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Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Peddler's Comedy

Photograph credit for this little still life
The Throne of Psyche
goes to Robin Rudd and her blog, 
Robin Has An Idea

Tomorrow:  Poetry marketing: helpful and/or amusing links

Lately I have come to realize exactly how hard it is to sell books of poetry in the U. S. of A. With my first book of poems, I was not able to go on the road for various personal reasons having to do with my husband’s professional training and three young children and so on. Little did I know what a great boon that was to my peace of mind!  But now I am getting a peddler’s lesson.  I did not realize exactly what a Pirlipat’s Krakatuk the poetry market was until I did a successful, crowded event where people broke repeatedly into jolly applause and I sold . . . precisely three copies. Three!  After another good event, the store sold . . . five.  

Now I realize that we live in a culture that is rabid about selling, and I’m not keen on either rabid commercialism or the measuring of the value of art by sales numbers.  I know that makes no sense, and that much dross earns gold and much that is gold receives small reward.  That’s the world, and I for one am not going to change the facts of the world or make myself dreary or anguished by contemplating those facts for too long. Nor do I intend to complain or whine—I don’t like the sound of either.  Poetry is far too connected with joy for me to bother with whinging. (What a great word whinging is; I hereby authorize the pilfering of said word from the U.K.)

Ideally, I confess that I would like to write poems and stories and be above such things. I’d like to sit up in a tower with Yeats (and without him, when I wanted to write) and never look down to see the peddlers who might or might not be hawking my books.

Nevertheless, 21st century writers who do not go it alone have an obligation to help the publisher sell books—a writer who doesn’t sell may not have a publisher next go-round.  The need particularly applies to writers like me who do not have an academic affiliation (oh, to have somebodies to scratch my grateful back and I to vigorously scratch theirs in return, trala), who live in a dratted teeny-tiny village where they did not grow up (rather than a small town, a small city, a big city, a downright metropolis, or even some outrageous writer-haven like New York City), and who have a tendency to be caught up in the dream of writing rather than collaring people and demanding that they look at their wonderful new books (with delicious covers by Clive Hicks-Jenkins and 100+ creamy pages of poems, etc.)

So I am doing a little research in hopes that I can fathom what and how people manage to help support their books and publishers in this matter of poetry.  I want to know what works and what is not a waste of precious hours.  Because I have several more books of poems forthcoming, and I had better educate myself. And since other hapless-at-peddling-and-not-very-pushy people are no doubt whirling in circles in the very same leaky coracle, I’m going to post what ideas and links I have found in hopes that they will be useful to somebody else.  Some elements have been touched on in my House of Words series, but I’m sure there is material out there on the web, available to us all.


  1. The thought of you only selling three or 5 books at your reading makes me sad.

    Glad to hear you have a couple more fourth coming.

    Maybe I will have to start doing Susanna reading Marly on my blog till all my friends by a copy.

  2. Susanna,

    Lovely of you to be sad! I refuse to be sad, luckily.

    But it is interesting that people can come and be very involved and...

  3. I related your sorry tale of the enthusiastic audience who bought next to no books (makes me mad rather than sad) to Tom after we'd attended an opening of a local artist who is making beautiful, unusual and reasonably priced things using slate in our local small, quite touristy village. He has converted an ancient 'cave' into a beautiful exhibition space, was offering everybody drinks and food, the locals all turned out in their finery and made nice noises, but when we went to collect the piece we'd bought, he appeared to have sold just that and two very small things, one of them to our friend who took us along. He'd obviously made an effort to make plenty of small, attractive affordable things but there were clearly few takers.

    It's as if people think they've done you enough of a favour just by turning up and being entertained.

    Poetry isn't an easy thing to sell, of course, there are too many producers and not enough consumers, and so much of it is just not really loveable enough for people to want to give it their time and money. But yours is, and your book is indeed a beautiful object, s folded, bejewelled and embroidered tent which opens out into room after room to wonder at. Anyone who enjoyed hearing you reading ought to see that. And even if they didn't, I would have thought politeness and recognition of being well entertained might prompt them to shell out and give it a try!

    I know you don't want to whinge, I know you don't need to sell books to feed your children, and we all know that sales aren't measure of the value of anything, but I can quite see that you need to know that what you've done isn't just withering in the dark.

    BTW, I got my copy through UK Amazon, I think. If I wanted to order any more, or recommend anyone else to, is there a better way where you benefit more directly or anything?

  4. That's way too dispiriting, but I just bought a copy, so I hope that little bit helps. I love Lucy's response. Isn't she a wonderful friend? Hang in there, Miss Marly. You are so very gifted and accomplished.

  5. Oh...what dear Lucy said...perfect.

    i also think some of this "lack of buying art" can be blamed on fear. i suspect that all the bad economic news has people dispirited, and reluctant to spend on truth and beauty. At least that's the feeling i get as i listen and watch people. And, the "why buy the whole cd when i can download the song i love most for 99cents" syndrome. i'm guilty of that.

    i, too, am sad that people were not swept up in the moment, listening to you, and did not wish to hold it in their hands and take the lovely book home.

  6. Lucy,

    What a grand response! Much appreciated here.

    Your story about the artist reminds me of the recent newspaper article I did about my friend Ashley Norwood Cooper. I went to her show in Earlville (not too far away and a lovely drive) and was disturbed not to find Cooperstonians at the opening--well, one and his little daughter.

    I really felt bothered and that I simply must do something, and so I wrote a review of the show for the local paper and was pretty clear about how we needed to support not just local artists who have a calling but also local venues like the Earlville Opera House gallery (a copy is elsewhere on the blog.) I was in Wales or North Carolina when it came out, but I later heard that there was a sermon on it at Christ Church. (And my husband bought one of the paintings as a surprise for me... the one I had liked best and mentioned as the strongest in the article.) I have no idea what else happened since I wasn't around, but that sermon meant that hundreds of people heard about the show over two services.

    So I think there are things we can do to educate and to spread the word, but it's not easy. It's not easy at all and requires a little jumping up and down and shouting, which has never been my thing!

    But of course poetry requires not just the sale of a few tangible items but many at a lower cost--and the same thing is available via Amazon used sellers and and so on in a way that does not benefit the artist or the publisher. I do wish such sites would not sell review copies and so on until six months passed, but that's not going to happen. Too dratted honorable and too supportive of publishers!

    The whole thing is certainly curious, and people feel quite able to blow more money on a mediocre lunch than on something permanent and beautiful. I'm still pondering what can be done.

  7. Laura,

    I'm quite clear that poetry books are sold one by one by one, so thank you! I acknowledge that it is dispiriting, but I don't let myself go in that direction. I just can't.

    Yes, Lucy's response is wonderful.

  8. zephyr,

    Thanks--alas, we must tilt against the world as it is!

  9. P. S. to Lucy

    I realize that I forgot to answer your question...

    What are the best ways to buy to benefit publisher and writer?

    Probably the best in a lot of cases is to order through a good bookstore and ask them to carry the book and display it! That's the ideal, and poetry needs that kind of extra selling. But that is not going to happen often.

    Ordering through a good local bookstore you like helps everybody--bookstore, publisher, artist.

    Ordering though the publisher's website helps the publisher more.

    Ordering through a private bookstore with an online site helps bookstore, publisher, and writer.

    Libraries are interesting here as well; it often takes a rather small number of requests for a book to generate an order. I have often made suggestions to my local library, not because I didn't order a copy of my own but because I thought a worthy book would improve our library and help move the weight of things away from trash and toward good books.


    Here's a link to the article from "The Freeman's Journal" that I wrote about Ashley Cooper's show in Earlville.

    We can do things like this; we can help people via web and print. We can help the beautiful but invisible be visible if we choose. I think it an inspiring call and hope that I can answer it in a worthy way.

    Because I do so choose.


    Along the same lines and pretty interesting, comments and all.

  12. Wow, that Walter Kirn has a mouth on him! And lots of energy. I like energy. I wish that I had been there when he met Borges and heard him talk about King Lear and how it could be improved.

  13. Hello again.

    Ordering locally, bookshops or libraries, isn't really an option for me here, this being rural France. I have to go on-line, but you make me think that to go through a UK bookshop with an on-line site is something I should do, rather than taking the easy one-click option with Amazon, at least with less mainstream more special things, so I will look into it.

    I lack confidence in my ability to review and promote things, especially the kind of things I love most like poems and visual art, which I tend to feel quite inarticulate about, that they speak better for themselves than I can for them. Which I suppose isn't any reason not to try.

    Funnily enough, though I'd been reading and enjoying your poems for years here, and at Q and other places on the web, it wasn't until I was able to see them and hold them in my hands as a book, and all together, that I fully clicked with them. There are other things which I enjoy reading blog-fashion, in bite-sized chunks, on-line, but which wouldn't, and don't really seem right in book form. I've bought one or two bloggers' books that were like that.

    I'll follow you on this subject with interest.

  14. Lucy,

    I knew all that wouldn't "fit," but just threw it out figuring you would adapt it to your situation--I'm in the same sort of place here. We have a great used bookstore here (where I do buy a lot of books that are out of print), and two part-bookstores (one that is more than half jewelry and cards, the other that is mostly baseball touristy items with a nice small bookstore stuck in the corner.)

    I don't always "review" because I don't have time and know too many people with books forthcoming. Sometimes I do things like my "12 Readings for Christmas" and "12 Readings for Advent." They I just excerpt and add images and sometimes review quotes. If I had to review everything by everybody I know or e-know with a book, I would definitely drown! I can't even read everything by everybody I know. I may read part when I have too much to do, but I can't manage it all. (And of course a lot of what friends write is not the sort of work that is all that nourishing to my particular Muse. I still like the friends and want to support them, nevertheless... But these days it is mostly that I simply don't have enough time.)

    Yes, a book is a different thing--it should be shapely and unified (or perhaps contrasting strongly and so unified in a different way.) So it is a different experience from reading scattered work. My next three books of poetry (well, I haven't sent out "The Book of the Red King" yet and won't for a while) will be even more unified than this one. The odd thing is, you learn a lot about your work when putting it together into a book.

  15. I know this happens here ( the nil selling of books) and I always feel sad for the writer.
    I hope folk turn a new leaf...preferably Marly of YOUR books!

  16. Marly,
    You are so kind and so in the right here. I am sorry that the world didn't suddenly change and begin buying your work like crazy, as it deserves.And I admire that you put money where your heart is and buy others' art and writing.
    I will do the same once I get the job to fund it.
    It strikes me though that Lucy is far more articulate than she thinks she is. She supported this position quite well, thank you!

  17. Jan,

    Hi there, so glad to see you! I'm sure the UK suffers from some of the same ailments we do, alas.


    Yes, I think Lucy quite able to twist words into the shapes she likes!

    I don't worry about how things go. I just try something different next time (just like collecting advice for the next post is doing something different.)

  18. I went to an event last year - travelled more than 100 miles there and back at my own expense - and sold three books. This has happened several times - but this one is fresh in my mind today because my publisher has asked me if I'd be interested in going again...

    Then another time last year I went right down to Cornwall (a whole day's journey there by train) for an event and I think I sold just one. At least that time I had my expenses (but not my time) paid. Other times I have sold not one. It is hard to sell books...and not just poetry or objects of art.

    I have decided that the reward is in the people I meet and the places I see - maybe a strange solace, but a real one.

  19. Yes, I thought of you, Clare, because last year you did so many events and really sacrificed a lot of time and energy to share A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees (Seren, 2010 and available in the states as well as Europe and no doubt elsewhere!)

    I have many thoughts about all this, but what popped into my head was a line from the King James Bible, "for the labourer is worthy of his hire."

  20. Oh, I forgot to ask! Are you going again?

  21. Marly, just a little note to say that over at the National Library of Wales, copies of the Monograph and the Book of Ystwyth, both of which you significantly contributed to, continue to walk off the shelves. Today I did my last gallery talk and I signed a good number of books... purchased at the Library shop... at the end of it. Of course the job of selling them will become much tougher when the exhibition closes. It's clearly easier selling both the books while people want to carry something away from the gallery as a memento of the exhibition. However, what's interesting here is that the book of poetry is selling in equal numbers to the larger Monograph/catalogue, which while not quite what we had expected, is of course is most heartening. Sadly we have no idea whether we're selling the poetry book to art lovers principally going for the images, or to poetry lovers for who the images may not be the chief attraction. I suspect we're hitting both target groups, and that may account for the relatively high number of sales.

    It's quite a learning curve. We'll try to process whatever information we can glean from the various retail sources (both online and traditional) though I think it's going to take a long time to understand the patterns and come to any conclusions. Watch this space.

  22. Oh, that is interesting! And jolly. It fits with my feeling that as e-books become more dominant, the beauty of physical books will become more important...

  23. "No 'Table of Events' to buy, but please do buy a copy of the book. It is a 'Table of Events' of the best sort!"

    People do not realize that when they turn up to enjoy free entertainment, that if they were to have gone to the theater they would probably buy SOMETHING.

    "If you enjoy the poetry - please consider owning a volume to enjoy at your leisure"

    Hell... and what is wrong with buying poetry, or art, or music - for friends too?

    I do not know what is in people's minds. It's not stinginess, but what IS IT?

    I am now (publicly) outraged.

  24. Marly. You must say something to calm me down, or clam me up!

  25. I'm not even 'into books' but would have just as happily bought a download, at the same price.
    Wordsworth says it all.
    Words worth.

  26. Hey, Paul!

    Calm down?

    You are entertaining when you are not calm. I would have calmed you down anyway except first I was talking to another writer on the phone, and then after that I was talking to my mother on the phone...

    I don't think that I entirely understand it or what to do about it. But I am thinking. And quarrying for other people's opinions in the online mine of marketing blather.

  27. so true, Marly, that we must deal with the world as it is. i suppose i'm always trying to figure out the psychology of my order to "sell" what i need to or hope to.

  28. Yes, and I recommend that all passers-by go and take a look at zephyr's garden!

  29. Thank you...*blush*

    i keep trying to think of a way to crack the selling nut, too. i'm really bad at doing it for myself, but a good cheerleader for others. i know it's different for different arts, but some of the aspects are similar.

  30. Yes, I am better with others than myself!

    What do you do to market?

  31. Oh, golly. i don't know that it relates to trying to sell poetry, except for perhaps the psychology issue of selling... i've done everything from cold calling, to being my own sales rep, to having my sister do it for me, to pitching to a conference room of suits/potential investors which succeeded in getting me a financial partner, then a team of sales reps who got my work into a lot of great places (including Nat. Museum of Women in the Arts gift shop, NYBG, BBG, Longwood, etc) just as the economy went south (not this last time, but one of the several earlier times, years ago)
    Then i did the same thing for a radio garden/talk show. ugh. worse, but that was complicated by other factors which i won't go into here because of other individuals involved.
    Then, pitched my own garden book idea, secured "the" agent...just as the bottom fell out of garden book publishing.
    My timing has been really great. (not)

    Even so, still glad i got out of academia.

    Now i just sell my stuff to family and friends and small magazines...but...i'm learning some valuable things about networking on the web and visual arts from a fellow in Wales who wrestles with some of my same issues--which i'm trying to apply to my own ventures on the web (for a local audience).

    re my very personal work, My goal now is to sell "a little" just to know people still love my work enough to do so.

    My field (photography) is so intensely competitive, and amateurs willing to sell for peanuts have pretty much killed the photo stock market source of income that so many of us used to rely on. It is crazy. And, i've known for a long time that i am! :^) If only i had loved or could even simply tolerate shooting weddings!!

  32. Weddings! No, I can't picture you doing that... But what I can picture you doing is PETS! Particularly cats, of course, but others as well, and out of doors. Pets in the garden. :)

    I think it's helpful to hear what other people do in other arts areas because sometimes a thing strikes you as having an analogue in your own field. Or that you could invent something similar that would fit... Or something.

  33. Pets would be fun...but SO much work!

    Still thinking on the dilemma of trying to sell art and i guess the hardest lesson for me to learn is the value, the necessity, of networking outside one's comfort zone. Have to push and pull myself each and every time. But it's essential in order to succeed.

  34. Yes, I think it would make a funny saga, the tale of trying to support your art by a Pets in the Garden business! Runaway cats, cats in the canopy, etc. Exciting!

    Some people are good at such things, but they are rare. I think that I have met three who are notably talented at it. And in two cases it seemed to just come naturally. The other is less successful but doing fine--has a multi-pronged online presence that is helpful.


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.