Have you ever heard of a rich page poet? No, me neither. But somehow we accept that there’s no money in writing poetry, unless one ends up in the higher echelons doing book tours, popping up on TV and radio and winning big money prizes for your ‘body of work’. Poetry is seen as a charming, if slightly eccentric hobby, such as playing the accordion or Morris dancing.
How often have you been a guest reader? What did you earn? Did it cover your transport costs? Did you sell enough books to make it worth your while? How many people were in the audience? Did they all read at the Open Mic?
I’ve made a minimal amount of money from my work, although to be fair, I’m still a relative newcomer. I’ve driven a couple of hours to a gig, at my own expense (petrol, parking etc), not sold any books and come home out of pocket. And I’d probably do it again, fully expecting the same outcome.
So why do it all? I suppose part of the attraction of reading gigs is getting to perform your work to a new audience in a town in which you’re a stranger. Sometimes you meet a Facebook friend for the first time and find you have even more in common than you realise…or not. You might even impress the audience enough that they keep an eye out for future work and put their hands in their pockets to buy books. You might also meet someone who organises their own poetry gigs – if you impress them…
I’ll be honest – I love the format of most poetry nights, where there’s an open mic and one or two featured guests. In most cases there’s something charming and homespun about them. Often the same people come month after month, year after year. It’s a club.
Then there are one-off readings, which generally happen during poetry festivals. Two or more headliners read, there might be an admission fee, books are sold and hopefully everyone has a nice time.
But in both scenarios, money seems to be the elephant in the room. It is almost an unspoken rule that it won’t be discussed, except in a whisper, and I think that’s why we find ourselves immersed in an art form whose community doesn’t value itself highly enough.
I would love to give up my full time office job in order to concentrate on my writing, but it just isn’t financially possible. Even if I had a reading event booked every night of the week, I’d never make enough to live on. Isn’t that sad? Isn’t that partly the reason why poetry is seen as a minority art form?
And that feeling that page poetry is the poor relation to prose (and pretty much any other art form) seems deeply ingrained. Very few of us expect to be paid anything. Fewer still feel that they have the right to ask to be paid. Yes, some people are purely doing it for fun. But that also means that if plenty of people are pursuing it as a hobby, even at quite an advanced level, the end result is that those who expect fair payment miss out. Why pay someone when others will cheerfully do it for free?
So what’s the answer? Well, in the absence of a government which might be prepared to invest properly in its creative industries (and I’m not just talking about marketing here), we’re all going to be fighting it out for the same meagre pieces of the pie. That means that any money has to come from punters – money on the door at events (always charge admission!), a proper whip-round at readings so that the guest poet feels that it was worth their while taking the trouble to come along, buying books, especially those published by the small presses or self-published by the poets themselves, subscribing to a poetry magazine, especially if you’ve recently appeared in it.
Give whatever you can afford. Imagine that one day, someone will be able to answer the question “And what do you do for a living?” with “I’m a poet”, without having to quickly add “but I work in an office/shop/building site/abattoir to pay the bills”.
But what can we, as poets, do in return? Well, approaching what we do with a sense of professionalism definitely can’t hurt. Don’t turn up to a reading with half a dozen scrappy bits of paper which you proceed to faff around with in front of your audience – use a Kindle, a smart binder, or better still a copy of the book you’re hoping people will buy in the interval.
Don’t just flip through a book or your notes saying “hmmm, what shall I read next?”. Practice your reading, time it to perfection, try to communicate it to your audience with the same emotion and intent with which it was written. Practice with a microphone. Your appearance on the page is just as important as your ability to perform your work. Yes, there are poets who don’t do readings, for whatever reason. But if you are asked to do one, and you feel able to go through with it, spend time rehearsing it. Record yourself and listen back to it. Polish it. Commit yourself to it.
If you’re publishing a book, whether that’s a DIY effort or via a small press, keep an eye on the production values. Make sure it looks professional. Choose your cover artwork carefully. Proof-read it to within an inch of its life. Make sure the font looks nice. In short, look at it objectively and ask “is this something I would want to buy?” Ensure that the cover price is roughly double what it costs you to either print yourself or to purchase at a discount from your publisher. When Communing was published, I bought 60 copies at £3 a pop (so £180), gave 20 away and kept the remainder to sell for myself at the cover price of £6, meaning that if I sell all 40 (I have eight left) I’ll turn a small profit of £60. Not bad, considering all I’d focussed on initially was that £180 outlay, worrying how I could justify it to my wife!
Of course, there are other ways to make money from your poetry. Some competitions offer decent prizes, although clearly the chance of a payout is reasonably slim, especially if you enter a big one like the Bridport. Some magazines in the UK, such as Prole, pay a small amount per poem or story, and there are many more in the US who pay their contributors.
Above all, don’t assume you have to give every little piece of yourself away for free. You worked hard on your material, after all. So you want me to come and read? OK, how much can you pay? Will you be covering my expenses? Will I keep all the proceeds of my book sales? (Beware – some unscrupulous book shops want to take a cut).
And if you don’t like the answers – decline, but be sure to say why. You never know, it might change someone’s mind.