Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Friday, June 03, 2011

The House of Words (no. 32): Building culture, supporting artists, example of poetry, leveling, possibilities

A house for Orpheus
in Aberystwyth, Wales
Out walking, May 2011.


We readers and writers are constructing a kind of house and helping to build the culture we would like to see when we read and when we write. When we buy a book or a piece of art or a ticket to a performance, we vote for an artist, a store, a gallery, a performance space. We register a liking and a support for future work of the artist and the venue.  If we don’t do so, that artist, that writer, that performer will have a slightly smaller chance the next time around. If we consistently don’t do so in large numbers, that artist, that writer, that performer may well dwindle out of our sight, no matter how much we like his or her work.


This morning I’ve been exchanging emails with an editor friend, batting views about the matter of selling poetry. The two things seem contradictory, don’t they? Sell. Poetry. Definitely at odds. Some movements in poetry discussed in The House of Words—publishing solely on the internet, the nanopress model—yield to the desire to escape the burden of selling. 

Perhaps this is nothing new—“sugared sonnets” went the rounds in the Renaissance. Shakespeare’s lyrics were known before they were printed. Donne had a private circle of admirers of poems in manuscript. And yet poets and printer-booksellers were already collaborating on making books (or sometimes not collaborating—theft was an issue, as it is again today in a fresh, new way.)  

But why is it so difficult, this matter of art and sales in the U. S.? In the case of poetry, is it because we Americans think high art a bit snooty, and poetry the snootiest of the snooty?  Are we still flattened under the rock of Modernism, which said to some people that poetry had to be difficult to be understood? My editor friend is rapidly coming to the conclusion that poetry books by someone who is not well known can be almost impossible to sell unless the poet has a very wide web presence and circle of friends. Reviews do not sell books, she says—if a writer is obscure and unable to travel, he or she simply does not sell, even with the best of reviews.  This editor has come to the conclusion that facebook friends do not convert into poetry buyers. And now she begins to feel that perhaps the public does not feel a responsibility to support the arts when they can consume so much for free.

Take a look at her words: “I think we all have to lower our expectations and definition of what ‘success’ means in this kind of market. And I am certainly having to re-evaluate what I want to do as a publisher. How much time and energy can I devote to editing, producing, and selling other people's books, plus running the business when the return on investment is this small, or even non-existent? The reward of getting good & deserving work out into the world and preserved for posterity is another matter, and that's why I do it. But I no longer think there is a trick to it, or something I have to "learn" -- I could be spending $1000 more in promotion on each title and it might not result in any more sales at all! Friends in other disciplines -- music, fine arts -- say the same things.

“With so much content available for free, it becomes harder and harder to encourage people to actually pay for the more esoteric forms of art. On the other hand, a U2 concert here later in the summer was sold out months ago - that's an experience, a bragging right, a badge as well as music -- and entirely different from the solitary experience of reading poetry or listening to progressive jazz or live classical music.


I can’t say that I don’t know exactly what she is saying. Here I am with a brand new book of poetry, The Throne of Psyche. I have done two readings so far, both well attended. From the amount of finger-snapping, spontaneous clapping after poems, and laughter at the last one, you would have felt sure that quite a few people would want to take home a book—particularly one so beautiful: in fact, unusually beautiful, with an immaculate, imaginative design and a cover by Clive Hicks-Jenkins that is nothing short of gorgeous. Nevertheless, I was surprised: I sold relatively few books, even though many people attended who knew me.

Why? Is the reading no longer helpful to such things, now that the world has changed from the days in which readings were a major way to purchase poetry books? Or is it not the reading itself but the ancillary publicity that is important—articles in the newspaper?  I was digging in my garden yesterday, and somebody I had met once at a party hailed me and said he was ordering my book. He had read about the book in the local paper. For each reading I received two articles… Is that what matters for selling?

While I would like to say numbers don’t not matter and just go pick daisies, one’s subsequent ability to publish always depends on prior books. Bookscan numbers rule the bookseller’s world. That’s why I say a purchase is a vote.


Also, one thing that I have noticed in the last decade is that the person who devotes a life to the visual arts or writing or poetry or some other art is now considered to be pretty much the same as one who, say, retires and decides to take up watercolors or write occasional poems. That’s why I wrote my recent piece about our local painter Ashley Cooper:  to distinguish her from other artists, less serious, because artists of all sorts are helped and encouraged and energized for more work by a modicum of recognition and support, and they are diminished by lack of recognition and support. An artist who gets insufficient support may not be able to make that studio rent or get a bigger studio, may not feel able to travel to New York City to show work, may simply feel more alone than ever in the little room with the brushes and the canvas.


Here are some thoughts in response to the problems I see right now. They may not be helpful. They may be. I don’t have the slightest idea. But they are certainly just the beginning of a discussion. I would like to hear other people’s ideas on these matters. I would like to hear suggestions.

Multiple types of formats for publications are a help; that’s already going on but could increase. The nanopress model Nic Sebastian talked about earlier in the series certainly stresses multiple streams of access, free and paid.

Perhaps it’s time for small presses to look more to a Renaissance model of wealthy patrons or an eighteenth-century model of patrons-and-subscribers. Samuel Johnson worked on the subscription model; his books were bought before they were made. Could Kickstarter mean the beginning of a revival of the subscription system?

We need to inculcate the idea that if--as people who love the arts and the idea of participating in creating our culture—we want to have small presses, galleries, performance spaces, we need to contribute to them. We need to buy a painting, some books, tickets to interesting performances that have no “bragging rights” in the popular culture. We need people to invest in the kinds of art they care about:  to buy, to attend, to share the word about work they love.

What about those other kinds of rights--copyright and Creative Commons? Right now, I think net travelers need to understand that the creators of visual images, film, and written words have rights. The makers have the power to give those rights away through Creative Commons licenses. Unless they do give them away, they hold those rights. If not in public domain, ask for permission to use an image, a poem, a blog post, a video, etc. (Why? Here are two examples.  When you visit sites like Drawn! and others, it becomes pretty clear that the theft of online art discourages artists, whether they are established or young beginners. This one is more specific: I had an e-friend who published a new poem almost daily on her blog but became distressed by someone who consistently stole the poems and passed them off as her own. The joy of the creator was marred, and she no longer participates in the life of the web.)

There’s a lot more to ruminate, both about specific issues and large, encompassing ones. But I’ve talked enough for now. I’d like to hear what others have to say. 


  1. A lot of good questions here. Kickstarter seems like a good service, and it's certainly a model people understand from public radio and television pledge drives. It's something we might want to explore at qarrtsiluni. I just donated to Motionpoems' campaign, which if successful will support a whole raft of high-quality animations of poems from the Best American Poetry anthology, and I am a) poor, and b) quite accustomed to getting content for free. Then again, I also still buy plenty of poetry books, new and used, despite reading poetry for free on the web. I really question that online publishing of poetry has diminished demand for books; I think the opposite is true, if anything. But we're also in a tight economy where people are cutting down on luxury purchases.

    The anedcotal evidence about Facebook friends versus blog readers is interesting. I am kind of skeptical about the value of Facebook and Twitter for promoting much of anything, actually, though I'm playing along with it for now. I do think that the kind of blogs we write have a unique potential for cultivating readers who take an active interest in our lives, who are exactly the kinds of people who don't have to think twice about ordering a new book. OTOH, Chris Clarke's "anecdata" about his self-published book are not encouraging, and his readership probably dwarfs mine.

  2. Dave,

    Just got home and rescued you from Spam Land. Evidently Motionpoems frightened the Spam guards!

    Yes, I have suggested it to several people.

    And I agree that the net may simply make people more interested in reading poetry... But having talked to a small batch of editors lately, I am not all that encouraged about poetry sales. It's disheartening when you learn that whole lines of poetry have been dropped simply because none of the books broke the 300-mark.

    Yes, I thought the fb numbers a bit more than anecdotal since it involved writers who can't tour and who depend on such things. It is interesting to hear numbers for sales of writers who are disconnected vs. connected (but all these things are so hard to measure.)

    Not sure. Is there still stigma against the self-published? Is that why?

    I agree, I think, about fb not being a promotional tool, though occasionally somebody asks me for a signed book. But some lovely things have happened because of it--like Paul making the five movies.

  3. Why must sales figures dictate whether you would follow an artist you like? Such utter nonsense. Who makes up such rules? How positively dispiriting for anyone wanting to pursue an artistic course. That’s all so last century.

    The idea that artists, particularly the writerly types, ought to be able to make a living, well, that’s a fairly recent notion, is it not? Who says so? (playing devil’s advocate, so please don’t pillory me…) Prior to the 19th century, it would not have been a pursuit chosen for a livelihood by anyone other than those inhabiting the upper crust of an industrialized society. The 20th century changed that somewhat, but methinks for most writers, it’s always been an extremely hardscrabble sort of existence. Most resolve the conundrum by teaching or editing or otherwise cobbling together various streams of associated income to allow themselves the chance to play with their words and syntax and grammar.

    The interesting thing about the last century, too, due to the great literacy campaign of public education, is that writing did become something that even middle-class folk could dabble in and aspire toward learning something about, at the least. But most who pursue it don’t really make a living by it. Not really a good one, with the exception of best-selling author types and tenured university professors. Do you think they do? Enough to support themselves without recourse to others? When one does a bit of research, this factoid is readily uncovered.

    Those who do or claim to are quite often found to be trustfunders—how lucky are they! If not that, then they may be supported (financially and otherwise, also a fortunate turn of events) by those in their orbit who are gainfully employed. Yes, indeed, patronage by spouses or families or loved ones I do count in this mix and see absolutely nothing wrong with such arrangements. There’s a terrible dearth in our knowledge-based civilizations at the present time of actual gainful employment opportunities. People need to do something with their time, and artistic folk will often seize any spare moment, particularly if they aren’t depressed by unemployment (and even then, sometimes they still will), as an chance to create. The idea that money must enter into the equation for it to be viable? Commercialism frequently sounds the death knell for art. I fear that is where the muddle occurs.

    I’m no advocate of returning to a world in which only the rich get to create art. That’s far too restrictive. And selfish. Yet if we could return to the idea they might support art with their generous patronage and not worry so much whether it will turn a handsome profit for them, well, that may not be such a bad thing. That one can earn a living by one’s art, however, and be supported in the effort by a society that is as fractured as ours, and which cannot even agree on a definition of the word “art” asks a great deal.

    Best to end here, as it’s not my wish to monopolize your comments. Do keep on posing your good questions, Marly. They provoke thought.

  4. Reading through this I have to say that this is my experience too - I mean the bit about reading and not selling many copies. Sometimes I feel my talk has gone very well, judging from the response, and yet hardly anybody buys a book at the end.

    Sometimes I try to analyse why: maybe the entrance fee was too high, or maybe my audience had felt they had found out all they wanted to know from my talk, or they were just being polite when they clapped, or they hadn't brought any money with them, or maybe they simply have a TBR pile that is as big as mine...or none of the above.

    When this happens I console myself that I had fun, and they had fun so it doesn't matter...but really I know I do need to sell books, and have come to the conclusion that the number I can sell in this way is so small as to be not really worth bothering...and yet still I do.

    Ah, maybe all this is a form of insanity. Yes, maybe that's all it is. I can no more stop saying yes to giving readings when someone asks than I can stop myself writing.

  5. Elsa Louise,

    Hmm, I remember you from once before... Clearly I need to go investigate.

    Okay, here's my just-got-kid-three-off-to-school response.

    If you publish in the print world, it's not about making a living for most people. It's just not, not for most people. I'm not talking about that idea. I'm talking about presses staying afloat and authors being able to continue to publish. That's a whole different set of issues. Houses are still dumping poetry lines. Then those writers can't find a niche because their Bookscan numbers are too weak...

    I don't even think this issue particularly commercial! I care about those lines of poetry vanishing, presses vanishing--yes, that has a practical, commercial side but we're not talking American success story. We're talking about staying out of the whirlpool around the drain.

    In practical terms for a writer, it's about staying in the game--not sliding out of the ability to publish. I'm not utterly convinced that's how things work all the time because I'm on my eighth book and have five forthcoming, and I am not a Numbers Queen. I've always written precisely and exactly whatever flew into my head from the great fount, and I've managed to bob along reasonably well despite that and violating other "publishing rules"--for example, I've never written the same book twice, often jumped to wildly different genres, and just generally behaved as if the world really could be my oyster, at least when it comes to writing. And all of my forthcoming books come from requests because I was too dratted lazy and uninterested to look for a new agent.

    For those of us who worked in (or never tried) the academic world and threw away our tenure and promotion (yes, I did just that), believe me, we're very clear that it's not about making a living but about making art. I quit many years ago for the sake of my writing. So I think I have not just my own head rights but wallet rights to say it's not about money!

    It's not. But.

    There are some practical considerations if we care about such fragile things as poetry lines, small presses, and poets. I like to think that novelists can fend for themselves, but I know writers at small presses who are in a bit of danger as well.

    Yes, we could all go nanopress or internet forever, but I don't think anybody wants that to be the only option.

  6. Clare,

    I am still bumfuddled that you did 35 events last year in service of your book. You traveled, you worked hard... Okay, that is 35 days completely eaten up by the event itself and another day to get back and/or recover. I definitely need to give you an award. Seren should love you! Cherish you! Hear that, Seren?

    Yes, we do need to sell books for our publishers: there's no way around it. But surely there is a more effective way.

    Isn't there?

  7. Oops, I fibbed.

    Forgot that one of my books was not a request, although several people suggested that I send along the way... The one that won a contest, that is: I don't normally send to such things, but this seemed the right one. I have submitted now and then, but they often seem to be off--wrong judge for me, wrong setting, wrong something. Also I am lazy about sending out...

  8. 35 events?! Holy crap, Clare. That is indeed going above and beyond the call of duty!

    Marly, it's such a comfort to hear you admit to being lazy about something -- though I'm not sure I quite believe you. As busy as you are with writing and family, where the hell would you ever find time to send manuscripts out?

  9. Stimulating early morning discussion. I have a rather schizophrenic way of thinking about my writing. On one hand, it is very very valuable to me--the most valuable thing I do. But at the same time, I must not allow myself to think that it means anything at all to anyone else, though of course I do anyway. The lines I spend so much time and effort over are worth very little or nothing in terms of money, or perhaps anything else, as far as most people go, and they don't help my "career," if I have one, and I suspect I don't because unlike Marly, I never accepted a full time academic job, feeling instinctively that I could not write at all if I were buried in full time teaching. Plus I had the responsibility of caring for my son and my elderly parents. I am not a miraculous person, as Marly is, who has been able to do it all. I had to husband my bit of energy. So here I sit with two manuscripts and no takers so far. I cannot even find an opportunity to DO readings. So to me, the notion of doing readings and having people applaud and appreciate what I do, and having people ask for books or poems or whatever looks pretty good. Though of course I appreciate that this is not paradise. There is still the problem of calling attention to one's work. The problem of getting publishers to take a chance one one's future work when there are so many writers, endless numbers of such good writers, they could be publishing who can capture the eye of the public, if only for the requisite 15 minutes because they are young and beautiful and dramatic or because they happen to be in the right place at the right time.

  10. Dave,

    Stay tuned: tomorrow I give Clare an award!

    It's just like laundry. You do the 14 loads, you wash, you dry, you fold--and then you don't feel like putting it away. Just like submissions. I like it when people ask.

  11. Robbi,

    That is a mouthful!

    I am definitely not miraculous. Especially about my housekeeping. Especially upstairs.

    The whole teaching-and-writing business is something everybody has to work out for him- or herself. It's tricky, it's demanding. I won't say it wasn't a wrench to give up my tenure and promotion because it was, but I made what was for me the best choice. It wasn't the most sensible choice or the one that was best for me in financial terms, and it meant using up all my savings and an arts grant in the following four years while my husband went to school. Everybody's circumstances are different, everybody's decisions have to be made alone. I think you are doing fine and have been there for the people who needed you when they needed you. You'll get more worthwhile poems out of that than out of many other things.

    And I am not so much thinking about myself--except that recent days have brought home to me how hard it is to sell poetry--but about the whole picture of how we need to support the arts, the presses and galleries, the people we say we desire. And how those of us on the other side need to find new ways of getting the word out. Because I know a lot of writers working way too hard on that end of things. I know editors who have just cut lines. I know editors who think about closing a press. None of those things are good for us.

    Actually you were one of the reasons I did "The House of Words" series. That is, I realized that a lot of people who leave comments or write me emails or send me facebook messages needed to think about options. They often just went round and round in a gerbil wheel when they tried to look at the future.

    You have two manuscripts in a very hard-to-place genre. You were considering the idea of nanopress but unsure. But you have two. Why not take one of them and go with the nanopress model? I wouldn't hesitate, but I would first do several things. I would find somebody solid to be your partner as editor/writer and swap buddy. I would make sure my book included a little intro from her.

    And then I would ask a friend who teaches literature at a California university (in your own area, if possible) to write you a second critical introduction that would be signed at the end with her/his name and title and university.

    Then I would send my next manuscript out along with a copy of the first book. That's what I would do in your shoes.

  12. 35 events on a writer's selling tour seems average from what i see some of the successful writers of garden books doing.

    Yes, the 'net can help sell books. Especially if you have been successful selling at least one book before. But you've gotta be willing to make uncomfortable "networking" strangers who blog who have audiences who you think might be interested or others recommend to you.

    by the way, i wrote Margaret Roach and sent her a link to (sorry, can't remember title!!) that wonderful tree poem of yours. She really liked it and said she would be visiting to look at more of your work.

    That's what i'm talking about. She occasionally recommends non-garden books, and when she did recently, that's when i wrote to her about you and your work.

    She doesn't know me. i'm mostly just a lurker on her blog. i wrote her because i sensed you were still hesitant to. Maybe i'm wrong and you did already? IN that case, YAY! good for you!!

    Your work would appeal to those who love plants. Like the Garden Rant women and Margaret and her blogging sister...all of whom are sophisticated, interesting people with wide interests.

    It can't hurt. You're safely home when you send that email or make the comment on a blog.

    yes, i know it's a lot of work looking for new bloggers who might help you and it's uncomfortable. but in the blogging world we all know we all do it for selfish reasons but we are also willing to "link to each other", help each other.

    i'm just sayin...i think that's how you use the 'net.

    One other thing: From my point of view, Twitter and clever--but brief-- newsletters that provide "headlines" and "news" of new content on the blog seem far more effective than FB. FB is for fun, it seems, not serious networking.

    Newsletters, done well, feel like lovely personal emails from the creator.

    Margaret's newsletter is a perfect example of what i'm talking about. i'll forward one to you.

    Yes, lots of work. But heck of a lot less than cold calling on an actual phone or getting dressed up and traveling to 35 events.

    Using the 'net effectively...It all depends on what your goal is...what your needs are.

  13. Thanks, zephyr--

    I thought that was a grand idea; I'm just overrun, trying to catch up or get ready for things, trying to keep up with my children...

    To tell the truth, I thought both your ideas were great (the two bloggers--I'll have to go and look and see if I can find out who the other one was) and promptly forgot when the next set of immediate deadlines shouted in my face. Terrible, I know.

    I definitely need to have a sort of ideas book, probably a paper one, where I can jot down such things. I have gotten some more ideas in the past few days, and they will trickle away too if I don't get a method.

    Yes, I love gardeners. I'm going to post some images of my wildflower garden soon.

    Yeesh, 35 normal? That's a pretty big tour. Very few writers get so much in the way of a tour from publishers, and the cost can be formidable. In the U. S., that means an awful lot of travel days... Even for Clare, I'd guess that would mean 70 days subtracted from the year. One year to get there and do an event, one day to get back and be worn out. But here it could mean a lot more.

    But of course one does a lot of little local stuff--maybe that counts too. Visiting classes, clubs, etc.

  14. Dominique Browning was the other one:

    i'm sure she gets lots and lots of emails, inquiries, etc. And i admit it. She intimidates me. but hey, you don't know until you try. It can't hurt. If i had a book as beautiful as yours, i'd take the leap.

  15. Thanks, zephyr--

    You waft good things my way!

  16. The issue is linked to commerce precisely because the Bookscan figure is so assiduously consulted, as if it were the Delphic oracle. Your personal situation appears to be such that you need not financially support yourself via your art (spiritually is a different matter). Perhaps it falls under the category of l’art pour l’art, which makes it exceedingly valuable to society but not necessarily as a moneymaking endeavor. Not everything needs to make money; many valuable things do not, nor are they intended to. Or should not be intended to.

    It is tough to make our way through the thicket of evolution right now, because the changes are occurring as we find our way.

    I too value books. I love books. I want to see the continued printing and publishing of books. I don’t own a Kindle or a Nook but one day, I might.

    Everything has costs. Publishers look closely at that bottom line on the balance sheet. Every editor in an acquisition meeting must bring up the projected sales figures of any ms she hopes to bring to the house for eventual publication. These folks most certainly discuss those practical aspects in such meetings. We don’t have to like it. We would do well to try and understand it. Especially in an evolving publishing world. That’s all I’m saying.

    Speaking of links and commenting, it is because of you, dear Marly, that the wondrous Paul Stevens accepted a poem of mine, forthcoming at some point soon in The Flea. I wouldn’t have known about his site if not for you. Herewith, I extend a most heartfelt Thank You.


  17. O New York State tax laws, I do not love you! So nice to be interrupted in such reading by several visitors...

    Elsa Louise,

    Can't disagree with you there...

    And many congratulations on having succumbed to the Mighty Flea. I love that zany magazine! Paul is a great broadcaster (as in seeding) of interesting magazines.

    Now back to trying to figure out what I need to do if I want to sell a few books on my website.

  18. Thanks Marly. I am waiting for my cousin to finish the drawings, and then I will most likely send that to the nanopress, though I do recall a couple of tempting chapbook contests that asked specifically for "unusual"
    and hard to pigeonhole work. I might check with them, anyhow, if the date for their deadlines has not passed.

  19. Robbi,

    Yes, that sounds good as well. But I wouldn't be shy about doing a nanopress with somebody else--not if you made it as tight and well-introduced as possible and then used it to help launch the next book... And I do think a pair of introductions, one from the "editor-partner" and one from an academic, would be helpful in establishing the seriousness of the effort.

    It had been hard and continues to be hard for most people to get that first book. It just is. And that's not going to suddenly change, alas, unless you follow a route like Dave Bonta took. Or Nic Sebastian.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.