On Thursday, March 4, the American Booksellers Association presented a Marketing Meetup dedicated to marketing poetry books.
The session featured booksellers who have experience with the poetry genre, including hand-selling to new and experienced poetry readers and launching poetry-based events and programs in their stores.
Guest speakers included Yanna Demkiewicz of Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Danny Caine of Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas; Anna Claire Weber of White Whale Books in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Angela Maria Spring of Duende District in Washington, D.C., and Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Nia McAllister of the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) Bookstore in San Francisco, California.
A recording of this session can be viewed on the Education Resources page on BookWeb.org.
Here are some of the key points from the session:
- On the perception of poetry, Demkiewicz noted that one word that comes up a lot when pitching poetry to readers is “accessible.” But that pigeonholes the genre. Spring added that the concept of accessibility in poetry often excludes BIPOC poets; the most accessible “gateway” poets are usually white. Weber added that if a reader comes in asking for accessible poetry, it’s best to dig into that and ask what they mean.
- Caine said there are a lot of unfair assumptions about poetry in general — that it doesn’t sell, that poetry sections in bookstores only need to include Robert Frost and Mary Oliver — but every couple of years a poet breaks through and gets people excited, like Amanda Gorman. It helps for bookstores to have a section for readers to go through once they’ve finished a popular collection.
- McAllister said when introducing readers to poetry, she always asks what stories they enjoy. Tapping into where someone’s interests lie can be a good approach.
- Spring said that when recommending books, booksellers should try to slip a poetry collection in.
- To create conversations around poetry, Caine said booksellers should consider how poetry is situated in the space their store. Raven Book Store saw success putting poetry on its new release table.
- McAllister said at MoAD, events like open mics (now held virtually) as well as being responsive to current events tend to drive poetry sales. An event held with San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin was particularly successful. McAllister also recommended connecting with local presses.
- Spring said that booksellers should consider how poetry is incorporated into their store’s overall brand. Her store is currently organizing an antiracism fundraiser, and an idea for the event’s title that kept coming to her was a line from one of poet Tina Chang’s poems. This helps open people’s minds to what poetry can do.
- Caine added that City Lights Bookstore is an excellent example of incorporating poetry into everything they do.
- Weber said that living poets are a tremendous part of their literary communities and are always willing to talk about poetry. If a bookseller feels poetry isn’t their area of expertise, Weber said they shouldn’t be shy in reaching out.
- Demkiewicz said in her five years of working at Milkweed, she’s also found poets to be enthusiastic and available for events, and booksellers can always reach out directly to inquire. She added that poets also tend to have a relationship with vulnerability — vulnerability can be difficult, and these events can help readers feel seen.
- Spring noted that poets do need to be compensated for their time; she never wants to bring in people she’s not able to pay. She partnered with Letras Latinas for a yearlong event called “Curated Conversation(s): a Latinx Poetry Show.” To pay the poets, Spring and Letras Latinas were able to find funding through academic organizations.
- Cain echoed the importance of partnerships when looking for ways to pay poets. Raven Book Store is gearing up to host an event at the Paper Plains Literary Festival, which is sponsored by the English department at the University of Kansas and The Commons. The festival itself is a giant partnership among many different organizations.
- In terms of sales, Caine added that poetry pays his store’s utilities; the section contributes meaningfully to the store’s operations from a business standpoint.
- At White Whale, the poetry section is across from the cash register, and Weber said that at least half of the customers she’ll see on a given shift will have a book of poetry in their order.
- McAllister said that the poetry section is at the center of the MoAD bookstore, which means traffic is often passing through. During April, the store has a curated selection on a table at the front, which drives sales. Since the store is currently closed, MoAD is working to market poetry books on its website.
- The panelists each noted the importance of putting poetry face-out on the shelf, since the spines tend to be very thin and hard to see.
- Caine shared an Edelweiss collection of poetry essentials to help buyers choose titles. To find new titles, Spring added that social media is a good option. Once booksellers find poets they enjoy, McAllister said to look at who’s in their circles to find new titles.