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How to Write Poetry Books That Sell
Poetry is a beautiful form of self-expression that can lead readers to new insights as well as entertain readers, make them laugh, and move them deeply. That said, poetry books are very difficult to sell, and many poets fail to write marketable poems or present their poetry collections in a marketable way. While a poet may get a great deal of self-satisfaction from writing poetry, publishing a poetry book is of little purpose if no one is going to buy or read it. Here are a few guidelines for making a poetry book more marketable.
Have a Theme
Many poets just write a poem about whatever strikes their fancy at the moment. Then they end up with maybe fifty or a hundred such poems and decide it’s time to compile all the poems and put them in a collection. The problem is marketing such a book. When people ask, “What is your poetry book about?” most poets scramble for answers. Typical responses might be, “It’s about life” which is vague and boring, or more specifically, “It’s a collection of poems that explore love, death, Nature, growing up, having a dog, gardening, old age, visiting France, and sailing.” Boring, confusing, too many topics, and too little of any one thing. There might be one poem in that hodgepodge that interests a reader, but will he want to pay $15 for a book so he can read one poem about sailing? Doubtful. Throwing together a bunch of unrelated poems into one volume isn’t going to help you sell your poetry collection.
Most poets would never think of writing an essay, a short story, or a book without a theme, so why publish a poetry book without a specific theme? It may be that you have fifty unrelated poems, but on closer look, perhaps five or six of them can be worked into a collection with a specific theme along with writing some new poems so your book has focus. Your theme might be as general as poems about movies or about the seasons, or as specific as poems about your battle with cancer or a poem about each president of the United States. A theme is a hook. It will answer the inevitable question-“What is your book about?” and it will give readers something to grasp onto so they can make a conscious decision about whether to purchase your book.
Have Organization-even a Plot
Frequently when I ask poets how they decided to arrange or organize the poems in their books, I get back blank stares or they respond, “Well, I just put them in the order I thought they went in, or the order they were written in, or there’s no specific order.” Even if you don’t have a theme for all the poems, you can at least organize them into specific sections based on what they are about, such as putting the five poems about sailing together, or the eight poems about love lost, or the three poems about raising children into their own sections.
If you are writing about your own life or experiences, why not make the poems chronological from childhood to old age? Maybe you have an autobiographical novel in poem form. Maybe you have a whole book that can be made from your poems. Or maybe you want to write a novel in verse. Victorians often did so-Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh” is one such example. A simple short poem might quickly be forgotten, but a series of poems that build one upon another are not likely to be forgotten.
Ask yourself, “When readers have finished reading my poetry collection, what new understanding do I want them to have?” Make your first poem the introductory one and your final poem a conclusion, one that sums up your collection with each poem in the process continuing the theme and progressing toward the collection’s climactic final insight.
Have a Gimmick or a Hook. The terms “gimmick” and “hook” might sound a bit crude, but they do illustrate my point. A collection of poems isn’t going to attract most readers, but if you have something special to hook readers, you’re more likely to get attention.
Numerous possible tactics can be taken to make your poems interesting so they will appeal to people who may not otherwise typically read poetry.
Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” had a hook. Each poem was told in the voice of a dead person from Spoon River. While each poem stood by itself, often the speaker in one poem would refer to people in another poem. For example, in one poem, a wife complains about how the minister convinced her to stay with her husband. Later, the minister speaks about how his greatest triumph was convincing that couple to stay married. The irony, humor, and the connections between the townspeople made the book popular and memorable enough that it is still read nearly a century after its publication.
Illustrations or photographs are a hook in themselves. If you’re writing an autobiographical poetry collection, why not insert photographs of yourself and the people and places mentioned in the poems? If you’re writing about Nature, insert photographs of the places you mention. You might even go all out and turn the book into a coffee table book with large photographs alternating with your poetry. People may not buy a poetry book, but they might buy a coffee table book for its stunning photographs, only to be pleasantly surprised by how much they also enjoy the poems. Team up with a good illustrator or photographer and you might corner two different types of readers: poetry lovers and lovers of visual art.
Shape or Visual Poems, more commonly called Picture Poetry or Graphic Poetry today, are another interesting gimmick. The challenge is to have the words in your poem take on the shape of an object that the poem is about. The layout of the poem then becomes a picture. Seventeenth century poet George Herbert was an early designer of such poems, including his poem “Easter Wings.” Your poem might be shaped like a butterfly, a castle, a vase, whatever you can imagine.
Before you bring out that poetry book, do a little research on the types of poetry books sold in stores. While there’s still a small market of book sales for classic poets like Wordsworth and Tennyson, my guess is more people today know the poetry of Shel Silverstein because it’s funny, well-illustrated, and easy to read. I’m not saying there aren’t great poets out there today; I’m saying most people haven’t heard of them. Let’s face it; when most people hear the word “poet,” the poets who come to mind are people like Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow-poets most people read in school and who are all long dead.
Sure, there are great poets alive today, but few of those poets have succeeded in making their books marketable. Unfortunately, most poets don’t understand or won’t accept that it is as much the poet’s job to find an audience for his or her words as it is to write those words.
Find your gimmick; make your book visually stunning; come up with a theme that will entice your readers’ interest and imagination; get a hook to draw in readers who don’t usually buy poetry books. Once you build up a reader following, then you can write your meditative poetry book that is only text because you’ll have a fan-base who will read any book you produce. Until then, do whatever you can to get your poems noticed by readers. It’s a worthwhile endeavor. The world may not know it, but it is waiting for the next Maya Angelou, Allen Ginsberg, or Seamus Heaney to remind it that poetry has a magic that prose cannot supply.
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