Essay

But Will It Sell in Paducah?

From Iowa to Seattle to Portland, we interviewed booksellers to find out what sold during the 2005 holiday season.

We interviewed the people who buy and sell poetry at four bookstores that consistently sell significant numbers of poetry books: Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Powell's in Portland, Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, and Open Books in Seattle. They shared with us the poetry books that sold best during the 2005 holiday season and also answered these questions:

1. What surprised you about poetry book sales this holiday season?

2. Were there any blockbuster poetry books?

3. What is the difference between poetry sales during the holiday season and the rest of the year?

4. How would you characterize the breakdown between anthology sales and individual poetry collection sales during the holiday season and at other times of the year?

5. What books did you recommend to customers who asked during the holiday season?

6. What was your favorite holiday poetry book this year?

Prairie Lights
15 South Dubuque Street
Iowa City, Iowa 52240
(319) 337-2681
www.prairielights.com
Bookseller: Jan Weissmiller

TOP POETRY SALES
1. Good Poems for Hard Times by Garrison Keillor (Viking Books) - 37 copies
2. The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins (Random House) - 32 copies
3. Flying at Night (cloth) by Ted Kooser (University of Pittsburgh Press) - 31 copies
3. Amazing Peace by Maya Angelou (Random House) - 31 copies
4. New and Selected Poems Volume Two by Mary Oliver (Beacon) - 28 copies
5. Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser (Copper Canyon Press) - 20 copies
6. Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska (Harcourt) - 19 copies
7. Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch by Kenneth Koch (Knopf) - 15 copies
8. Leaves of Grass (150th Anniversary Edition) by Walt Whitman (Signet Classics) - 12 copies
8. The Book of a Hundred Hands by Cole Swensen (University of Iowa Press) - 12 copies
8. Best American Poetry 2005 edited by David Lehman and Paul Muldoon (Scribner) - 12 copies
8. Try by Cole Swensen (University of Iowa Press) - 12 copies
9. Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser (University of Nebraska) - 11 copies
9. Flying at Night (paperback) by Ted Kooser (University of Pittsburgh Press) - 11 copies
10. 100 Great Poems of the 20th Century edited by Mark Strand (W.W. Norton) - 10 copies
11. Elegy on Toy Piano by Dean Young (University of Pittsburgh Press) - 9 copies
12. Migration by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press) - 8 copies
12. Return Message by Tessa Rumsey (W.W. Norton) - 8 copies
13. Given by Wendell Berry (Shoemaker and Hoard) - 7 copies
13. Skid by Dean Young (University of Pittsburgh Press) - 7 copies
13. X Poems by James Galvin (Copper Canyon Press) - 7 copies
14. Pieces of Air in the Epic by Brenda Hillman (Wesleyan University Press) - 6 copies
15. Star Dust by Frank Bidart (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) - 5 copies
15. Collected Poems by Donald Justice (Knopf) - 5 copies
15. The Complete Poems, 1927—1979 by Elizabeth Bishop (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) - 5 copies

Open Books: A Poem Emporium
2414 North 45th Street
Seattle, Washington 98103
(206) 633-0811
www.openpoetrybooks.com
Bookseller: John Marshall

TOP POETRY SALES
1. Tao Te Ching translated by Sam Hamill (Shambhala) - 13 copies
2. Solar Prominence by Kevin Craft (Cloudbanks Books) - 12 copies
2. Wild Braid by Stanley Kunitz (W.W. Norton) - 12 copies
3. Funny by Jennifer Michael Hecht (University of Wisconsin Press) - 11 copies
4. Poems from Ish River Country by Robert Sund (Shoemaker and Hoard) - 10 copies
5. Enter Invisible by Catherine Wing (Sarabande Books) - 8 copies
5. Niagara River by Kay Ryan (Grove Press) - 8 copies
6. New & Selected Poems Volume Two by Mary Oliver (Beacon) - 7 copies
7. Pieces of Air in the Epic by Brenda Hillman (Wesleyan University Press) - 6 copies
8. Say Uncle by Kay Ryan (Grove Press) - 5 copies
8. Elephant Rocks by Kay Ryan (Grove Press) - 5 copies
9. Migration by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press) - 5 copies
9. A Family of Poems edited by Caroline Kennedy (Hyperion) - 5 copies
9. Dangerous Astronomy by Sherman Alexie (Limberlost Press) - 5 copies
9. Winter Morning Walks by Ted Kooser (Carnegie-Mellon University Press) - 5 copies
10. Facts About the Moon by Dorianne Laux (W.W. Norton) - 4 copies
10. The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins (Random House) - 4 copies
10. Dog Language by Chase Twichell (Copper Canyon Press) - 4 copies
10. Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar (New York Review Books Classics) - 4 copies

Powell's City of Books
1005 West Burnside
Portland, Oregon 97209
(503) 228-0540
www.powells.com
Bookseller: Chris Faatz

[Editor's Note: Powell's does not publicly report book sales.]

Elliott Bay Book Company
101 South Main Street
Seattle, Washington 98104
(800) 962-5311
www.elliottbaybook.com
Bookseller: Peter Aaron

TOP POETRY SALES
1. Amazing Peace by Maya Angelou (Random House) - 122 copies
2. 20 Love Poems by Pablo Neruda - 46 copies
3. Zaatardiva by Suheir Hammad - 44 copies
4. Book of Haikus by Jack Kerouac - 38 copies
5. Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes - 36 copies
6. Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska (Harcourt) - 34 copies
7. Danger on Peaks by Gary Snyder (Shoemaker and Hoard) - 32 copies
8. The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins (Random House) - 30 copies
9. Last News of Mr. Nobody by Emmanuel Moses (Handsel Books) - 26 copies
9. Pocket Rumi Reader by Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi (Wiley Edition) - 26 copies
10. Good Poems edited by Garrison Keillor (Viking Books) - 22 copies
10. No Nature by Gary Snyder (Random House) - 22 copies
10. Poems by Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press) - 22 copies
11. New and Selected Poems Volume Two by Mary Oliver (Beacon) - 20 copies
12. Mind of Winter edited by Robert Atwan (Beacon Press) - 18 copies
12. New and Selected Poems Volume One by Mary Oliver (Beacon) - 18 copies
12. Rumor of Cortez by Jeffrey Levine (Red Hen Press) - 18 copies
12. Spain in Our Hearts by Pablo Neruda (New Direct) - 18 copies
13. Book of Images by R. M. Rilke (North Point Press) - 16 copies
13. Good Poems for Hard Times edited by Garrison Keillor (Viking Press) - 16 copies
14. Beat Poets edited by Carmela Ciuraru (Knopf) - 14 copies
14. Collected Poems by Jane Kenyon (Graywolf Press) - 14 copies
14. Luck Is Luck by Lucia Perillo (Random House) - 14 copies


HOLIDAY SALES QUESTIONS:

1. What surprised you about poetry book sales this holiday season?

Prairie Lights: I was surprised that we sold so many of the new Garrison Keillor anthology, Good Poems for Hard Times. I thought we'd sell more of Billy Collins' The Trouble with Poetry. We did better than I thought we'd do with Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska, and I was surprised that Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (150th Anniversary Edition) continued to sell, since it had come out in March.

Open Books: One surprise was the negligible sales of Garrison Keillor's newest anthology. I had expected strong sales and had ordered accordingly. The other surprise was a children's anthology, Poetry Speaks to Children, edited by Elise Paschen. We underordered that title and could likely have sold several more copies but didn't get restocked in time.

Powell's: Nothing really was surprising to me. We sold some cool stuff, and had lots of people looking for recommendations. Probably the biggest overall surprise was how slow Gary Snyder's Danger on Peaks performed in paper. Here, Bullet by Brian Turner was another surprise. We did very well, comparatively speaking, with this book, particularly as it's a first book from an unknown author. Maybe it's the spin on the Gulf War angle, but for whatever reason, it sold very well.

Elliott Bay: Some of these are affected by readings—most notably Suheir Hammad (Zaatardiva), Emmanuel Moses (Last News of Mr. Nobody), and Jeffrey Levine (Rumor of Cortez)—although Hammad sold as many after the reading as during. The big surprise was Maya Angelou's Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem, which came out of nowhere. The biggest disappointment, personally, was Jane Kenyon's Collected Poems—I expected to sell many more. I think it was the poetry publication of the year, and I'm sure, over time, it will continue to sell well.


2. Were there any blockbuster poetry books?

Prairie Lights: Keillor's Good Poems for Hard Times was our best seller, with Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems Volume Two and Collins's The Trouble with Poetry not far behind. Had we had a local collection, we would have probably sold more of a single title.

Open Books: Nope, I can't say that there were any real must-have poetry books this year.

Powell's: The new Billy Collins.

Elliott Bay: Like I said, Amazing Peace by Maya Angelou sold like crazy and was about 75 books ahead of the next one down on our list.


3. What is the difference between poetry sales during the holiday season and the rest of the year?

Prairie Lights: We sell far more mainstream poetry at the holidays than we do during the rest of the year. We also stop our reading series in early December and resume it again when the spring semester begins in late January—so poetry sales are not tied to readings in December.

Open Books: There is very little difference. What we do see is that we sell more gift certificates around the holidays. This allows the giver safety from picking out a book that might be just wrong for the recipient. We have customers who tell us what they want to be given if someone asks about them. This is helpful. We are also asked our opinion of gifts for customers whose taste we have a good sense of. But the books we sell don't change much, if at all, during the holiday season.

Powell's: Several thousand dollars. *That* was great.


4. How would you characterize the breakdown between anthology sales and individual poetry collection sales during the holiday season and at other times of the year?

Prairie Lights: We definitely sell more anthologies during the holiday season.

Open Books: I don't have computer-generated numbers to back up my answer here, but going on my sense of things I'd say anthologies make up less than 10% of our sales, likely as low as 5% or less, both during the holidays and at other times of the year. The predominance of interest is in individual volumes. People are interested in what certain poets are doing, or in what's new in this or that style of writing.

Powell's: There's a huge spike in sales. We sell more in December than in any other month.

Elliott Bay: The main difference between the holiday season and the rest of the year is that more hardcover books and anthologies sell as gifts. And obviously a book like Angelou's, specifically aimed at Christmas.


5. What books did you recommend to customers who asked during the holiday season?

Prairie Lights: Our recommendations are always very personal. I usually know my customers and if not, I ask them to tell me about the person they're buying for. I did recommend the Szymborska book to a customer whose daughter-in-law is a poet, and she ended up reading it before she sent it and coming back in for three more copies. I recommended Tessa Rumsey's Return Message to serious poetry readers, and at Christmas I'm always asked for suggestions for teenagers. Our children’s department is on another floor, so I'm not asked for suggestions for young children. For young teenagers, I often recommend the Everyman Library Pocket Poets—the small hardbacks that Knopf does. Edgar Allan Poe is great for, say, 13-year-olds, and Emily Dickinson or John Keats for those a little older.

Open Books: When that came up, we asked more questions. The point is to find a book that's right for the gift giver and receiver. Our tastes have nothing to do with it. This has allowed us to stay in business as long as we have. We will tell people what we like, when pressed, but the point, as I have said, is to find out what poetry the person getting the gift likes and then try to find something new to surprise and please them.

Powell's: Oh, several. Collected Poems by Jane Kenyon, The Selected Poems of Georg Trakl (Northwestern), and Spain in My Heart, the newest bibelot from New Directions (Neruda). I also sold some Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder and the like to those whose boyfriend, typically, had discovered the Beats through reading Dharma Bums (Jack Kerouac) and wanted something else that they hadn't read yet.

Elliott Bay: As for recommendations, I always tailor to the customer's tastes, or those—as best they know them—of the intended recipient. But I did push Kenyon's Collected Poems when appropriate.


6. What was your favorite holiday poetry book this year?

Prairie Lights: Probably Monologue of a Dog by Szymborska. It is exceptional even for her—political without being overt—and the cover is marvelous.

Open Books: I take this question to mean a book of poetry that came out in November or December. If that's wrong, if you mean a Christmas book like one means a Christmas card, then I don't have one. If it's a book that came out late in the year that you're looking for, then I would have to say Funny by Jennifer Michael Hecht. You'll see it on our best-selling list because I wrote it up for our mailer, and was happy to talk about it to anyone who asked. Ms. Hecht looks at the concept of "funny" while using straight-ahead jokes as jumping-off points. By-and-large, it works very well. While I already knew most of the jokes, she introduced me to a few new ones, for which she gets extra points.

Powell's: The Jane Kenyon volume. It is simply a beautiful book, and includes some of the best poetry that I'm aware of.
Originally Published: January 22, 2006

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