Poetry Readings and Book Sales

Most writers have to give readings of their work. Usually this is done to introduce oneself to a new and larger audience, and perhaps more importantly, to generate book sales. As the author of 15 poetry collections, I’ve given TONS of readings all over America. And much of the time it’s been fun. But it can be dreary and sometimes even depressing as well. What do you do, for instance, when no one shows up at your reading? Does the standing room only crowd at another reading make up for that? And just how many book sales ARE generated from readings?

The first poetry reading I ever gave was back in the 1980s at the long gone Black and Read bookstore in Knoxville, TN, where I was getting my undergraduate degree. That reading was shared by several people. My first reading I gave as the featured poet was at the also long gone Davis Kidd bookstore, also in Knoxville. There weren’t very many people at the first one. There were over 70 people filling the small indie bookstore for the second one.  (I was somewhat popular in college.)

Over the years, I’ve given poetry readings at universities, bookstores, sidewalks, bars, coffee shops, auditoriums, and even nightclubs. They’ve all been different too. My most depressing reading was at a coffee shop in Huntington Beach, CA. Not very many people showed up. My biggest readings have been at universities. Quite a few people came to hear me at UCLA and later, back at the University of Tennessee. I’ve read at other universities too. The strangest reading I ever did was at a Phoenix nightclub, where my reading provided the backdrop to an artsy fashion show. Talk about weird! I also really enjoyed the magazine publication readings out in California, especially for Pearl, Caffeine, and Saturday Afternoon Journal. I always looked forward to those.

I did a lot of readings on the West coast and parts of the Southwest back in 1996 in an effort to promote my new book, Places. It had gotten really good reviews around the world, and I’d gotten some good publicity in various newspapers around the country, especially in Tennessee and California. I took copies of the book with me to sell. And the results were always disappointing. Either people had already bought the book at bookstores carrying it, or they just didn’t care to have it, even if I autographed it.

Here are some stats. These are from my memory, circa mid-’90s. The average press run for a book of poetry in America at the time was 700 copies. At the time, 51% of Americans bought one or more books each year. Of that 50%, 1% bought a poetry book. See where I’m going with this? It gets worse. The standard royalty rate for an author is 8%, and since poetry books don’t sell and since only 700 copies are published, poets can’t pay their rent or mortgage on what they make. Indeed, they rarely even break even when you consider the paper, printing ink, postage, phone call costs, travel, etc., of everything involved in getting a book published. Basically, you lose money. So, you try and help yourself and your publisher out by taking copies to readings to sell. But they don’t sell. And that’s tragic.

Of my 15 poetry collections, one was published with only 100 copies. Fortunately, it did go through four press runs, but still. 2,000 copies of Places were published. It sold OK, I guess, but I still have a box and a half of copies of the book in my garage — books my publisher couldn’t unload. My guess is, hundreds….

I was fortunate in that most of my books sold well enough to sell out. Some were re-printed; others were not. And so it goes. Did giving poetry readings help my book sales? To a small degree, yes, I’m sure. Did I become a best selling poet through poetry readings? I’ll stop laughing now. You get the picture. Here’s a final request: go to book readings. Hear what authors are publishing. Buy their books and get them autographed. Authors appreciate the support and the sales. Book lovers — do the right thing. Support poetry readings and all book readings. Seek them out. I think both writer and audience will find it rewarding.