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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