Poetry: Where the Big Money Is(n't) - Let's Talk...

There's an interesting blog post here by Nic Sebastian to check out called "poetry – an inherently non-profit activity?"

Nic writes:

The fact is that selling poems is just not good business. Packaging poems ‘for sale only’ doesn’t make money and cuts down on potential readership. Do we want to sell poems, or get them read? The two objectives are, in my view, mutually exclusive to a high degree. Sell, ok – but don’t only sell.

It's an interesting concept that goes even deeper in the large much read book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde.

Truth be told, the majority of the money I've from by writing poetry has not come from royalties, book sales, or payment from magazines and publishers, but from reading honorariums, teaching at writing/reading conferences or poetry festivals, individual consulting and editing on poems and poetry manuscripts with writers, and from grants.

Writing a poem has not been my ticket to J.K. Rowling-ville.  It has not equalled a movie deal or an appearance on Oprah.  I am not on booktour in England.  I do my own laundry.

But still, I do it.

Why spend so much time on something that offers such a small financial reward?  In a world & culture centered around commerce, this doesn't make sense.

But it does.

I've said it before-- Writing a poem is an optimistic act.  And this is what I know of all true artists and writer friends-- the writing or art is always the first thought, not the money.

We forget there are other rewards besides financial.

If I was making zero money from writing or the things attached to writing (teaching, editing, consulting, one-on-one work, etc), I would have less time to write because I would need to find some way to pay the rent.  But I would still write.

I would still write poems even if I knew they wouldn't be published.  Even if I knew they or their comet tail of dreams would never open any doors, earn me any money, bring me any amount of success.

Would I like poets, writers, & artists to be earning equal or greater amounts of money compared to Hollywood actors--- oh, I would love that!

Do I think poets, writers, and artists should have salaries as high at the top paid CEO -- yes, and even more so they can share the wealth with others.

But maybe that's the thing-- money distracts.  It can make us forget who we are.

But if I had the choice-- I'd take the risk that you all could live on incredible over-the-top poetry salaries and still make the best decisions for you and your art.  I would trust that.

I guess my feeling is don't ever close the door on the idea that writing poems could earn you enough money to live more-than-comfortably, give you enough money to travel freely, or take care of you, but also, don't expect it.

Will it ever happen?  I guess we'll all just have to live a little longer and see what works out.

(Though I'm thinking my new Kelli Ru$$ell Agodon signature might be a little premature.)



  1. I started writing first, poorly to be sure, but the words came first. I'm still waiting for the money, and probably always will. I knew going in that triple digit sales of my self-published collection is a pipe dream, but I wanted that collection in that format, for myself. If I break even, that's great.

    Great thoughts here. I write because I can't not write. And I think some of the joy from writing would wither if it was solely tied to money.

  2. I have been writing since I was a young girl because I don't know how too. Some things are just worth more than money.


  3. I suggested on Twitter once that TED should sponsor a TEDPoets group. My idea got RT'd a bit but I haven't heard from TED yet.

    TED just started TEDLibrarians so why not TEDPoets?

  4. I began writing poetry as an outlet. Never thinking of getting published, just a creative expression of my inner soul. If I never get paid a dime for doing it, I would still do it. But it would be nice to have CEO pay.

    Really enjoying your blog.

  5. I've made I think a total of something under $200.00 from writing, which I've been doing for more than 40 years. Of that amount, $135.00 was for publication of two prose articles and some book reviews. Nearly all of the remainder is from doing readings.

    On one occasion the editor of a small poetry magazine gave out small cash prizes for poems that were published in one of the magazine issues -- not a contest, she just did it on her own, and the money came out of her own pocket --, and I got $5.00 as "third prize" for a poem of mine in the magazine. (First prize was I think $20.00 to whoever won it.) The $5.00 is the total I've made in my life for publishing poetry as such.

    I'm not including here any money I've made here and there from selling copies of my books, which I haven't kept track of. I've tended to give away a lot more copies than I've sold for money. Any amount I've made from selling books is likewise tiny.

    I'm not sure if optimism has much to do with it for me. I write poems out of necessity, and I persist out of necessity. I suppose, in principle, I wouldn't mind if I were able to make at least a comfortable income from writing poems, though the fact is I think that if such a thing were a serious possibility, we would be living in a very different kind of world from the one we're living in at the present time -- a world in which we were collectively providing for the basic needs of everyone, a world in which no one prospered at the cost of anyone else's suffering or deprivation. And in such a different world I'm not sure if questions of money would be relevant any more.

    The word verification is "mingle" -- I'll leave it to whoever else is inclined to decipher what the oracle might intend by that here.

  6. Mark-- Exactly! I agree about the joy withering if tied to money. That fact we have something incredible to do that may or may not make us financial wealth is not to be overshadowed by "the fact we have something incredible to do!" The joy is in the act, not the outcome.

    Chandra-- WELL SAID! thanks for that.

    Maureen-- Great idea! I looked for your tweet, but did not see it. Would love to retweet that!

    Lena-- yes, so true! It would be great to have CEO pay, but you're right, it's something we do even if not paid.

    Lyle-- Necessity is a good word. I need poetry as well.

    thanks for all your comments, so good to read.

  7. I love a book entitled: Write from the Heart by Hal Zina Bennett.
    When we listen to the inner Voice somehow we are impowered to do what we love and things work out. Money should never be the motive for doing what we do. "Seek His Kingdom" and everything else will come along - we've been told. How few REALLY believe it!

  8. It's hard for me to imagine that someone would start writing poems so they would sell and get payed. I don't think the poetry would get the attention it deserves.. I like what you wrote, that money would be/is a distraction, it can make us forget who we are, makes us forget why we started writing in the first place and what it means to us. And when you're in the selling business you're influenced by what people would like you to write, and you may loose your sense of expressing yourself.

    I've never expected to be paid for my poetry or art in general and don't see it happening any time soon. It's hard enough to get readers. But I've noticed that once you publish a book people look at you a bit differently, and I was surprised that some prefer book rather than webpages of e-books.

    I'd like to see the TEDpoets, great idea!

    However, I'd love to be a bard in the old days, that would be a life to live :)


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