publish poems yourself, and rely on the reader feedback. First on social media, thereby building a following, then in chapbooks and full book collections.
Or you can do a combination, retaining some rights and licensing others.
Self-publishing poets must do more than merely push the Publish button if we want success. We have to be entrepreneurial. We have to choose our publishing process as mindfully as we choose our words. We have to respond to feedback and balance other people's opinions with our own creative imperatives.
As technology shifts again with AI, blockchain and other developments move towards a cultural scene that is more distributed than hierarchical, the days of a singular canon may even be gone.
Nobody owns art and across the centuries many people, from kings to university reading lists, have tried to rein poetry in for their own purposes. Poetry always runs free.
And never more freely than today.
That is a cause of celebration. We look forward to seeing a great deal more indie poetry books succeeding, creatively and commercially, in the coming years.
And if you're a poet yourself, why not submit to “Indie Poetry Please”, the segment of the podcast that will feature indie poets reading their poetry.
Self-Publishing Poetry Books: Links
As part of the #AskALLi podcast, the Alliance of Independent Authors now offers the monthly Self-Publishing Poetry Podcast.
Watch out for Dalma's Sentzpála's session at the upcoming Self-Publishing Advice Conference
Blog Posts & Articles
Publishing Poetry: Tricks Trends and by Dalma Szentpaly for PublishDrive.
Instagram Poets Speak, Vogue Magazine
OVER TO YOU
Do you write poetry? Have you published a poetry book yet? How was that experience? If not, why not? Let us know in the comments.