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by Scott Woods

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A pep talk by request:

You’ve made a chapbook of your poems. Congratulations! You’re in the game! You are to be commended for at least stepping up to the plate.

Now here’s the deal:

If you have a chapbook or a CD – really any kind of merch at all – and you attend a poetry night regularly that allows you to post up your stuff at a table, for God’s sake USE IT. Put your merch on the table, people.Yes, even if someone else’s merch is there. Yes, even if you didn’t sell any last week. Yes, even if you didn’t read anything out of it during open mic that evening. Put it on the table.

There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this that you don’t like math, but here are some numbers anyway. Don’t freak out. It’s easy math: 0 books on a table = 0 books sold. Sure, you might get on the mic and tell people you have a book in your backpack for sale, but why be your own barrier? Let people thumb through it. Let them ask other people about it. Let the person selling merch at the table make your pitch for you so you look like a big shot while talking to admirers.I know it feels embarrassing to sell a bunch of books the first week you have them (debut book release grand opening party!) and then very few or none the next week. I’ve sold lots of books, but I’ve also had a few that were more “for sale”than “selling.”

It’s the rare book at any level that sells a lot of copies out the gate and then keeps doing that. Even movies, which cost millions of dollars to make, generally take 50% or larger cuts in ticket sales the following week no matter how good they are.

Your chapbook is not a movie. It is a book of poems that you believed in enough to print some copies of to sell to people. So put them where people can actually see them and sell a copy or two.Writing is marathon work. Work it like a marathon and quit looking for the sprinters’finish lines.

To the chappers who say, “I don’t care about the money; I just want to get my work out there”: most of you are full of shit. I’ve seen more of those don’t-care-how-much-it-sells books disappear after one night than people who only hustle up a few sales per show. If you really just want your work out there, then your book should be on the table every week too. I think these people just don’t want to be there for the week when no one picks up their book even when they knock it down to free…you know, to remove all the barriers between them and their adoring audience. If you want your work out there – if that is your primary goal – then you should have your books on the table more often than anyone else.

Chapbooks tell you who you are as a poet. Not just the poems; that’s obvious. It also tells you about what kind of salesman you are, and how much you believe in your art, and how much you think all of this is ultimately worth. Not to your audience, mind you…to yourself. If you aren’t willing to put it out there for people to look at or flip through or just consider,then that has less to do with what anyone else might think of it and EVERYTHING to do with what YOU think of it. Your audience didn’t get enough of an opportunity to make that judgment.

So: ask whoever handles the merch table at a mic if you can put your stuff down. If it’s allowed, don’t empty out your book bag on the table; give them a handful. Get all your stuff at the end of the show when you leave. Leaving merch at a poetry show is begging to have it used to balance tables the following week. Don’t get mad if you don’t sell. There are lots of reasons why that might not happen from one week to the next, and since you don’t when someone might be moved by your art next, it’s best to always give people the opportunity to make that decision for themselves. And FYI? Nobody’s coming back next week just to pick up the chapbook you forgot to pack today.

Chapbooks are beautiful, magical things. They require little effort to draft, their overhead is minimal, you control everything about them from their covers to the fonts to the paper they’re printed on, and you don’t have to make more than you can sell. It should be a joy to participate in the process of creating a work of art out of the collection of your poetry…and it should be given every opportunity to also be profitable.
(Note for poets who have books that are larger and more expensive to produce than chapbooks: All of this goes triple for you, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that, since you went broke printing the damn things.)

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