Are Poetry Books Too Cheap?

In Ted Kooser’s short poem Selecting A Reader,  he imagines a women picking up a book of his poems, flipping the pages, and deciding “for that kind of money” she could have her dirty raincoat cleaned. She returns the book back on the shelf.

As typical of Kooser, the poem is intriguing – simple on the surface with various undertones. It is whimsical, sensual, and sad. It is a poem about poetry and potential readers, about poetic imagination and harsh reality. For Kooser, the ideal reader is too practical to buy poetry at all. It raises the question, what is a book of poems worth.

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This poem came to mind as I was thinking about eBook prices. In preparing for my self-publishing ventures, I’ve read a lot of publishing advice columns and blogs on book pricing. There is little consensus. I am certain there are book sales gurus who have it all figured out but most news on this aspect of publishing comes down to trends and generalized data like this one. Without separating out genre, the data above is of limited help. It does tells us one sure thing whether you are selling poetry, fiction or non-fiction, the cheapest price is not always the best price.

From my own unscientific survey, poetry books as a whole tend to be priced like fiction — whether they follow indie or big publishing houses. A quick survey of poetry eBooks on Amazon shows prices range from .99 to 5.99. I’ve often thought to myself, “If it’s ninety-nine cents, it’s probably not worth reading.” The reason I think this way goes back to something I learned many years ago.

The summer after I graduated from high school, my mother and I held a yard sale. I was going to college and I needed to lighten my load for dorm room-sized living. My mother wanted to unload too many memories from a previous marriage. We lived on a high-traffic, four-lane, main artery in a suburb of Detroit. We spent the early morning setting out our wares and sticking little circular tags with the prices on each item. By mid-morning people began to stop and sift through our clothes and pictures and books and knickknacks. Yet, few bought anything.

At noon my stepfather arrived for lunch. He asked how it was going. We told him sales were dismal. “Oh,” was all he said and turned from us and began to pace in front of the tables like a general reviewing his troops. He took all of two minutes and returned to give us his report.

“Nobody will buy anything because it’s too cheap,” he said. “Double and triple your prices and sales will double and triple.”

This seemed crazy to me. Why would anyone pay more for what they won’t buy for less.

“But hardly anyone is buying anything now,” I said.

“Mark everything up and I guarantee more sales.”

Ron was a successful salesman, so my mother and I followed his advice.

What followed was a miracle. Within minutes sales began to boom. Our customers seemed happier too. A few even exclaimed they had found a treasure. In a day and a half I made $250, good money then, more than I made as a doorman at a swanky movie theater.

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My domestic vignette’s take away is this: often a higher price will suggest greater value to a customer.

I believe most poetry books are worth more than a handful of pennies. I believe readers of poetry believe that too. If some poetry readers are wearing dirty rain coats they can’t afford to launder, then we know poetry sales have a limited and specific audience. The group of readers who buy poetry will not balk at a higher price for the simple reason that all of us know that something of higher value costs a bit more.

What are your thoughts on book pricing?

Have you ever under sold your abilities or the value of your book?

Let me know with a comment below.

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Readin’ Writin’ Racin’ and hearing the corn grow

I traveled to Michigan in December to visit my mother. While there I drove into the backwoods to visit my uncle, my mother’s brother. I hadn’t visited for some time and he was thinner, grayer but still vigorous. He had recently finished cutting and stacking 10 cords of firewood. At seventy-seven I hope I’m that spry.

It wasn’t long into the visit when the talk turned to racing. My uncle drove race cars at Flat Rock Speedway, southwest of Detroit. I still have vivid memories of that track and those roaring race cars, which were delightfully deafening to a 10-year-old. To this day I recall that track whenever I smell burnt rubber and high-octane gasoline exhaust.

We discussed the latest racing news. This trip he was all excited to tell me that, two-time Indianapolis winner, Gordon Johncock moved to a neighboring town and that, former NASCAR champion, Tony Stewart may drive in the Indianapolis 500 for car owner Roger Penske.

As always, I quizzed him about his racing days. This trip I learned his car owner was too cheap to buy new tires for his race car. He didn’t have to say it but I knew from my own racing experience that good rubber makes for good racing. The lack of fresh sticky rubber would mean his car would have little traction. “I won a couple of heat races but the best I could do was one third (place) in the features.” Like us all, I’m sure he’s thought about what might have been had circumstances been different. Not one to dwell, he has nothing but fond memories of his racing days.

After dinner we wandered out to his garage. He keeps an immaculate workshop. Every tool in its place and the floor squeaky clean. On one wall hung a 1962 photograph of him in his Flat Rock race car. It sported an unusual number: two and three-quarters. He said he wanted a number that would get noticed, so he added the fraction. I had him take the picture down and I used the camera in my cell phone to snap a picture of it for a keepsake. It truly is of historical value, both to my extended family and the history of short track racing in southern Michigan.

Charles Bartle, Flat Rock Speedway, 1962.

Charles Bartle, Flat Rock Speedway, 1962.

The picture captures the spirit of that time and place. The open-faced, leather-eared helmet says it all. This was home-brew racing. The car was a renegade racer built from the ground up of parts from various cars. Strapping yourself into one of these beasts means you were a warrior from a long line of chariot racers. Taking a seat in a car like that required a degree of trust in your car builder just like it does for any breakneck speedway racer today.

My uncle’s expression in the picture is that of a savvy racer — serious, fearless and proud. He told me the picture was taken between heat races. I think it is classic vintage photo even if he wasn’t my uncle.

When I went to leave he gave me a book, Lone Star J.R.: The Autobiography of Racing Legend Johnny Rutherford, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and member of the International Sports Hall of Fame. “You’ll get a kick out of some of the stories he tells.” He knew I’d get a kick out of it because he knows I love motor sports and saw Rutherford race three times at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The book chronicles the racing career of Rutherford — a brief glimpse of his childhood and ragtag years building a name for himself in racing. It is filled with vintage racing photos and tells brief stories about the now famous racers he raced with.

Published in 2000, this book should be in the library of serious race fans, racing history buffs and motor sports writers. My only criticism of the book is that he often takes you to a track, tells you he learned a lot about racing there, but doesn’t tell you what he learned. Surely he did not forget those hard-won lessons of racing. It is a minor thing but readers would have relished this information. That said, the book is filled with information on race tracks, racers and the people who made big time racing possible for the past 60 years. The narrative is plainly written and at times can be lyrically sweet.  

On one road trip, exhausted and hungry, he pulls off the road to sleep, opens both car doors, and stretches out across the front seat. “On a nice warm summer evening, if there’s no breeze, you can actually hear the corn grow. It wheezes and snaps and crackles. At first I thought I was just hearing things, but later I asked a farmer about it and he said, “Oh, yeah, you can hear corn grow if it’s a still night. Corn makes a lot of noise.”

Ah, the pleasure of hearing the corn grow after a weekend of race cars roaring in your ears. This is great stuff.

Click here to see how Rutherford is being honored at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

Let me know if you have any racing stories.