An Odd Mixture of Gratitude and Despair: The Story of a Poetry Chapbook
July 9, 2015
When I was a creative writing graduate student in Pittsburgh, I had a conversation with some strangers in a bar (or coffeeshop--the memory is dimly lit and fuzzy around the edges). A woman suggested that, if I wanted to make some extra money, I should definitely consider putting out a book of my poems.
Even then, I knew the truth: Poetry is not a money-making enterprise for the vast majority of poets.
Over ten years after that conversation, I submitted my poetry chapbook, vulture, to Finishing Line Press' recent contest with a shrug. Even though the poems had been polished over years and years, I knew the book wasn't going to bring me fame and fortune, no matter what happened.
Finally, the contest winners and semifinalists were announced.
I didn't win.
I shrugged again. I told myself all of the usual stories about the subjectivity of the editorial process. But losing confirmed what I already suspected: I'm an okay poet, but not a great one.
(Yes, I'm fully aware that evidence exists that I'm not untalented. I suppose all artists go through these feelings of doubt.)
Almost immediately, I started to look for other presses. It turned out that I really wanted to have a book of my very own.
The next day, I received an offer of publication from Finishing Line Press. I was excited, of course, but that excitement was tempered by having felt rejected just the day before. You might call it publication whiplash.
My contract stipulated that I had to secure 55 preorders of the book over a span of two months or the press might not be able to publish the book. (In keeping with the lack of fame and fortune theme, my payment, if the book is actually published, will be entirely in copies--a completely standard payment in poetry.)
I got to work right away. I secured permission to use Cassie Williamson's fantastic vulture photograph. I created 13 different versions of the cover. I made a Tumblr and joined Twitter. I cobbled together my own website (which you must know, or you wouldn't be reading this drivel).
The press sent out 100 postcards.
I emailed everyone in my contacts from my entire life, including the current students and staff where I work.
I posted on every social media outlet I had at my disposal. Admittedly, I didn't do this extensively so as not to be annoying.
My students and I made over 200 shiny bookmarks. I handed them out.
As of June 30, 28 copies of my book have been sold.
If 27 more books aren't sold by July 17, my book might not be published.
For the press' sake, I certainly hope the book isn't their current bestseller--which it is, according to this Pinterest page. I sense this is a mistake.
I have learned the extent of my unpopularity as a writer. The world obviously has not been clamoring for a book of my poems. Or my legions of fans are waiting until the last possible minute to order.
Despite my book's slow sales, I am grateful. It's miraculous that some stranger read my work and liked it enough to spend time, money, and effort on publishing it.
I am humbled that 23 people bought my book with actual money they had to earn themselves. (Some people even bought multiple copies for some delightful reason.)
It's also true that my mom is considering buying 100 copies so I can have a "book signing," perhaps not at all understanding how book signings work. Probably the book will go to print. Maybe. I did tell Mom that buying 100 copies was crazy.