Friday, January 9, 2009

Ask the Editor - Selling Poetry

Dear Editors:

My name is Patricia Neely-Dorsey, first time author of a book of poetry entitled Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia - A Life in Poems. It is a celebration of the South and things southern. In my book, I attempt to give a positive glimpse into the southern way of life. My question is actually three-fold:

1) I have repeatedly been told that a book of poetry is a hard sale in the literary market. Do you think that this is true? Why?

2) Why are reviewers so reluctant (at least initially) to review a book of poetry? I have often had to do some really hard persuasion to just get the reviewer to consider it. I have been told on several occasions that "I/we don't review poetry," only to later receive a glowing review after much arm twisting.

3) Do you think a book of "Southern Poetry" can have widespread, mass appeal?

Thank -You Patricia Neely-Dorsey
Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia-A Life in Poems


Hello Patricia.

nfortunately, no matter how you look at it, whether from the buyer’s viewpoint, the reviewer’s or that of the publishing business in general, poetry is a difficult sell. Even finding sales statistics for poetry isn’t easy. You can find stats for Christian, mystery/suspense, romance, sci fi/fantasy, travel, history, and business, but few for poetry. For most people, although certainly not all, a book of poetry is not on the top of their “buy” list -- and therein lies the answer to all your questions.

To sell your book of poetry, you’re going to need to focus on niche markets. Since your book is already in print, you’ve passed the hurdle of finding an agent/publisher interested in poetry. Now you focus on selling it. Look first to local markets, places where you can get publicity and selling space. Look beyond bookstores. Check out local coffee shops, card/stationery stores, touristy places, bed and breakfast hotels, anything with a connection to your poetry. Try to find places that will let you do a short reading from your book -- one stat
istic you can find is that poetry sells better if the potential reader can hear the poet read from her book. Once you’ve covered the local markets, expand your circle. Check out organizations and events statewide, even nationally. Does your state have a festival? Literary festivals tend to go for the big authors of best-sellers, but they also include “literary” books like art, history, biographies, photography/art books and …. poetry. And remember to keep your website updated with upcoming appearances, dates and direct links for your virtual book tour, a direct link to the places where your book can be bought, links to your blog and your Twitter address, permalinks to interviews or podcasts, etc.

Reviewers are most likely reluctant to take on poetry books because, like publishers, they have an audience. There are not as many people who buy poetry as there are who buy, say, suspense; therefore, it follows, there are not as many poetry buyers who are reading reviews. You are doing the right thing, though. You’re (politely) keeping after your favorite reviewers and yo
u’re getting good reviews. Be sure you link to those reviews. I see you are already putting those reviews up on your website, along with testimonials. If the original review has a permalink, it wouldn’t hurt to embed that link into the review you have posted on your website. (A little give and take for the reviewer -- you get a good review; he gets a link online.)

Contrary to the morning network newscasters, who seem to think the world extends only as far as the borders of New York City, there are other places of interest in the U.S. People like reading about the South, just as they buy books set in the West and in Florida and, yes, even books set in New York. There are plenty of people who enjoy reading about the South, whether it’s a novel or a book of poetry. If your themes and emotions are universal, your appeal will be as well. I’ve not read your book, but as my own example, a po
em about Poke Salad can hit home with someone who has no idea what Poke Salad is or how it’s picked and cooked. They may never have tasted this dish, but they have their own family’s treasured recipe and traditions passed down through generations.

So, to summarize, here are my answers to your three questions: yes (relatively), because, and possibly. Or to put that not quite so succinctly…

1) Yes, poetry will be a harder sell than most genres.

2) Reviewers can be reluctant to review a book of poetry because even a reviewer has an audience she has to write to.

3) A book that focuses on the South could possibly be difficult to sell in other areas of the country, but if your work builds on the “everyman” themes, you are more likely to be able to appeal to “everyman.”


Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and book consultant, with an informational and interactive blog for writers and a free weekly e-newsletter that goes out to subscribers around the globe. She coaches writers on the publishing industry, finding an agent, and polishing their work for publication. You can also follow her on Twitter.

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  1. Great insights, Helen.

    Morgan Mandel
    follow me on Twitter at

  2. Thank you so much for your wonderfully indepth answer to my question. It was extremely helpful.
    I received a great deal of insight from the points that you made.
    Thank you, again, for your time and consideration of my book, Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia.

    Patricia Neely-Dorsey
    "Meet Mississippi Through Poetry Prose and The Written Word"

  3. You're welcome Pstricia. I'm glad my thoughts were helpful. If you're not already doing a virtual book tour, definitely give it some thought.

  4. Helen, I think this was great advice that you offered. Another thing that you might want to recommend to Patricia is to seek out southern universities and colleges. Because it is area specific it will definitely have appeal to professors teaching poetry courses. If she can get professors to consider teaching her book in their classes the book will see sales in the campus bookstore. She may also be invited then to read at the university and she can sell books an after-reading meet and greet. She may also be asked to speak in poetry classes, sharing her experiences in publishing and writing.

    Jenny Bean

  5. Also, I wanted to add, I am an editor at a small, online ezine. Aside from offering short stories, art and poetry, we review fiction, poetry, nonfiction and even interview occasional authors and poets looking for a little exposure. If Patricia (or anyone else for that matter,) is interested in sending her book for a review, and possibly doing a short email interview, she can contact me at

    Jenny Bean

  6. This why blogs are so great -- people stop by with wonderful advice. Thanks Jenny!

  7. Yes! Yes! blogs are great!!
    Thank you so much!
    I will do that...all of that!
    I definitely have had the colleges and universities in mind. One college contacted me this week about the possibility of including my book in their curriculuum. I am very excited about that prospect.

    Patricia Neely-Dorsey Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia

  8. Patricia, if you've been contacted by one university, then use that to contact others.

  9. I wish poetry was more of a draw. Also wish I could write it as well as even so many struggling great poets do. Sign of the times, I guess. Good post, excellent summary of the situation and advice, Helen.

  10. Poetry is harder to review too. You have to really think about the meaning and the communication. Books can be considered easily and quickly in terms of character and plot, but how do you explain to someone how a poem feels read out loud? It requires a little more thought.
    I would gladly review poetry, but as we never hear anything about new emerging poets I do not seek them out, or their publishers, to request copies of their books. Like any untested author, I think it falls to the poet to really market their book and make sure people know they exist. I have only bought one book of poetry in the last ten years, I ordered it because I knew the poets work from an online forum we both used.

  11. Great insight into reviewing poetry. Thanks. I do feel like poetry is more subjective than novels. To me, poetry is visceral. It can affect different people in different ways. It can even affect me differently at different readings. Perhaps if I (or a reviewer) covered poetry almost exclusively, I would learn what to look for and how to spot what I considered the essentials.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.