So far, poets haven’t been the quickest group of authors to embrace self-publishing. But it’s not because of a lack of potential, and it’s certainly not because poetry is on the decline. In fact, poetry is among the fastest-growing genres, with a 21 percent annual growth rate since 2015. Social media has fueled a boom in viral poetry. These “Instapoets” share their work on platforms like Instagram, and often amass thousands of followers.
Poetry’s changing landscape
Almost half of the poetry books sold in 2018 were authored by these “Instapoets,” according to ALLi, as well as over half of bestselling poetry books. But the vast majority of these books were published traditionally, by a handful of large major publishers. It’s not entirely obvious why poets have been slow to adopt self-publishing. Poets and their readers have always looked to gatekeepers like review publications to form a consensus around what’s considered worthwhile work. Genres like literary fiction or academic writing have a similar structure, and they’ve also been slow to embrace self-publishing.
And yet, there’s untapped potential for poets in independent publishing, especially if they can establish a social media following. All the conditions for success are there, with more readers than ever buying poetry books, and poets building platforms that allow them to connect directly with their audiences.
And poets could gain much from breaking out of that conventional structure. Those reviewers and gatekeepers have often stifled new voices in poetry. There’s no reason the success of a poet needs anything more than a connection with their readers. Self-publishing can allow poets to sidestep both the cutthroat and sometimes elitist world of old guard poetry critics, as well as the often-frustrating world of traditional publishing giants.
The benefits of self-publishing poetry
The advantages that come with self-publishing poetry are often the same ones that drive authors to self-publish in other genres. One advantage, which could be especially important to poets, is creative control. Once you’ve signed the rights to your book over to a traditional publisher, you’ll have little (if any) control over the process and decision-making. Choices on the title, cover design, book blurb, and promotional campaign all have a direct impact on your personal brand, public image, and how you and your work are perceived by readers.
These are opportunities to build your brand, and yet with a traditional publisher, you won’t be included in those decisions. Instead, they’ll be based on budget considerations and how publishers believe they can market your book to the widest possible audience. This isn’t always in your long-term best interest as a poet, when considering not only short-term book sales but an entire career.
And then there are royalties. At a traditional publisher, you’re aiming to sell your book idea to publishers that will decide whether it’s worth investing in. As a result, they’ll claim the right to make creative and promotional decisions, and will also take the vast majority of long-term revenues. Often, authors will see as little as ten percent from each sale. With self-publishing, it’s up to you to invest in your book. But as a result, you call the shots and keep nearly all of your royalties.
For some authors, there’s no avoiding the fact that this means taking a financial gamble on your book. But poets that have an online following have a much more direct path to book sales. One of the keys to self-publishing success to have an established platform—potential readers that are already paying attention to you, and would likely take an interest in what you publish.
If you don’t already have thousands of Instagram followers reading your poetry, don’t fret. Just realize that publishing poetry on social media is a great way to start establishing this platform, and with social media users already taking an interest in poetry, this is a great first step to take when you decide to publish.
Self-publishing poetry the right way
Most poetry books consist of anywhere between 30 and 100 poems. And to publish the best of what you have, you should expect to be selecting those poems from an even larger body of work. But obviously, it’s not just about quantity. And the quality of each individual poem isn’t really enough either. You should build a collection of poems that relate to each other, and organize them in a way that builds a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts. This doesn’t necessarily mean the subject matter of each poem needs to be shared, but there should be a flow of ideas and commonalities to the theme, tone, structure, or imagery. Imagine yourself as the reader experiencing your poems, and figure out what you want your collection to say as a whole.
Once you’ve put your collection together, you should follow the same time-tested guidelines that traditional publishers use to publish bestsellers. Just because you’re self-publishing, don’t try to handle steps like editing, cover design, and marketing all on your own.
Today, there’s no shortage of publishing services to help self-publishing authors get expert help for each of these steps. But make sure you’re dealing a credible, reputable company instead of a vanity press. Avoid companies that use high-pressure sales tactics, make sure you know exactly what you’re paying for, and ideally, ensure you’ll be able to choose (or at least vet) your editors, designers, and other experts. Marketing plans should have quantifiable results to make sure you only pay for what works.
Self-publishing poets should generally follow the same guidelines as other self-publishing authors. But if they take the time to establish a following, and ride the explosion of popularity that online poetry is enjoying these days, they may have less to risk and more to gain than the average author.