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!

poetry doesn’t sell because it isn’t performed well enough

Interesting reading from the folks at Commercial Poetry:

… poetry sales figures make it abundantly clear that no one buys poetry without performance of that poem, of that poet’s work or of poetry in general. Aside from the paltry numbers involved, the model of publishing a tome and then doing readings for a few dozen friends and fellow poets fails for two reasons:

– it must be a performance, not a reading; and,
– it is ass-backwards: live, film or theatrical production comes before any expectation of profitable text publication.

This was true even in poetry’s heyday. Shakespeare’s plays were not collected and published until well after he retired. How many copies would his scripts have sold without production? Just as you don’t buy MP3s of songs/artists you’ve never heard, interest in individual poets usually began with seeing their work performed, not necessarily by the poet*. If enough of that writer’s work caught your fancy you might buy the book or catch the author on tour. Contrast that to poetry’s status quo: to no one’s surprise, people who have never encountered a contemporary poem being performed competently are not enthused about reading any particular poem or poetry in general. How many Superbowl tickets are purchased by those who have never seen a football game?

I especially love the footnote corresponding to the asterisk above:

* The notion that anyone other than the author would want to perform a contemporary poem seems utterly foreign to today’s poets. As long as this is the case there is no hope for poetry’s reanimation.

Cross-posting at Voice Alpha (of course).

trouble with Salt

As Rob and Katy note, the UK’s Salt Publishing is having financial woes. Salt director Chris Hamilton-Emery suggests buying just one book to help tip the balance in its favor. Since I already have Rob’s Opposite of Cabbage, I just bought Katy’s Me and the Dead. That’s kind of cheating, since I’ve been meaning to treat myself to it forever, but hey, win-wins are good. Fingers crossed for Salt.



poetry discussion lists

Poetics List: Our aim is to support, inform, and extend those directions in poetry that are committed to innovations, renovations, and investigations of form and/or/as content, to the questioning of received forms and styles, and to the creation of the otherwise unimagined, untried, unexpected, improbable, and impossible.

Wom-po: An international listserv devoted to the discussion of Women’s Poetry. Membership is open to all individuals who are interested in discussing poetry written by women. The discussion covers women poets of all periods, aesthetics, countries, and ethnicities.

NewPoetry List: Has two purposes: information and discussion related to contemporary poetry. We welcome publication announcements, reviews, essays, open letters, quotes, news items, calls for submissions, and, of course, poems and your commentary.


These are the three I know of and it’s quite surprising how long it took me to gain awareness of their existence, and then to actually sign up for them. I haven’t determined the exact List Serv Ratio of Noise to Substance for any yet, but so far so good, in all three cases.

Are there any other poetry lists out there that no-one’s told me about?

premature talk of greatness

I’m with Reb and Amy on this one. 

And, every other consideration aside, history decides the answer to who is ‘great’ in any field. Not us, writing now, however smart and well-informed we may be (or not). What we think now is not necessarily what history will think 50 or 100 years from now.

She’s funny that way, history.