I’ve had a few interesting conversations recently with fellow poet and novelist connections, after I wrote my recent post on Author promotion and social media, and it got me thinking about the differences between selling poetry books versus selling novels, novelas or short story collections.
If you aren’t familiar with my published work, I’ve had three poetry collections traditionally published, one novel hybrid published, and one novel self-published. In my experience, there has been a vast difference between the marketing strategies that worked, or didn’t work for each book. Since it’s easier to explain things if you can see them visually, take a look at this table I’ve made:
You can see here what worked and didn’t work for me. For the purpose of the data comparison above, I haven’t included sales by friends and family, only new customers. Let’s have a look at the break-down of the table above and why some strategies work for poetry, but not fiction – and vice-versa.
Open mic nights
This one is simple: open mic tends to be for poetry and not fiction. This could be because poetry is generally shorter and therefore easier to read within a time limit, or because it evokes an emotional response from listeners – I could digress theorising – but the fact of the matter is that I’ve read poetry, short stories and novel excerpts at spoken word events, but have only ever sold poetry, not prose, at live readings. I have sold many dozens of poetry books through open mic nights, book launch readings at pubs, libraries and literary festivals – but no fiction. Since my recent second novel, The Buddha’s Bone, is a novel with poetry interspersed throughout (as the main character is a poet) I experimented recently by reading my character’s poems at a poetry event. This went down well with the audience, and gained me some publicity, but didn’t sell any books.
Book signing events
For the purpose of this comparison, I’ll look at both my debut poetry collection and my debut novel. This is hard to compare as honestly in my experience, it depends on the book store running the event. For my debut poetry collection, held at Borders Books in Cambridge (which, sadly, has long since gone into administration) I sat at a desk for eight hours and sold eight copies of my book to eight strangers. For my debut novel, Gods of Avalon Road, I held a signing event at Waterstones Belfast, and was allocated an evening slot of two hours, during which I sold ten copies to friends and family (I only had 10 copies with me… and had to direct a few to buy online), but sold none to new customers. Do sales by friends and family count? Since writing is my business as well as my passion, I’m going to say no, for the purposes of this blog post – which is reaching new readers who are interested in the book – and not because they know me. Why my poetry books have fared better than my fiction at book signing events could be because, as a niche interest, maybe poetry lovers and readers who saw the event advertised made the trip specifically to buy it? That would make sense if you consider the size of the poetry section in a bookshop; there could be a personal factor to a poet doing a signing, perhaps? Is it more of an intimate experience for a reader to hear a poet read sample poems aloud, maybe? Whereas with an author sitting alongside a table of novels, maybe customers see yet another novel in a store full of novels. Or is it simply not as interesting for customers to listen to a novel excerpt generally; is a book something a reader would rather pick up and read a snippet of alone, perhaps? Who knows?
Isn’t it interesting how readers are willing to buy novels by a new/unknown author when book shopping online, but not a new/unknown poet? All of my sales for my second novel, The Buddha’s Bone, have been entirely through online retailers – none have sold through live events. Yet the opposite is true for all three of my poetry books: I have primarily sold my collections at live events and very few through my own online shop. I’d be interested to hear from any authors who are poets as well as prose writers who have had different experiences – feel free to comment below.
Over the years, I’ve had a few copies of my poetry books and novels stocked in various local bookstores in whichever city I happened to be currently living in at the time. I can honestly say that my poetry books haven’t sold, with the exception of one that was stolen (as told to me by a rather embarrassed book seller). I suppose that’s a compliment since someone clearly liked my book, but it left me out of pocket because they were out of pocket and didn’t pay for it! On the other hand, my debut novel sold all of the copies that I had left in stock at the local Waterstones over the Christmas period in the year it was released (2019). I’m guessing that the difference is that poetry is a niche interest for most folks, whereas my urban fantasy novel, filed in Sci-fi and fantasy, offered wider appeal. These are just my thoughts, but that seems as likely an explanation as anything. Or it could be for some of the reasons I highlighted above: that if poetry is seen as more intimate and personal, part of the experience of buying it is to hear the poet read it first in order for a reader to really immerse themselves in the book as a whole, whereas a novel becomes yours in the sense that the reader uses their imagination to bring the characters and settings to life. What do you think? This might be a topic that requires a poll. The results could be interesting; or at the very least, shed some light on reader habits that might help authors to target their marketing campaigns.