Poetic license: Inviting readers into the world of poetry

Though publishers, booksellers and poets certainly benefit from investing in book design and exploring strategies like in-store placement and cinepoems, much of poetry buyers’ motivations remain unknown, except to themselves.

When it comes to selling poetry books, Alice Burdick knows what she’s talking about. Not only is Burdick the author of four full-length poetry collections, she’s also co-owner of Lexicon Books, an independent bookstore based in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. 

Since Lexicon Books opened in 2015, Burdick has found the general readership of poetry books, although not as high as for other genres, has definitely grown. According to Burdick, there are a few reasons for the increase, including a specific interest in books by Atlantic Canadian authors as well as what poets, publishers and booksellers are doing to encourage poetry sales. In her own store, Burdick adds shelf talkers and notes slipped inside books to indicate staff favourites. She also stresses the more variety of titles a bookstore carries, the better, and noted, “a lot of bookstores have very slim or lopsided poetry selections and the randomness of the books available makes the poetry options feel like an afterthought.”

Susanne Alexander and Alan Sheppard of New Brunswick’s Goose Lane Editions say in-store displays are helpful devices that can positively affect poetry book sales. As they explained, one of their recent best sellers, Amateurs at Love by Patricia Young, did well partly because it found its way into the Valentine/romance sections of some bookstores, partly because it was often displayed beside the books of Rupi Kaur. 

In terms of readership, Monica Kidd, co-owner of St. John’s publisher Pedlar Press, found a distinction between buyers who are already fans of poetry and new readers. “I think the average reader of poetry books (if there is such a person) is already committed to poetry,” explained Kidd. Similarly, Julie Scriver, Creative Director of Goose Lane, spoke of the “small but mighty dedicated audience” for poetry and that “typically those readers are buying for the poetry and the writer whom they may know.” Scriver went on to suggest that book design can be particularly important for attracting new readers noting, “design performs the nano-second seduction for the uninitiated book buyer and the use of design is one of the hallmarks of [Goose Lane’s] brand.” 

It certainly seems that other publishers on the East Coast take this point into consideration. When asked about design, Kidd’s answer was direct. “We take book design seriously. Pedlar books, if I may, are known for their beauty. […] We typically have an original work of art on the cover—it must speak in some way to the content—and the books are often printed on laid Zephyr Antique paper at Coach House Printing.” 

Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press is another Atlantic Canadian publisher known for its attention to design. Matt Robinson, a Halifax-based poet, has published several collections with Gaspereau and finds that readers rarely comment on their reasons for buying poetry, “other than to note when a poetry collection is a beautiful object in and of itself.” But beyond design and in-store marketing, which remain out of an author’s control, there are other factors in broadening the audience for poetry. While Robinson mentioned he enjoys sitting down with a gorgeous, well-produced full-length collection, he also noted as a poet, he’s likely going to always have more people consume his poetry on a poem-by-poem basis, whether in literary journals, on the radio or social media, or in temporary installations.” Robinson hardly sees this as a bad thing. “More poetry as public art is probably a smart idea. I’m thinking, too, that poetry needs more of an audiobook presence or its own Sirius XM Radio channel.” 

Halifax-based author Andre Fenton also spoke to the potential of using different media for attracting new readers to poetry and making a poet’s work easy to share. “In the age of spoken word and slam,” he said, “a great way to get your work to a wider audience is to invest into cinepoems, otherwise known as video poems.” He added that emerging slam poets often become consumers of poetry books. It seems that the energy of a spoken word performance can contribute to the audience’s appetite for the printed product: “Spoken word is a bit of an emotional adrenaline rush of ups, downs, vulnerability and resilience. Being able to have a piece of that, own it and take it home is meaningful.”

Fenton’s words remind us that a reader’s interest in poetry is often highly personal. It’s also difficult to generalize about the audience for poetry when, as Burdick put it, a buyer can be “of any age or gender.” Though publishers, booksellers and poets certainly benefit from investing in book design and exploring strategies like in-store placement and cinepoems, much of poetry buyers’ motivations remain unknown, except to themselves. ■

Written By

Annick MacAskill is a writer, poet and critic based in Halifax. Her poems have appeared in literary journals across Canada and abroad, and have been longlisted for the CBC's Canada Writes Poetry Prize and The Fiddlehead's Ralph Gustafson Prize, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the author of No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), as well as a chapbook, Brotherly Love: Poems of Sappho and Charaxos (Frog Hollow Press, 2016).

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