When I was young my mother, when I repeated my ambition to become a poet, advised me in typical no-nonsense fashion.
“Poets are dead before anybody knows who they are.”
Years later, as I worked steadily at trying to survive as a freelance writer, I continued to write poetry on the side. I published many poems, earning small amounts from educational publishers, magazines, contests and at least one Web site.
Finally the day came when a publisher agreed to invest his money in my collection, A Poetry Break.
Because I was so grateful, I undertook a promotional campaign worthy of a new drug discovery. I spoke, I traveled and I blogged.
It paid off. The book did well enough for the publisher to take on my nonfiction book. And now that I am in the final edit on my new poetry collection, I’ve dialogued with several publishers about bringing it out.
I am also considering self-publishing, for a number of reasons. Here’s a list:
1. I do not work in the academic world and therefore have nothing to lose by self-pubbing.You are probably wondering why I have included reason #5. I could fill a book with support for that statement, but I came to learn many things as I pounded the pavement as an author. For one thing, bookstores and distributors order books, and then return the books that do not sell. This makes anticipating income very tricky. You may have a great royalty one quarter but then see your royalties decimated in the next due to returns. In addition, if your publisher is not one of the big houses, you will be very lucky to get reviews. In order to get reviews you or your publisher often must (1)schmooze and (2)politic. We were very lucky on my poetry collection. I count as a stellar moment in my life learning that a newspaper columnist, a complete stranger to me, reviewed my book, and so did others.
2. If I calculate royalties by way of self-publication, compared to royalties from self-publishing, my profits would increase by choosing the latter route.
3. I do not want to work as hard this go-round. Promoting the book consumed so much of my time my freelance nonfiction work suffered.
4. I would like total editorial control over the book.
5. The book biz sucks.
In addition to all that, if you are to succeed in today’s book world, you must write a book that targets a specific group of book buyers. I confess this is a simplified explanation, but will simply say if you write a book titled ‘How to Teach Your Dog to Play the Piano,’ you will have a ready line of dog lovers waiting for your signature at the nearest bookstore. Or if you develop a line of mysteries with a young sexy detective who is one part Jewish, one part Christian and one part Muslim and maybe one part Buddhist—I am imagining both the maternal and paternal lineage—you will have a runaway best-seller, having capitalized on a number of trendy niches.
Meanwhile, I ply my trade and count myself lucky to be able to earn money by writing columns and articles like the one you are reading right now. My poetry book still sells; I earn fees for speaking and talking about poetry and creative writing. I have learned to recognize those as numerous blessings.
Perhaps I am also learning to admit to myself that my mom was right. Or at least she was close.
What I am telling myself in response is that it really doesn’t matter. A poet is a poet and can’t do a thing about it.
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