Thursday, March 13, 2008

reality bites

When poets start to focus on getting a manuscript published, it seems such a daunting and impossible task (so many contests, so many poets entering them, so many presses, so few open to submissions) that they don't look past that initial publication. (I know I didn't.) So what happens? Here is some straight talk from William Logan on the subject (first published on the Poetry Foundation blog):

"My theory about publishing poetry is so depressing, I’d rather not put it on the page. Here goes. Take the trade and university presses, and the better independents. The first year, I suspect most poetry books sell between 500 and 1000 copies. Let’s say 750. Perhaps 250 of these go to libraries, where ten get taken out and read. (By this I mean read cover to cover. Otherwise it’s not reading; it’s browsing.) Two hundred are bought at readings or by fond friends and ignorant relatives. Of these copies, 20 might be read (if we’re talking about my relatives, the figure is lower). The remaining 300 copies are bought by the few people in the country who read poetry, and of these fifty copies might be read. By my count, the book gets fewer than 100 readers the first year. Perhaps the book receives one or two reviews (an editor told me that half the books he publishes—this is a New York publisher—get no reviews at all.)

The second year is worse. Now the book sells 30 copies, of which perhaps five are read. The books in the libraries gather another 10 or 20 readers. The third year the book sells 15 copies, or is remaindered. After six or seven years, the public library copies get sent to the Friends of the Library sale. The university library copies gather dust. My advice is, if you want to write poetry, learn to love silence.

Say, then, that in three years, in a country of 300,000,000, a book of poetry sells 800 copies. You could search through five football stadiums, each seating 75,000, before you could find one buyer. If I’m correct that only about 100 of those buyers finish a book of poetry, you’d have to search through 40 stadiums to find even one person who had read the book. We live in a minor art. That doesn’t mean we love it the less, or hate it the less.

There are exceptions; but—let’s be honest—few poets selling ten or twenty thousand copies will be of any interest 50 years later. There were dozens of poets who sold much better than the young Eliot or Pound. Stevens’s Harmonium sold so poorly it was remaindered for 50 cents a copy. If you sell a lot of books and want a lasting reputation, hope that you’re Robert Frost."

Best: "My advice is, if you want to write poetry, learn to love silence."

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