The Long Tail of Poetry

Brontosaurus excelsus by lythronax-argestes on DeviantArt

The Long Tail is like the land of misfit toys. And what’s more misfit in America than a poem?

The term was popularized by the book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine.

Anderson explains it in his introduction (Long Tail, 6–7). In 2004 he interviewed Robbie Vann-Adibé, the CEO of a “digital jukebox” company called Ecast. Unlike old-school vending machine companies, Ecast stocked its jukes with digitized music via broadband connections. No records. No CDs. Only bits. Each Ecast juke could carry thousands of songs. Digitization also reduced inventory costs to zero. No store or warehouse to rent. No delivery people to pay.

Adibé posed an obvious trick question to Anderson: “What percentage of the 10,000 [digitized] songs available on the jukeboxes sold at least one track per quarter?” Sensing a setup, Anderson guessed “a whopping 50 percent.”

He missed by a mile. The correct answer was 98%.

“‘Everybody gets that wrong,’” Anderson quotes Adibé saying, adding that even Adibé himself “was stunned.”

It seems the misfits were finding homes. Songs way beyond the top 40 or even top 1000 were still selling, year in and year out. This is the Long Tail.

Bestsellers live in the head, the land of movie stars, great American novels, celebrity bios and cookbooks. The tail belongs to niche sellers (the misfits of bestsellerdom). Like the Brontosaurus, the head towers above the ground while the tail stretches out on and on. Actually, the tail never ends. It never meets the zero baseline, because eventually everything sells.

Poetry lives in the Long Tail, a place beyond the reach of traditional publishing. Consider this book sales sampling compiled by Rachel Friedman in her article, “Livelihoods of the Poets” (New York Magazine, Dec. 11, 2011):

Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins
Copies sold: 18,406
*Author’s est. earnings: $44, 177

Leavings by Wendell Berry
Copies sold: 2,928
*Author’s est. earnings: $4,377

Come, Thief by Jane Hirshfield
Copies sold: 2,250
*Author’s est. earnings: $5,625

*Assumes a 10 percent royalty rate.

All were famous poets at the top of their game, but only Collins’ book qualified as a bestseller (according to his publisher, Random House). Clearly new releases by brand-name poets do not become bestsellers the same way Harry Potter books do. Twenty years ago, the story would have ended here. Once sales dwindled beyond the point where the retailer could justify the shelf space cost, the book would disappear. Now and again, some used bookstore might resurrect it — which makes these stores so lovable — but such sales helped neither author nor publisher.

Today, however, is a different story. According to Amazon sales ranking statistics, all three books have kept selling every year since 2011.

And they do so without any further marketing effort by their publishers. Through word-of-mouth, community activities and classrooms online and off, these three and thousands of other books continue find homes. Their authors may not make much money in the Long Tail, but they’re consistently finding readers. And since readers in the Long Tail must actively seek out the books they want, they’re not likely to let them sit on a shelf. They’re reading them, and probably doing so intensely.

Online markets love the Long Tail. Retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble make a lot of their money here. According to Anderson, Long Tail sales can generate up to 25% of an online retailer’s revenue and a third of its profits (Long Tail, 131–2). We’re talking millions of dollars. They’re clearly not in the Long Tail for charity’s sake.

Traditional publishing, however, is blind to the Long Tail. Like the movie and record industry, publishing as we know it evolved out of industrial age mass production. This legacy is a big money world with high overhead that needs a steady diet of high-revenue bestsellers.

Before a book earns a cent, the publisher must front the money for author advances, design and production, marketing and advertising, inventory storage, etc. To cover these direct costs and overhead (salaries, rent and other corporate administrative expenses), a publisher’s books must produce substantial revenue. Thirty or forty thousand dollars won’t cut it. Finally, these books must earn a healthy profit on that revenue within twelve months. Time matters as much as money.

Traditional publishing may work for the Great American Novel, but it’s not so good for poetry. In fact, it’s never been good for poetry. As Gary Snyder told me at the 2015 Dodge Poetry Forum, no publisher makes money publishing poetry. Their overhead is just too high and the revenue too small. Not-for-profit publishers may subsidize themselves through grants and writers fees, but that business model has proven anemic. The American audience for poetry continues to shrink, and poets earn little or nothing from book sales.

An observation by Edward Hirsch, the great poet and teacher of poetry, may shed some light on why poetry is such a publishing misfit, and why it thrives so well in the Long Tail. In his book How to Read a Poem, Hirsch quotes Paul Celan:

A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essential dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the — not always greatly hopeful — belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash upon land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something.

Like a message in a bottle, the poem operates best as a one-to-one connection rather than as a one-to-many mass communication. Reader and poem find each other one at a time, in a haphazard fashion that doesn’t lend itself to mass marketing.

While this message-in-the-bottle quality makes poetry a publishing misfit, it also provides poetry with its greatest strengths: mobility, endurance and immunity to capital. These strengths have also made poetry dangerous to authority:

  • Poetry can’t be effectively censored. Because poetry requires neither books nor bits, it’s impossible to control. You can, after all, “publish” a poem on brick wall with a little spray paint. Or, you can easily carry a hundred poems in your head and reproduce them perfectly in silence or out loud.
  • Poetry endures. The best preserved literary texts on earth are poems, and they speak across generations. Sappho’s fragments still break hearts and turn heads.
  • Poetry doesn’t need need money or power. Quite frankly, poets don’t need publishers the same way that novelists do. Poets can still build an audience exclusively through recitations — think of the out-loud movement — something that is not possible for a novelist, essayist or journalist.

These strengths give poetry great advantage in the Long Tail, where everything is a message-in-the-bottle “sent out in the… belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash upon land….”

In this market made viable by digital technology, the oldest literary form has a radical new way to reach a new audience. But first poetry needs to stop throwing itself against the wall of bestsellerdom. It has to adopt a new model, one that takes advantage of the Long Tail. It may be that there is an unmet demand for poetry. The problem is that traditional publishing, with his high overhead and pricey paperbacks, is not the most efficient way to get poetry to the people.

Perhaps poetry can learn something from digital music, a chaotic market that scorns copyright, capital and corporate authority, but where the tail often wags the dinosaur.

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