Modesty and The Art of Shameless Solicitation: Pre-Release and Release of Your Book
Author: Kyle McCord
I’m excited for you out there. If I had any single piece of advice for you, it is about modesty. Most poets tend to possess a fairly high level of modesty and shyness about their work. I mean, if any of us intended to be the next Alexander the Great, we would likely have selected another line of work. But what you do matters. Your book is important. Now is the time to be proud and let that pride make you at least a little bold. The release of your first book means asking for things that you don’t necessarily know that you deserve.
Many people fail at sales positions because they don’t understand the difference between solicitation and imposition. Imposition is the act of persisting well beyond a customer’s desires. Solicitation is offering and perhaps even pushing a bit what will make someone’s life better. I don’t know how starry-eyed I am about poetry, but I do believe that people desperately need language in their lives, fresh language and experience that allow them to interpret the world in new ways. Poetry can offer that for a reader, so be bold. Expand your vision of what you think you deserve because, truth be told, you likely do.
Having a physical artifact of the work of what one puts into writing is a goal that some poets spend decades trying to achieve. You should be honored, glad, and you should also be a good steward of that gift. Unlike so many other mediums, poetry does not have a built in audience; it builds its own. Your work has an audience whose life will be better for your poems being a part of it. Don’t be deterred. Go out and find them.
Once your book is at the printers, your press will likely make the book available for pre-order. The book will start to show up on sites like Amazon, B&N.com, and SPD about a month before it is actually released. In addition to whatever the press is doing on your behalf, this is the point at which you have to make some preparations. Here are some things you’ll want to do:
Solicit Reviews and Interviews:
If you’re afraid of asking people who you’ve never met in your life to do random acts of kindness for you, now is the time to get over that. In James Galvin’s class at Iowa, he used to talk about leaving your ego at the “ego hitching post” on the way to class. While that is certainly valid advice in the context of a poetry workshop, in the world outside of the workshop, ego is a necessary part of being an author. You wrote a book, and it was good enough that a small press was willing to go out on a limb to publish it. It was likely chosen from hundreds of possibilities. You have a duty to that work and the press. This duty means stepping outside your comfort zone to get that book read. So, the key is to be smart about your advertising to avoid being shameless.
Reviews, especially when well-placed, improve the sales and visibility of a book. If you know people who review for magazines, then be in conversation with them about reviewing the book. If you covered their class for two weeks while they vacationed in Cancun, now is the time to call in that favor. Keep in mind that a review requires a time commitment on the part of the reviewer. You are much more likely to get reviewed if you ask your friends and peers first, rather than beginning with complete strangers.
The next step is to contact any journals that have review sections that featured poems from your book. If journals published individual poems from the manuscript, they might want to carry a review of your new book. Magazines with review sections typically have a cadre of reviewers who pick books from a list that the press provides. Being on that list is great, but often the list in lengthy and the reviewers are few. If an editor personally agrees to receive a copy of a book, he or she is more likely to ask a reviewer to take a look at the work. Alternatively, you can have the work blindly sent to a journal if you’re not comfortable with contacting them personally.
Interviews are the other side of the coin. While it might not seem like it, getting a book interview generally proves to be easier than successfully soliciting a review. While a review requires an intense amount of work on behalf of your book by an individual, an interview is less time-intensive. Check out journals that you like that do first book interviews, and email them with a polite request. The worst that can happen is a rejection, but it might surprise you how often journals will go for it. In my time as a reading series and journal editor, I’ve said “yes” far more than I’ve said “no” when it comes to readings and interviews.
One possible starting point: the poet Keith Montesano took over a series of first book interviews from Kate Greenstreet, and he regularly accepts books from unsolicited authors. That might be a good place to start. His blog (http://kmontesano.blogspot.com/) receives widespread attention and was named one of the top ten poetry blogs last year.
This statement might seem discouraging out of context, but it’s something that needs to be said: people you know who are not poets (and even some poets), are not all that likely to buy your book solely from internet announcements. This statement isn’t meant to be discouraging, just realistic. Readings are huge when it comes to sales and reputation.
Many poets are willing to do month-long tours to get their books into the hands of the poetry public (primarily poets and editors). The reason is that this tactic works. In such a small universe, as the poetry universe is, the populist approach is shockingly effective. I went on a twenty-one day reading tour with Keith Montesano when my first book came out, and it was easily one of the smartest moves I ever made for my career. The networking possibilities and visibility are powerful. It also makes you a much better reader. Sadly, for the sake of space, I won’t be able to detail how to set up a tour in this paper, but I will detail how to set up a release reading. I’m not arguing that a huge string of readings is the answer for every poet, but readings are important
As with reviews and interviews, setting up a reading simply requires a certain amount of shameless solicitation. If there is a local poetry series in town that often features up-and-coming poets, the first step is to contact the series to see if you could be a featured reader. Often a series will ask for a work sample to consider. If the series offers you a reading date, your work is largely done. Alternatively, if the series declines, you can easily set up your own reading,
Universities or independent bookstores are usually better venues for poetry readings. Barnes and Noble or other big box retailers are not as geared for that type of audience; consider how many books of contemporary poetry a B&N carries. In addition, independent bookstores usually have a quicker turnaround in terms of response time and a greater incentive to host readings—i.e. the individual customer brings in a greater percentage of their necessary income than he or she does for a larger retailer. You can email bookstores, call, or show up in person. I’ve yet to find that one necessarily gets better results than another.
Once you’ve found a bookstore willing to host a reading, there are a couple questions to ask: does the bookstore take a 40% of the books you sell? If so, are they willing to sell them through the register? Will the bookstore retain some of your books to sell on consignment?
If the store would like a 60/40 split, but won’t sell books through the register (which allows you to sell books to people who only carry credit or debit) and would not be willing to keep some books on consignment, then I suggest declining. You would be better off reading in a library or art gallery if you would have to split the money you make (likely to the point where you will make little or nothing) just to have the reading at a bookstore. Besides, unless you are reading at City Lights or the Bowery Poetry Club, venue is less likely to attract an audience than whoever is reading, namely you. Continue this process until you find an appropriate venue.
I won’t delve too deeply into how to attract an audience, but the key is to take a multiplicity of tactics. Read with other poets who you know will also advertise and bring in readers. Contact local professors of creative writing to see if they will advertise the reading to their students. Put up flyers at nearby coffee shops. Make an event for Facebook and advertise it the day you create it and the day of the reading. None of these by themselves will guarantee a solid audience, but the combination usually will.
The day your book comes out, your press should make an announcement and possibly offer a promotion. This will likely go through its social media outlets and website. You’ll want to make your own announcement as well with a link to where to buy the book from your retailer of choice, usually the press itself, though some presses don’t sell books directly. It also doesn’t hurt to send an email to close friends as well to let them know. Some small presses will send out announcements via postcard to people whose names and addresses you provide.