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Tips for Self-Publishing Poets

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These days, more and more poets take the road to self-publishing. Many get lost.

The main problem is that few poets–startlingly few–give any thought to what they plan to do once they have their collected poems in their hands as a book. Let’s take a look at some things to consider well before publication and some measures to take to reach enthusiastic readers afterward.

Preparation

Who is your book for? A poem can be like a letter: personal, reflective, plaintive, or humorous. Still, it had better have some surface attraction that speaks to someone. How do you define that someone?

In the world of poetry, niche markets might include ecological, ethnic, feminist, gay/lesbian, spiritual, and the time-honored religious. I know of a bookstore in Austin that deals exclusively in feminist writing; there must be more. In Corpus Christi, Texas, religious bookstores far outnumber the secular.

Regional niches work for poetry too, particularly now because people want the reassurance that familiarity and tradition offer. Can you pitch yourself as a poet of your community, state, or region? If so, you may want to send fliers and even sample copies to historical societies, parks and recreation departments, museums, civic groups, and libraries in your area.

Look for the odd but related venues–hotels, for example, or out-of-doors events that invite vendors. The computer is your friend in this search. If possible, send your promotional material out before your poems go to the printer. Response should influence your press run. Lacking any response, keep your first printing under 200 copies.

Promotion and Placement

As you probably know, bookstores are hard to crack. Not impossible, but difficult. Especially when you try to sell poetry.

Still, you can do a computer search for bookstores in your geographic area, and bookstores that cater to the audience you’ve identified for your poems. Explore one city at a time at www.thecityof(city name).com (www.thecityofanchorage.com, for example), or go to www.citysearch.com (austin.citysearch.com, for example). To track down bookstores in smaller towns, try Yahoo’s Regional/States/Cities directories (www.yahoo.com).

Dustbooks has a list of bookstores and libraries that have purchased books from small publishers that you can buy for only $50. You can use these lists to try to get your book onto shelves or to identify possible locations for book signings and readings. Dustbooks, by the way, has been around since 1964 and puts out The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses. You need to get to know them, if you don’t already. Just go to their Web site at www.dustbooks.com.

Again, look for venues odd and not-so-odd. Try doing readings at public libraries. Even a library that won’t let you sell books may buy a copy for its collection. At the public library in Victoria, Texas, they bought my book, and even went so far as to invite the local television station to my reading (I love Victoria).

The town where I live is small, but since it is on the Gulf Coast, it draws a lot of tourists, so I put my books in one local hotel gift shop, and in a downtown souvenir shop, and in a local antique store. The local Wal-Mart periodically holds “tent sales,” outdoor events featuring store merchandise, to create additional customer draw. Wal-Mart has kindly given me a table at several of these sales in exchange for a small donation to one of its favorite charities. Wal-Mart draws a broad spectrum of people, and these people buy my books. So much for “poetry doesn’t sell”!

Events are a marketing tool every business can use. I try to plan at least one for each month, more if possible–book signings, readings, book shows, and radio and TV appearances. Personally, I’ve done one radio and one TV show. I think I do a pretty doggone good poetry performance; with a live audience, I can tell. But I’m no Jay Leno, and on radio and TV you don’t see your audience, so I feel more like I’m going to confession. Maybe I’ll get better on the air later, but for now I’m concentrating on other kinds of events.

The thing to remember about events is to take a good look at what is going on. You may be looking an opportunity in the eye and not seeing it. Or you may be looking at what seems to be an opportunity and not seeing the bigger picture. I thought Labor Day weekend would be a good time to do a reading and book signing at a local hotel because we get a lot of tourists here. I planned strong newspaper support, so I was convinced I would draw a large audience. Wrong. I didn’t factor in Fiesta en La Playa, a large, carnival-like event just down the road, which had the real draw. Fortunately I had a backup plan. I spent the morning and early afternoon with my merchandise on the patio at Cena Ann’s, a downtown gift and souvenir shop. The sales there were good, mostly to out-of-town refugees from Fiesta en La Playa, while at the hotel that afternoon I had only a handful of loyalists and a few tourists–listening from their balconies.

Maxims

Watch your pennies.

It is nearly impossible to earn a return on an expensive book show. A thousand-piece mailing may sell 10 or 20 copies. Weigh costs carefully against what you might earn.

Try for variety. When I put out my first book, my wife told me, “No one will take you seriously if you don’t do another.” So I did another. Then I did a studio-recorded CD of selections from both books, as well as new poems. Then I did another CD. The fact is, she was right. Customers like to browse, to be able to choose. I’m a miniature store now, with book and CD combos at a special price. For a slight decrease in margin, I get a bigger sale.

Use reviews. The consensus seems to be that reviews do not sell books, not directly at least. But reviews do give the poet a certain level of credibility. So do publishing credits. Printed on the back of the book, they encourage the customer to buy it. I use reviews and credits in my fliers, and in my resume when soliciting a place to perform.

Don’t quit. All this sounds like a lot of foot-soldiering. It is. Self-published or not, you’re going to have to do the marketing if your poems are going to sell. And heed my wife’s advice: recalibrate, and do another. Surely you’ve learned something by now–why waste it?

David O. Offutt has self-published two collections of poems, A Perishable Good and The Byzantine Virgin, and produced two audiobooks, The Byzantine Virgin and Now That It’s Quiet. To learn more, e-mail doffutt@academicplanet.com or visit www.inflammablepress.citymax.com.

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