1. Poets and Self-Promotion: A Necessary Evil?

    Written by Rob Mackenzie at September 6, 2010 19:39

    Do you get fed up with poets’ efforts at self-promotion? Well, you’d be in good company because many poets find doing it awkward, which perhaps explains why their efforts are often clumsy and sometimes ill-considered.

    Poets these days are expected to do more than write poems. As well as doing readings, many poets are on Facebook and Twitter. They write blogs, make videos of their poems on YouTube, and post to online discussion forums. They network, make contact with festivals and reading series, and publicise their books – if they don’t, no one else is going to do it for them (well, publishers do their bit, but what they can do is limited). Stephen King and Jodi Picoult have massive publicity budgets to get their books in the public eye and shift millions of copies. That isn’t true of any poet. In among all this frenetic activity, poets must write poems. If they have a family and paid employment, the time to write poems will be further curtailed.

    I don’t suppose any of this is conducive to the creation of great literature and yet, somehow, terrific poems are still being written. They’re not terribly visible though. Some of the best poetry collections I’ve read in the past few years have sold only a few hundred copies, despite all the efforts authors have put into self-publicity.

    I know poetry is never going to have an audience comparable to a Stephen King novel, but it surely has a potentially larger audience than exists at present. I know some writers are almost invisible on the Internet, but they tend to be poets who have already established their reputations before the Web became the dominant force it is today. A degree of Internet self-publicity is generally necessary for a new or emerging poet, but are there less tapped ways of gaining audiences? Also, is it true that certain kinds of self-publicity are more acceptable and effective than others?

    How can we make poetry more visible, without making people fed up of the self-promotion that accompanies publication of an average poetry collection?

89 Responses to “Poets and Self-Promotion: A Necessary Evil?”

  1. Adele Ward says:

    Oh you really make me laugh, Sheenagh. We all make fools of ourselves on the internet sometimes so I’m usually very forgiving unless something is malicious.

    Actually the idea of teaming up with novelists is excellent. They don’t always give credit though. Some of the best publicity I’ve seen was that mention in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday about a poem set in a laundrette which the main character felt his daughter had inadvertently copied. She writes about washing a relationship away by washing the sheets. Ages later I read on a poet’s website that she had written the poem he was talking about, but he didn’t credit her and she only found out via a friend. Now I must find her name and the poem – she didn’t use it to self promote and probably should have done.

    The idea about offering poems to other places, like the pub you mention, is also an excellent way of ‘not ghettoising ourselves’ as advised in another post. My local gym asks me to set up an exhibition of poetry and art on the wall and I’ve never taken advantage of that offer. I bet they’d offer the books for sale on their counter too. Some surprising places can be very supportive.

  2. But how do we get over the embarrassment factor? i mean, I know the pub would have been a great idea but I could never actually go in and suggest it (actually I come from the last generation where women didn’t go into pubs unaccompanied and I still feel uncomfortable doing so). Could we maybe get our nearest and dearest to act as agents?

  3. Hi Rob,

    I’ve just very clumsily blogged my feelings on this. In short, my feeling is that I’m pretty new at all this. I do blog, and in part it’s so that I can have some kind of Internet ‘presence’, but it’s poetry I’m interested in promoting, not myself. I hope that doesn’t change. The balance might be tipped slightly if and when I further my one single publication — Magma, as it happens — especially if and when I have a book to ‘push.’ So far though, I’m happy just flying the flag for poetry in whatever way I know how, whether clumsily or not.

    Basically, the whole thing terrifies me, but you either let that stop you, or you do it anyway.

    Anyway, that’s my 2p. Thanks for the post, Rob.

  4. Adele Ward says:

    Sheenagh – again I’m glad you said this about pubs. Have women become more comfortable walking into pubs on their own? I’ve never felt comfortable doing that. Nearly all poetry events used to be in pubs when I was younger and I just couldn’t face walking in. From what I read they were very male events. There’s a lovely description in one book about men in steaming raincoats at them!

    A male friend of mine has set up an open mic in a bar and keeps complaining to me that people don’t turn up. He insisted that people would really want it to be in a bar. I told him it would make me feel uncomfortable walking in the first time – and that’s an all-important time. It’s all very well for his wife and other women going in with a man. But the main people who have expressed interest to him are women and they don’t turn up.

    I don’t think pubs are a great idea as a venue and I would only go to open mics in pubs if I knew I was meeting somebody. Just a thought.

    As for feeling scared when you start using the internet – don’t worry as we do all support each other and we’ve all been through it. The internet was a lifeline to me when my husband left 10 years ago and I was at home with small children. You soon get used to it and learn with loads of support from others.

  5. I have a friend who runs events in Ireland who says she gets far better participation from women when it’s in a cafe with tea and cakes! If it isn’t a noisy pub, it’s so often an arts venue with nasty paintstripper wine….

    I’m not happy walking into pubs alone but I think most young girls are.

  6. Jon Stone says:

    Agree very much with Jo Bell’s post. I also think it helps to think of publicity as a creative exercise. Going through the motions just because it will theoretically increase sales or awareness is just the kind of thing that will lead to more people getting fed up with you. Much better to think of something to do which is an interesting and engaging exercise in itself and make it tangentially related to what you’re trying to promote.

    And Geoff Stevens is talking crazytalk. You’d get much better publicity trying to be a controversial, ‘politically incorrect’, borderline misogynist/racist poet than you ever would by intelligently addressing things like multiculturalism. It might not all be good publicity but still …

  7. Wena Poon says:

    Hi – some thoughts, for what they’re worth!

    1. If you are shy or awkward about “self-promotion” or “networking”, don’t call it that, just think of it as “meeting new people” or “socializing”. Agree it is horribly awkward sometimes!

    2. I don’t like it when I meet a writer and they are badgering me to buy their book. If the person comes across poorly, and is only interested in me as a human being simply because I am a potential customer, it is not likely I would spend money to buy their book. So do avoid hard-selling!

    3. A good tip I received once from the corporate world, that I’d like to pass along: “If you feel like you’re “prostituting” yourself by networking or selling your work, it’s probably because you are marketing to the wrong people, people you don’t actually respect. Find the right crowd of people and that feeling goes away.”

    Good luck you guys!

    P.S. I love hearing poets read their work live – the Spoken Word rules!

    Wena

  8. Rob says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for all the comments. Plenty to think about!

  9. Kona Macphee says:

    Does it count as self-promotion to mention that my hot-off-the-press SPL blog column is somewhat related to this subject? :-)

    http://scottishpoetrylibrary.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/konas-column-11-the-m-word/

  10. Laura Chalar says:

    As several of you have mentioned, I think it’s a matter of reaching out — of not being afraid to use the Internet/social network tools available to us, and of keeping in mind the importance of interaction and generosity, as opposed to mere self-promotion, which is off-putting and boring.

    I am a Uruguayan writer (based in Buenos Aires and Montevideo) involved in various poetry translation projects. I have translated several English-language writers into Spanish, and vice versa. I’d be happy to hear from anyone interested in this ‘international cooperation’.

  11. Mary L. Slocum says:

    Here in Portland Oregon coffee shops have taken over most open mics- The bars closed us out because we didn’t spend enough money. The libraries sponsor some open mics at the library which seems to get a range of ages – these are listed as “family friendly” so modification of language is sometimes required. I continually have to remind myself that these poems need to be trotted out and around, otherwise what are they worth. If Longfellow left his work in a trunk, would it have gotten the attention it needed. I have finally built a following but it has been years. I try to read in areas that I don’t live in and events out of the ordinary. I recently took part in a comedy club, and am booked for a reading at a sorority event, hmmm. I have also printed my poems on sticky paper and posted them in bathrooms in the area. Self-promotion is like bragging about your grandchildren, people will tolerate you if they don’t like what you’re do ing.

  12. Sarah Fitt says:

    Having only just read these comments I would like to make a late comment. It is possible to self promote, go into the pub on your own as a female, even at 64 to open mic sessions, talk to fellow writers/poets/artists; get massive support and feedback. It can be scary to start with but every single person has been in the same position at one point in their life.
    We started what was an accidentally female poetry writing group five years ago, which has spread roots into a now monthly totally open to all, meeting at THE QUEENS HEAD, MONMOUTH, WALES.
    We call it the ‘Writers’ Showcase’ and would be delighted to see anyone who has words etc they wish to share.
    P.S. I am actually useless at self promotion but I guess I’ve just started!

  13. Adele Ward says:

    I think the thing with going to an open mic in a pub is that I’d do it if I knew I was going to meet people I knew there. If it’s a room above a pub it’s also easier. If it’s just in the pub it does feel awkward if you go on your own and especially if you don’t feel like drinking. Pubs have that atmosphere of ‘you can’t sit here unless you’re buying a drink’ and that does feel uncomfortable.

    I actually asked to go to a poetry reading in a pub once and the organisers themselves told me it was awkward if I wasn’t going with someone. If it’s organised in a way that means you can comfortably go in, drink or not drink, be on your own or in company, it must be possible to advertise it in that way so that people know what to expect.

  14. Mary says:

    I think self-promotion is one of the most vomitous things poets have to do. I am *trying* to do it via Twitter/etc. but it isn’t easy. Am trying to do readings, and find that being part of a writers’ group that meets in a nice cafe (Spoon in Edinburgh, and we are the really noisy bunch of women there on Wednesday nights) helps a lot. Not having to do it alone makes a big difference for me.

  15. Adele Ward says:

    The poet I mentioned in an earlier post, whose poem was mentioned by Ian McEwan in the novel Saturday, is Pat Jourdan. The original poem is on her website. She didn’t know her poem was mentioned until a friend told her.

  16. I put ‘tweeting-your-friends-for-support-in-a-competition’ in the same category as those competitions where you pay an entry fee and then find the named judge doesn’t read all the entries him/herself: It’s just plain dishonest.

  17. Adele Ward says:

    You’re right, Eamonn. That’s not winning. It’s not worth entering, and I won’t go and vote for people who ask me to do it. I do understand people make these mistakes though, so I can’t really blame them for joining in with a trend.

  18. Zachary Jean says:

    Over the last five or six years I’ve heard different opinions on how to promote yourself as a poet and what no one ever asks is: “why is the idea of promotion somehow equated with being a poet?” Coming from the other side of the Atlantic I can’t comment on the pub thread but often what I hear about “what being a poet is” simply comes down to getting attention and very seldom does anyone mention writing as the singular act of what makes a poet. All the rest – self-promotion, a rock and roll lifestyle, endless bling and groupies – is nice but it doesn’t make you a poet any more than a book tour makes Stephen King a novelist. As they say, poets write poetry because they have no other choice, they’ll perish in flames regardless if anyone else ever reads it. Everything else is a distraction.

  19. Mark McGuinness says:

    I don’t think anyone is saying you need to promote yourself to “be a poet”, only to be a poet whom other people read.

  20. Adele Ward says:

    Zachary – I think the words ‘self promotion’ are a bit misleading as this isn’t really about having bling and a rock and roll lifestyle. I know from my American friends that some poets can have that lifestyle and are stars in the US, but we don’t really have that here.

    I think the main question in the UK is how to help publishers at least break even on the print run. It’s very hard to sell poetry – about 200 copies is pretty good and more than that is excellent. A bestseller is still in the hundreds rather than over 1,000. 200 copies only really pay for the print run, so publishers and editors are often doing all the other sides of the work without any income at all.

    If poets are to keep finding outlets for their work – if they want it to be published – then they/we do have to find ways to make people aware of our writing and to tempt them to buy a book. Publishers also have to help with this and it’s all very hard with so few sales to pay for the time needed to work hard at trying to promote poetry…. I do believe that it’s possible to make people aware of what they’re missing, and I also believe more copies of certain poetry books should sell. So we’ll all keep trying.

  21. Adele Ward says:

    I agree Mark. It’s also not really about self promotion. It’s about championing poetry. We need to show people what they’re missing. If I believe poetry gives me such a rush when I read it, then I should also believe that I’m giving others something when I champion it to them and draw their attention to it. This isn’t just about promoting our own work. It’s about believing in poetry and believing there are more people out there who would enjoy it if only they knew.

  22. Zachary Jean says:

    Dear Adele and Mark: Thank you for your thoughtful responses. Any conversation about poetry is a great thing, no matter what the issue at hand is, so let me just say I am certainly on your side of the fence, as it were, when it comes to talking about the state of poets (versus, say, dismissing everything off hand). Where I become hesitant in the debate over self-promotion is that often what I hear from other writers who have, consciously or unconsciously, bought into the whole “social networking is the only definition I’ll accept as to what ‘success as a poet’ means” and to me that is the same trap anyone who equates successfulness with “the number of Tweets or friends on Facebook I have” face. You can do that, of course, but it is very limiting as to how one sees their world and role as an artist.

    To be frank, most of the poets I read are both dead and not on-line, so there is very little self-promotion and yet they still find a way into my world. Perhaps in the UK it is easy for a poet to get a book contract, I don’t know, so the whole “how do I promote my book?” is a real issue for you. Where I live that conversation would be like “how do I spend the millions from my Lotto win?” It’s such a pipe dream it’s not even worth mentioning, since it seems to generate a lot of stress with my friends who seem to confuse marketability with success. If that were the case then I would have gotten a degree at university in Markets and Sales, not Creative Writing. Whitman said a great poet needs a great audience but I know there have always been poets writing in languages no one has ever read and just because they didn’t have access to the Western publishing world doesn’t take away from their awesomeness.

    Again, perhaps I am being naive about the whole thing. I have a blog. I post my writing for the world to see. Sometimes people comment. That’s always a good feeling. When I say I see the role of any artist as an exercise in non-attachment, it has nothing to do with Buddhism, rather, the moment I let go of the idea that self-promotion was part of what made an artist an artist, I found I had a lot more time and energy to focus on what makes me happy: my art. But if promotion is important to you, then I suggest reading Jim Behrle’s wonderful essay, “24/7 Relentless Careerism: How you can become the most important poet in America overnight.” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=238942) Not only does he point out all the pitfalls of self-promotion but he’s a lot more funnier than me.

  23. Adele Ward says:

    Zachary – it’s almost impossible for poets to get published here too. If we want to have publishing outlets for poets, and keep the independent publishers going that we already have, then we have to work really hard at promotion just to get the necessary sales to pay for the print runs.

    One of the great things about poetry is that we can share it even if it doesn’t find a publisher, and your experience shows that. You may also get spotted by a publisher and invited to submit one day – that’s how some authors get into print. We do need to keep the publishers going by buying their books and promoting poetry if we are to keep that possibility alive.

  24. Mark McGuinness says:

    Zachary –

    Where I become hesitant in the debate over self-promotion is that often what I hear from other writers who have, consciously or unconsciously, bought into the whole “social networking is the only definition I’ll accept as to what ’success as a poet’ means” and to me that is the same trap anyone who equates successfulness with “the number of Tweets or friends on Facebook I have” face. You can do that, of course, but it is very limiting as to how one sees their world and role as an artist.

    Yes, I think we’re in wholehearted agreement about this. :-)

  25. Zachary Jean says:

    Oh yes, I totally agree on that front. The moment poets stop being interested in other poets will be a sad day indeed. I leave tonight, actually, for the Dodge Poetry Festival. Perhaps not all the poets in America will be there, but a lot of them will be and I find such energy very intoxicating.

    The whole issue over publishers and independent publishing houses, though, are a mix bag to me. The fact that they create an artificial hierarchy within the poetry world has never sat well, regardless of their original motivations. I find it problematic that we, as poets, take this approach to our own art, since it values marketability over skill. I can usually find one or two poems I like in any given chapbook by a certain poet, but for the most part I question why 90% of poetry books by living poets were brought into existence. There are so few resources for poets that if we really wanted to promote poetry it wouldn’t be through creating a pecking order where certain poets get heard at the price of others.

    It is the hope of the Internet, for me at least, that poets can bypass the need for a middle man, a publishing house, and simply put what they want out to the world. I hear many critics bemoan the state of modern poetry in the world and I believe it is exactly because we allow a handful of editors and publishers dictate who gets heard that is problematic, especially since, as I find wandering into any bookstore in America, they don’t speak the same language I do. It is because of this approach that many readers are dissatisfied and ask “is this the best our poets can do?” Of course not, but as long as everyone is willing to abide by these rules you’re not going to hear anything else.

  26. Rob Mackenzie says:

    There is that gap between writing poems and ‘being a poet’, isn’t there? It’s similar with music – you get these XFactor/American Idol hopefuls who may well enjoy singing and listening to music, but their real and obvious motivation is fame. They want crowds to chant their name, or (as one of them said the other night) to look at the clothes they are wearing and think, ‘I’ve got to have those.” They aren’t interested in the art, let alone in extending the art. Rather, they use the art as a vehicle for their narcissism.

    Some people are in love with the idea of ‘being a poet’ and will write poems to that end. Ruthless self-promotion is then necessary because ‘being a poet’ involves being recognised as such by as many people as possible. The drive isn’t due to any need to write poems. The stakes (and financial incentives) aren’t as high as in the world of music, of course, but the basic human drives are pretty similar.

    However, most poets, including those who care deeply about their art, need to help their publisher promote their books – whether they want to or are inclined to do so or not. I am published by Salt. Salt need to sell 420 copies of a collection to break even. Any fewer and Salt make a loss. If they make too many losses, they go bust. It’s as simple, and disconcerting, as that. So self-promotion is vital if the writing is to find an audience and if poetry books are to continue to be published by all but the big trade publishers.

    I read the Jim Behrle article when it came out – classic stuff!

    I think this comment, Zachary – “Perhaps in the UK it is easy for a poet to get a book contract” – will have received a few wide grins!

  27. Adele Ward says:

    When I say ‘break even’ I mean ‘pay for the print run’ and other necessary expenses like the postage to send off the required number of review copies. About 200 copies will cover that but that does mean the publisher and any editors and book designers working without an income. Sales of 200 copies is normal for poetry so that’s the problem – and that’s a normal sales statistic even with the poet helping by giving readings.

    I think ‘self promotion’ might be a bit misleading. It’s actually just a case of trying to sell the copies to pay for the print run. There’s no great glamour in it….

    I had never really considered social networks as a sign of success as a writer. I just enjoy the chance to talk to other writers – something that wasn’t possible when I was first writing. Having said that, it does remind me that I’ve noticed a few poets who are great reads and can only be found on social networks (sometimes with videos too). I think that’s a kind of success and wouldn’t say anything against it. If writing is really enjoyable it can find a following on social networks.

  28. Adele Ward says:

    To be more clear – the amount of sales needed to break even would depend on the size of the print run. So, as an example, on a print run of 200, the first 100 sales would break even by paying for the basic costs like printing and postage, and the second 100 would pay for the next print run. So there’s little or no income from it.

    You need to get into higher sales to do more than break even, and that’s very hard in poetry. I’m not the business expert in our company by the way but this is my simple understanding of how the figures work out!

    Some publishers have turned to print on demand, but we don’t use that method so we need to promote our authors to pay for our costs. Some publishers are using printers in other countries, such as Poland, but they tend to ask for large print runs of 1,000 at least.

    Publishers do need to be helped by some of their authors championing poetry. I do understand writers who aren’t comfortable performing though and it certainly wouldn’t stop me selecting them.

  29. Zachary Jean says:

    Rob: I completely agree with your opinion that there is a wide gulf between those who write for fame and those who write for themselves and rarely do the two cross. Part of me feels I am highly unqualified to give my opinion on the need for self-promotion when it comes to books since it has yet to happen. And who knows? Perhaps I’d change my tune. It’s sort of like when rich people say money can’t buy you happiness. Let me be the judge of that, thank you very much.

    It’s not that I find there is anything wrong in the publishing world nor that once you have a product to sell a person shouldn’t do just that. Rather, what I find problematic is that we’ve come to a point where book publishing seems to be the only measuring stick we use to judge a poet. It’s like saying only real musicians are ones with contracts with a record label, obviously that isn’t the case. I am sure there is a middle ground to all this and since there seems to be more poets than ever writing right now my hope is that we are slowly moving away from the limited resources of the book publishing model and heading toward something where more poets can have an active voice. For me, at least, that’s what I am doing right now, exploring the Internet.

  30. Adele Ward says:

    The good thing about poetry is that you can share it whether you are published or not. Open mics, readings, the internet. Poets have all of this, whereas it has always been harder for novelists to share. I think the Internet is making it more possible for fiction too.

    People do like to have the possibility of trying for a book sometime though. So we need to help our publishers survive.

  31. Zachary Jean says:

    Adele: Yes, I see your point with the needing to “pay for the print run.” And I also understand the desire to collect the works of writers I enjoy. It would be difficult for me to hide the small mountain of poetry books I’ve gathered over the years. And much like how “Slam Poets” use a totally different medium than poets who simply write, there is a lot to be said of using videos or whatnot as a way to create new art. I hope I do not come off as damning the publishing world, since I certainly would hate to see anyone’s joy and livelihood damaged and there is enough creative people in the world to make all styles of poetry viable. Like I said before, any conversation about poetry is a good thing, regardless the subject or the direction it goes :)

  32. Adele Ward says:

    I’ve always enjoyed all the voluntary projects there are for writers too, and luckily that has always existed for poets. The internet has increased our ways of getting to know each other and sharing our writing. I have a feeling we need to support not just publishers but also bookshops. I’d recommend going into shops and ordering books they don’t have on their shelves. This would get poetry into bookshops, costs less than paying Amazon their exorbitant postage and also helps publishers. Online booksellers can ask for a massive 60% discount so it’s worth supporting bookshops instead.

  33. Zachary Jean says:

    Indeed! I adore open mic readings for that very reason. The ones we have in my town, at least, let anyone who wants five minutes in front of the microphone and everyone claps when the poet is done. Small town democracy in action, where everyone gets a voice. It’s sad to think that there are so few places where an artist, regardless of talent, will get some praise simply by participating. We tend to make everything a competition, and while that has its place too, knowing that there is at least one audience who’ll clap for you no matter what is a rather empowering experience.

  34. Adele Ward says:

    London is great for open mics now. It was nothing like this when I was starting out as a writer, more’s the pity.

  35. Zachary Jean says:

    Fantastic! Even if I can’t see it in person it’s good to know open mics are flourishing elsewhere too. In your opinion, is there one open mic night or series you enjoy more than others?

  36. Adele Ward says:

    I like to choose one project and stick to it. The one I go to is the Camden and Lumen series and you can read about it on http://www.camdenlumen.wordpress.com There are two events per month that combine readings booked by publishers and poets and an open mic. Poems read are submitted for possible publication in an anthology at the end of the year. It all supports the homeless in the Cold Weather Shelters and as I can’t go out much as a lone parent I find it combines so many things in one evening out for me!

    I think face-to-face events combine well with social networks, and the Facebook group for Camden and Lumen does help it. It also provides a free place for publishers to launch books – and that’s really needed for all the above reasons….

    I think there are ways we can work together to support unpublished and published poets, and also the publishers and bookshops.

  37. Zachary Jean says:

    Thank you very much, a whole new world is just opened up for me, and that is always a good thing! I agree that social networking sites do allow the sort of contact that was unheard of even just ten years ago. Poets I might never have heard of, let alone read and enjoy, are now possible thanks to the Internet. And, as I grow and learn, my attitudes are also changing. I think one of the dangers of blogging (at least for me) is I tend to get wrapped up in my own cocoon and thus many of my assumptions, while floating around in my head, might sound good, but they don’t translate very well when spoken aloud. It’s good to know there are people willing to fight not only for poets of all stripes, but for independent book stores and publishing houses as well. We might be able to survive in a world without them, but it would be a very colder life than the one we have now.

  38. [...] Just found this thread at the Magma blog. In the very long comments thread, a representative of Ward Wood, a UK publisher, [...]

  39. Great post Rob. I’ve found that self-promotion gets a little easier when I identify my target audience first. Once I understand who might read my poetry, I can search for the people who are likely to appreciate my poetry rather than chasing individuals or groups that will never appreciate what I do. Social media and online communities can help raise my visibility as well.

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