Can Instagram Make Poems Sell Again?
Internet-famous inspirational verse is selling big—and other poetry is seeing a bump too.Is poetry dead? At least once a year—usually around April, which is National Poetry Month—headlines asking this question pop up in print and web publications alike. In fact, hand-wringing over poetry’s waning influence in the public sphere can seem, sometimes, to be almost as popular an activity in the poetry world as reading and writing poetry. For a long time, that hand-wringing seemed well earned; the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, for instance, reported in 2015 that the share of Americans who had read at least one work of poetry in the previous year had dropped from 17% in 1992 to 6.7% in 2012. Then came Rupi Kaur.
Kaur—whose verse first appeared on her Instagram account, which now boasts more than 2.1 million followers—was a dominant force in publishing in 2017. Her first book, Milk and Honey, published by Andrews McMeel in 2015, was the #2 print bestseller last year on NPD BookScan’s ranking, with sales of more than one million copies. Her latest book, The Sun and Her Flowers, spent 10 weeks at #1 on the PW trade paperback list after its publication on October 3, and it has sold more than 633,000 print copies since its release.
In fact, BookScan reported that poetry sales in 2017 were twice what they were in 2016—with no small thanks to Kaur’s publisher, Andrews McMeel. Of the top 20 bestselling poetry titles last year based on BookScan numbers, McMeel had 11, including seven of the top 10. The publisher is best known for its comics and humor, puzzles and games, and gift books, so its current dominance in the poetry category over more established poetry publishers—such as W.W. Norton and Farrar, Straus and Giroux—might seem surprising.
To Kirsty Melville, McMeel’s president and publisher, however, this is simply an extension of how McMeel works. “As a publisher, we go with where the culture goes,” she said. “Two years ago, we were a dominant player in coloring books. We were one of the earliest publishers of coloring books. And that was a significant part of our business, as it was for a lot of publishers. And I remember thinking afterward, ‘How am I going to replace this?’ But at the same time, we were experimenting and looking for where the culture was going and tapping into the sense of what might work in the context that we’re in. It was coloring books, and now it’s poetry, and I’m already thinking, ‘Now what am I going to do?’ ”
For the moment, the answer to that is “more poetry.” Fellow McMeel authors Amanda Lovelace (The Princess Saves Herself in This One), R.H. Sin (the Whiskey Words & a Shovel series), and Courtney Peppernell (Pillow Thoughts) are all selling remarkably well. Then there’s Australian author Lang Leav, whose initially self-published Love and Misadventure became a McMeel bestseller in 2014 and, in many ways, foretold the trend Kaur’s work has sparked. The publisher’s poetry back bench is deep.
That said, Kaur has become something of a polarizing figure in the literary, publishing, and media communities. Her work is often knocked as being lowbrow or trite, or not in the rich tradition of serious poetry. While some herald Kaur and fellow Instagram poets for their pithy, often inspirational form of verse, others condemn the trend as simplifying or commercializing the art form or, in some extreme cases, taking attention away from the works of more deserving writers.
The media has happily played into this narrative. BuzzFeed ran a piece with the headline, “The Problem with Rupi Kaur’s Poetry”; “Instagram Poet Rupi Kaur Seems Utterly Uninterested in Reading Books,” declared another, from Deadspin’s the Concourse vertical. “Rupi Kaur: The Inevitable Backlash Against Instagram’s Favourite Poet” was the Guardian’s tamer take. (Kaur is not alone; the poet Collin Yost, for instance, who has seen both popularity and the seemingly inevitable backlash on Instagram, was called “the most hated poet in Portland [Ore.]” by the Outline.)
“One of the things that comes up in things I’ve read is literary poets who find their work is not reaching the same audience [as it once did],” Melville said. “But I think there’s something for everyone in poetry. We are dominant publishers of a certain type of poetry, that is certainly right. But Mary Oliver is selling. Billy Collins is out there. The challenge, in my opinion, for some of the poets whose sales haven’t been as good—it’s all about discovery, and marketing, and how you get known.”
BookScan’s rankings from 2017, to some extent, corroborate this. Though many poets whose books were BookScan bestsellers for poetry in 2017 show similarities to McMeel’s authors—including Nayyirah Wayeed (self-published) and Tyler Knott Gregson (TarcherPerigee)—classics by such authors as Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, Homer, Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, and Rumi all placed in the top 35. And the tiny West Coast publisher Wave Books, whose author Tyehimba Jess won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry last year for Olio, saw its title Bluets, by Maggie Nelson, in the top 35 as well. That said, these books are almost all backlist—some very deep backlist—and the biggest seller among them, Oliver’s Devotions, sold just over 36,000 copies, compared to Kaur’s combined sales of more than 1.5 million copies.And yet, poetry publishers of all shapes, sizes, and traditions are less concerned about what might be called the Rupi Effect and its influence on the poetry world as a whole than the media hubbub would lead one to believe. Some at these publishers, such as Norton v-p and executive editor Jill Bialosky, see the trend as positive. “One benefit of the success of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey is that it has allowed booksellers to heighten their attention to poetry, because there is more demand for poetry titles from the consumer,” she said. “We’ve seen demand increase for classic poetry such as that by Rita Dove and Audre Lorde, and we were also thrilled with the response to a new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson, the first woman to do an English translation of that epic poem.”
Sarah Gzemski, managing editor of the tiny indie poetry press Noemi, agrees. “I think in general over the past couple of years, we’ve seen increased interest in poetry, and we have also seen an increase in sales,” she said, adding that Kaur’s work operates almost as a gateway to other poetry. “I talk to my peers who are teaching, and they have students who come in and have read Milk and Honey, and that gives the professors a starting point to recommend more authors who have a subject matter the students relate to. From a publishing standpoint, I think it’s silly to begrudge the success of these books.”
Others consider the trend McMeel pioneered as entirely separate from the poetry genre. At Wave, for instance, managing editor Heidi Broadhead—who said the publisher did not see much of an uptick in sales last year, with the exception of Olio—simply doesn’t see a relationship. “This is a trend in media or publishing, not in poetry,” she said. “It’s interesting to watch a poetry book create a phenomenon on the level of Fifty Shades or Twilight, but it feels pretty separate from what we do. Our interest is creating art and literature that has lasting value.”
Still, the other publishers who responded to PW’s questions on the matter all saw increased demand for their poetry. At Boa Editions, publisher Peter Conners thinks the upward trend will continue into 2018, pointing to books such as Chen Chen’s National Book Award–shortlisted When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, which he said is seeing “an astounding reception, both critically and with sales.” In addition to the Kaur factor, Conners noted that “it’s hard not to attach the current social and political climate to people’s increased appetite for the unique truths and humanity that poetry provides.” He added, “The stakes are high, and as our elected legislators stumble and lie, Shelley’s concept of poets as the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’ becomes more real and crucial.”
Graywolf Press executive editor Jeff Shotts said the publisher “has had very notably strong and increased poetry sales in the last few years,” adding: “We are seeing more challenging, artful, and innovative works, like Claudia Rankine’s groundbreaking Citizen, finding extraordinary success. We measure this success in a variety of ways, including readership response, author events, outreach to particular and often underserved communities, critical reception, awards, social and cultural engagement and inclusion, and more, with sales being one part of what a book does and can do.”
At Copper Canyon, executive editor Michael Wiegers rejects the terms traditional and nontraditional to describe different styles and methods of poetry, opting instead to observe the way the market is wending. “I admire traditions and history,” he said. “Meanwhile, I follow trends and love the excitement of trends and the way they can expedite conversations, even while I am suspicious, particularly, of literary trends that are propelled by something other than the work itself. What gets me excited about these trends in the poetry world is the new capacity for poets to build community, and build it toward larger change, to make a place where poetry can—in the words of Horace—‘delight and instruct.’ I like to watch how trends mature into traditions.”
Wiegers added, echoing Gzemski: “My eighteen-year-old daughter, who grew up around poets, expressed the idea that, among her friends, she sees Rupi Kaur and other Insta-poets as a ‘gateway drug,’ and if she knows someone likes Kaur’s work, she can in turn say, ‘Well, why don’t you try this other poetry book by Rumi, or June Jordan, or by E.E. Cummings as well?’”
In the end, Melville sees Kaur and her fellow internet-age poets as part of the poetic tradition—whether other people in poetry care to admit it or not. She also considers the surge in popularity of this particular poetic strain as natural in the present political moment.
“I think it’s not a mistake that people are turning to writing and poetry and reflection as the world gets more complex and challenging,” Melville said. “A year ago, when the Women’s Marches were happening, there were people with quotes from Milk and Honey marching: ‘If you were born with the weakness to fall, you were born with the strength to rise.’ So I think the times, combined with the way that poetry can speak deeply to people in very short lengths, and that Instagram and the internet provide a means for interest and distribution, mean people can be inspired by their words, and can write themselves. It’s the form meets the age, if you will. But it’s not different than Rumi, or Khalil Gibran. There are plenty of people who have written words of inspiration and poetry that still resonate today.”