To say poetry sales slumped in recent decades would be an understatement, but there’s good news for both poets and readers. The sale of poetry books is on a healthy upswing. What’s it about?
The good news:
Sales are improving according to “The Rising Popularity of Poetry: The Surge of the Poetry Market.” In Britain, between 2015 and 2017, poetry books enjoyed a 21 percent increase in sales. According to BookNet Canada, “between 2016 and 2017 [poetry sales] increased by another 154%” over the 79% increase between 2015 and 2016. And Broadway World tells us that “the poetry book category in the United States has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 21 percent since 2015, making it one of the fastest growing categories in publishing.”
A word about the “slump”:
Poetry was once found on bookstore shelves and even printed in newspapers and magazines. It was read and discussed broadly, not just in academic cycles. Then it began to disappear; perhaps poetry had become tired. It found limited oxygen among songwriters and new life in the spoken word trend. But bookstore shelves remained next-to-bare and poems had virtually disappeared from the popular press. Literary magazines struggled to stay afloat. I wonder why.
Throughout the 1970s I was studying literature, and I was writing, enjoying invitations to read in cafés and other popular settings. I was being published in some of the best literary magazines (Descant, The Fiddlehead). I felt on the edge of an exciting upswing and dreamed that writers and readers had entered a portal to something like the golden age jazz and literary modernism, something akin to Paris post WWI. After all, the beat poets’ popularity had surged, feminism had opened a door to voices like that of Sylvia Plath. Poets were sharing meaning drawn out of the context of their lives. They found a link between experience and audience; they were relevant. I was living on the Windsor-Detroit border at the time and excitement was in the air; everything was possible. But all that changed.
Perhaps the economic recession of the 1980s, the rise of conservatism, a shift from “frivolous” arts to “applied and practical” endeavors may have led to fewer-and-fewer poetry sales and to those empty bookshelves. Some commentators have suggested that while creative writing degrees improve knowledge and skills, it also narrows life experience. Poets had become teachers of poetry and life experience shrank to academia. Yet, poetry breathed in new-old forms.
Poems found a home disguised as song lyrics (think Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell) and there have been other hopeful notes such as the spoken voice poet-performers who gained a measure of success. These carried us through the desert of the late 20th century and into the 21st.
I’m encouraged by the popularity of writers who found outlets for their work during the drought, writers like, Canadian poets Mary di Michele, Lorna Crozier, and more recently Ken Babstock, as well as American poets Jane Hirshfield and Taylor Mali. (Please scroll down for links to my reviews of these poets).
What’s happening to poetry now:
Publishers Weekly (PW) has profiled the meteoric rise of Canadian poet, Rupi Kaur, whose self-published Milk and Honey was picked up by a trade publisher. In 2015, the collection was selling 30,000 copies a week. It would seem that self-publishing and sales generated through a social media presence can catch the eye of publishers and the public. According to The Guardian, by 2018 this Canadian author enjoyed the #1 best-selling spot for a poetry collection in the U.K. Milk and Honey has sold over a million copies.
The Guardian article quotes a source identifying the crux of poetry’s new popularity. He says that it is “A passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials, is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry, with sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018.” The Guardian article also notes that poetry “is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty,” and it seems that the brevity of poems means they can “be easily consumed on phones and shared on social media.” (Given the quotes from The Guardian article, one might assume the reference to politics is about the state of the public world, but the politics of Rupi Kaur involves the intimate politics of violence, abuse, love, growth and healing.) The formula, if there is one, seems to be twofold. First, content must be relevant for today’s social context and readers (which really isn’t new, although sales history suggests that it may have been largely forgotten). Then, through the Internet poems can be shared, buzz created and sales increased.
The sales trends should be good news for poets who are exploring themes that connect with readers, poetry lovers, publishers, the literary press, and booksellers.
Links to references:
“The Rising Popularity of Poetry: The Surge of the Poetry Market”
Publishers Weekly (PW)
Rupi Kaur “ I’m Taking My Body Back”
Links to references:
Rupi Kaur Is the Writer of the Decade
Rupi Kaur named “writer of the year” 2019 by New Republic critic Rumaan Alam
Links to my poetry reviews:
Mary di Michele