online poet demographics – results of a completely unscientific & amateur survey

Warm thanks to all who took the time to complete this very amateur survey and to those who helped spread the word about it. I had hoped for about 75 responses, and was blown away by the level of interest and the 339 responses received over the 24 hours or so that the survey was open. (Clearly, this is an area of keen interest to the US online poetry community. In an ideal world, wouldn’t some poetry-loving entity with, ahem, lots of money and know-how conduct such surveys properly and scientifically, on behalf of US Poetry writ large?)

As with the last completely unscientific survey of this kind I did, I had only to post the survey to immediately begin second-guessing the questions. Why didn’t I think of framing that question in this way, rather than that? Why didn’t I add multiple choice options – especially for the income question – instead of plain yes/no? Others were also helpful in pointing out myriad framing and other flaws in the survey, I might add. But this is what we have, until someone with actual expertise takes on these questions.

So what have we got? No big surprises. This graphic summarizes the results by percentage (click on it to see a larger version). Various caveats and comments, the actual survey questions, and detailed breakdown of the results follow my general observations on the results below.

poet demographics

Income from poetry sales: The ‘poetry sales income’ question (#1) was sad, but no-one will be surprised by that. I deliberately put the income threshold very low (0.5% of an annual income of $50,000 is only $250, for example), but still only 15% of respondents said they earned more than that from poetry sales in a year, while 85% said they earned less. Again, not surprising, based on this other amateur survey. Even if we very generously estimate that most people with books out manage to sell 100-300 copies a year, how much actual profit is there on those sales, and how much of that profit then becomes actual author income?

Day job/livelihood expenses: I found the general ‘where do you get your livelihood’ question (#3) interesting. I had long been convinced that most online poets in fact derive their livelihood from non-poetry related sources and the survey results seem to bear that out, with 70% of respondents falling in this bracket, and only 30% claiming a poetry-related livelihood. (As noted in the caveats below, there were 4 to 6 ‘yes and no’ responses to this question, which I didn’t include in final numbers because I didn’t know how to.)

Does your poetry publication record affect your earning ability? This question was by far the most interesting for me, as someone who is constantly bemoaning what I see as the suffocating grip the print paradigm has on the growth, reach and vitality of poetry (as Dave Bonta puts it ‘the scarcity mentality of print publishing [vs] the abundance mentality of the web’). Print publishing is super-important for academics seeking tenure, and it makes sense that a segment of the market should cater to this very specific need. But the survey results indicate that only 25% of poets actually fall into this category. Do the remaining 75% of the poet population really need to be yoked to this paradigm?

Caveats that would probably make more sense if I knew the first thing about statistics and polling:

- The results shown above and below include responses from 333 respondents. The number of responses for each separate question don’t add up to 333, however, because in a few cases respondents skipped a question.
– The percentages in the graphic above are rounded up to the nearest 0.5 percentage point.
– Interestingly, the relative percentages for the different categories stayed pretty stable from the very beginning of the survey through to its closing. So ‘yes’ responses for question 1 consistently hovered around 15-16%, for question 2 around 24-25% and, question 3 around 69-70% throughout the survey.
– Overall, there were more than 333 responses (more like 339) but I excluded the handful where the respondent had checked both ‘yes’ and  ‘no’ responses for the same question (mostly for question 3, with one or two such responses for question 2). So sorry, those folks!  No doubt polling/statistics experts would know exactly how to incorporate such responses so they make sense in the overall survey, but this was amateur hour and I basically had no idea.

Actual survey questions, each with simple yes/no response options:

1. Poetry sales represent 0.5% or more of my annual income.
2. My poetry publication record affects my ability to earn a living.
3. I earn my living in a field unrelated to poetry.

Responses received:

Question Yes No Total responses
  1. Poetry sales are 0.5% or more of income
51 281 332
  1. Poetry publication record affects earning ability
83 248 331
  1. Main income is from a non-poetry field
231 97 328

online poet demographics survey booming – closes today

After being shared by Ron Silliman last night, the online poet demographics survey got a participation boost and we now have 242 poet respondents. More than enough for this unscientific effort, probably, but if you haven’t responded yet, go for it – I plan to close the survey at 6pm EST today (Aug 30), and will follow up with a results report. Thanks for participating!

Why don’t we change the poetry book economy?

“Nobody except the handful of mega-poets sells many poetry books, regardless of how much effort they put into marketing/promoting (see one unscientific survey). In my view, our mistake as a poetry community is buying into the traditional commercial paradigm, within which poetry sits very uneasily. We lock our poems up in hard copies which are then only available for sale – how do we expect that to nurture and grow our product? Why don’t we change that paradigm – we are a small enough community that we probably could. How about running things on the lines of a gift economy? And based on multi-format publishing, not just print? My two cents.”

Just added my mad-haired-prophet-in-the-wilderness two cents to this interesting and much-commented-on FB thread on poetry book sales.

What happens when a poetry video gets 3,000 plays in 5 days?

The video-maker freaks out, is what happens. This will be the last post I write about viewer stats for still image remixes, but I did want to get this experience down, noting that what has been interesting for me is less the stats themselves than my reaction to them.

As previously recorded, I had already been unsettled by the relatively high numbers of viewers attracted by earlier still image remixes I had done for poems from The Poetry Storehouse (this one and this one in particular). But neither of those came anywhere close to numbers of viewers attracted by Items of Value to a Dying Man (shown above – poem by Kristin LaTour, art by Peter Gric), the response to which just blew me away. Peter Gric was wonderful to work with – open, generous and in no way inclined to control any part of my remix process – but either his terrific art has made him much more famous than I thought, in my near-total ignorance of the art world (I found him by clicking randomly through links and simply emailed him via his website) and/or he has – relative to online poetry networks – a pretty enormous online network.

The video got 1,050 plays on the first day, 1,650 on the second. My original FB posting of the video link got 554 shares after Peter shared it. The video exceeded 3,000 plays today. (As I said before, I am used to the most popular of my poetry videos capturing maybe 40 or 50 views on their first day. Over time – months, sometimes longer – a video may end up with 200 to 300 total views.)

I was delighted of course, but fell into angst at the same time. What did it mean that I had accidentally put together something that led to hundreds of people interacting with a poem they would almost certainly have had no interaction with otherwise? Was I burdened with some heavy new Responsibility to Poetry as a result?

I took my angst to (where else..?) Facebook. Is a poem that is read by and moves 10 people of more value to the world than a poem that is read by and moves 1 person? I posted as my FB status, not even sure if that was in fact the question I was struggling with. The question got traction quickly and, as is usual in the poetry community, thoughtful and helpful responses came quickly (see here for the exchange, although I don’t know if any or all of the conversation is viewable from the outside). It turned out that wasn’t at all the question I needed to ask, and the back and forth over a day or two was very helpful in clarifying my thinking.

I see now that what had been complicated for me by the experience was my sense of my role as showcaser, curator, remixer, presenter of poetry (at The Poetry Storehouse now, at Whale Sound previously). Was I now obliged to take these activities in some different, burdensome, non-fun direction?

What the Facebook exchange clarified for me was that poems are not like the toys in Toy Story. They don’t have a separate, secret life that springs into action whenever their owners are asleep or otherwise absent. A good poem can support a literally infinite number of interactions – living in interaction over and over again through aeons, each time as freshly as the first time. But a poem has no life outside its interaction with people. When they are not being interacted with, poems lie dead in the dark, where they are purposeless, and meaningless.

The role of the curator, remixer or publisher of poetry is to maximize the number of interactions each poem has with people. In the hands of the successful curator/publisher, the poem lives in interaction repeatedly and reaches a higher level of its interaction potential than poems in the custody of less successful handlers.

That’s the role of the curator/publisher in the scheme of things poetry. But it doesn’t have to be their motivation. This is where I got confused. If things go well, more people will interact with poems as a result of my remixing and curating. If things don’t, they won’t. But that’s not why I do what I do. I do what I do because I like voicing poems, I like exploring the technology of putting poems online in different ways, I like the challenge of combining poetry and digital imagery in video, and experimenting with sound.

The additional interactions that occur between poems and people are a happy by-product of my doing what I like to do. But I don’t do it in order to increase the number of those interactions.

And that made me feel so much more relaxed about those viewership stats. Some videos will get 3,000 plays in a few days. Most will be lucky to get 300 plays in a year. Should that influence what I do and how I do it? No.

As artist Kiki Smith said, in a quote I recently encountered via a Twitter feed: “Just do your work. And if the world needs your work it will come and get you. And if it doesn’t, do your work anyway. You can have fantasies about having control over the world, but I know I can barely control my kitchen sink.”

With warmest thanks to the Facebook friends who were so thoughtful and generous in their responses to my original and subsequent questions.

Does ‘look of the line’ = ‘meaning of the line’?

E-book formatting is not the same as print formatting and e-reader devices definitely require us to recalibrate our relationship to text. Doing this seems to have been easier for readers of poetry (who seem, by and large, a flexible and open bunch), than it has been for many writers of poetry. Many writers of poetry can separate the look of the line from the meaning of the line, but many absolutely equate the two and flatly negate the possibility of separation. If, as a poetry publisher, you admit the possibility of separation, then, as Gabrielle David emphasizes below, your central task is to ensure that, no matter how the e-reader or the human reader adjust text size, the meaning of the line remains intact. I much enjoyed the post below from Gabrielle, in which she made this and other interesting points. Gabrielle’s post first appeared on the WomPo listserv and is reproduced here with her permission:

“I have watched the rise of the ebook biz and the various devices (many of which have come and gone) in the past six years. I understood that at some point I would have to consider ebook formats (for both phati’tude Literary Magazine and 2Leaf Press), and have been tinkering with the design and format of the ebook for quite some time, before coming up with a “recipe” that would address poetry and the issue of line breaks.

When you are dealing with multiple devices coupled with the fact that the end user has the ability to change the size of the font, it is a foregone conclusion that the text is going to shift. For years, the issue was the conversion of text through Word and other word processing programs which exacerbated this and other problems. At the same time, there is no standard way to convert text to reading devices, everyone does it differently, so ebooks have had their share of problems, primarily just really bad formatting of text (including poorly designed books and horrible editing), but in recent years, as the devices have grown more sophisticated, the reading public has demanded more for their money. The large publishing houses have scrambled to get people who know how to code ebooks and work with the latest technology to produce them (which they can well afford), but for the smaller presses, it’s just another resource that’s not readily available to them.

Since I have worked in the technology field for years, I was at a greater advantage and understood what needed to be done, but was in no great hurry to do it because the industry was changing rapidly, especially in the past five years. Right now, we are down to four major devices: Kindle, iPad, Nook and KOBO, including Android and Apple phones. While there are different nuances to each device and a standard ebook format continues to develop, its safe to say that the format issue as it pertains to poetry will always remain an issue because the lines will always change from device to device and end users will always control how text appears on their device.

Since most poetry books are published by small presses and many do not have the resources to convert print books to ebooks, coupled with the “hysteria” of the poets, many have not taken the plunge. I think this is a huge mistake. Poets and small presses are precluding themselves out of a market and a built-in-audience of poetry lovers who would like to read poetry on their devices. The public is buying more ebooks than print books. It’s a market that you simply cannot ignore if you want your work, including your poetry to reach a wider audience.

And really, the lines are handled just as they are in print — if it’s too long, you wrap with an indent to show it is a continuing line. Most poetry readers understand that in print, so if they see it on a reading device, they will understand it as well. To be sure, poetry with gaps of spacing, poetry typeset as a visual centerpiece to the poem is more complex to convert into an ebook. Right now there are two solutions: (1) working with someone who has a total understanding of the technology who can figure out ways to work around it, or (2) publishing the ebook with the lines flush left, but even that may change in time as the technology continues to develop.

Right now, the best way (in my humble opinion) to prepare ebooks is to hand-code the text using XHTML. This solves a number of problems: you have better control over line spacing and the flow of text, and as the technology changes, you can go back to your original XHTML file and update it. People are big on apps right now and interactive text (click and a photo or illustration pops up; click and music comes on), which is becoming popular in the children’s and YA market, but it also provides writers some creative ways to reproduce their books on reading devices. So by hand-coding books, your work is able to grow with the technology.

What’s happening is that these reading devices are providing a new stage on how we communicate through text — the world is no longer flat, it’s round. In fact, we recently released three poetry collections by Jesus Papoleto Melendez, Shirley Bradley LeFlore and Tony Medina, with more to come. Jesus’ poetry has lines all over the place and we were able to recalculate the spacing so that the work is not falling off the page/device. On the other hand, Shirley has extremely long lines, so we had to code for the indent to show that it’s all one line. When the ebooks are viewed in normal size they look just like their print counterpart on all of the devices, however, if the end-user decides to blow-up the screen, the meaning of the lines remain intact. In the end, I think that’s what really matters, when you format poetry in ebooks, the meaning of the lines remain intact (repeated twice here for emphasis).”

About Gabrielle:

I am the executive director of the Intercultural Alliance of Artists & Scholars, Inc. (IAAS) (, a NY-based nonprofit organization that promotes multicultural literature and literacy.  I am a lover of poetry, and have been reading, writing and studying poetry since elementary school through college.  I became involved in the NY poetry scene during the 1990s doing poetry programming at the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Queens, NY, booking artists like Maria Gillan, Jesus Papoleto Melendez, Sonia Sanchez, Shirley Bradley LeFlore, Louis Reyes Rivera, among others. This program prompted the creation of phati’tude Literary Magazine (, and later on, the television program phatLiterature (, which was videotaped at the Library and aired nationally on college networks and public access outlets. We recently launched our imprint, 2Leaf Press (, which promotes multicultural poets and writers. 

who needs words in the age of the image?

…the most important language of our so-called post-literate society. The image. Ours is a world where the ability to communicate doesn’t require anything more than rudimentary reading and writing. And, in fact, sounds and pictures can do the job just as well.And given time constraints today, perhaps better. This is what virtual reality has wrought.The image is the new word. Don’t send a message expressing your emotion, send an image representing the idea.


It would be useful [..] to trace the history of Western civilization with an eye towards evaluating the war between image and word. Start with the Mona Lisa on one side and Don Quixote on the other and count up the wins and losses in each column [...] most realists among the wordsmiths already know that short of some massive cataclysm that lays to waste the electronic grid that makes the delivery of images so easy, we are pretty much done for.

From The War on Wordsmiths by Ali Eteraz – read full article here.

I don’t necessarily disagree with his premise, but do think there is a key distinction to be made between written wordsmithing and spoken wordsmithing. Which doesn’t much help the written word crowd, but does make the overall case for wordsmiths somewhat less dire.

multi-format poetry publishing, cont’d

Check out this awesome web-page. This is how poetry should be published!

We blogged about Dave Bonta’s Twelve Simple Songs before, but there’s more now. From a single online location (Dave built a dedicated page for the publication), you can read the poems via Issuu on the web, download a PDF of the poems, download an MP3 file of the author reading the poems, or purchase (at cost-price) a print edition of the poem. You can also watch an awesome videopoem someone made based on the poems, read for the video project by someone else.

Poetry publishers take note. It doesn’t get better than this!

Other relevant multi-format publishing posts from the Very Like A Whale archive:

- multi-format poetry publishing!
Want poetry readers? publish in multiple formats, some free
Multi-format poetry publishing – production steps