February 7, 2018
Rupi Kaur’s rising tide is lifting many boats in the world of poetry publishing
by Simon Reichley
A few weeks ago we noted a fun little slab of poetry beef, with poetic sensibilities of varying orientation and vintage squaring off in time-honored fashion. We were not, unfortunately, able to discuss the one and only measure by which all writing must inevitably be judged: BookScan numbers.
Thankfully, John Maher at Publishers Weekly has done some heavy lifting, with a deep dive into the sales of the undisputed heavyweight champ of Instagram poetry, Canadian Rupi Kaur, whose debut collection, Milk and Honey, was initially self-published, then got picked up by Andrews McMeel and became a massive bestseller, moving well over a million copies. Kaur’s follow-up collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, also from McMeel, has sold more than 600,000 copies since it was released in October. While the critical response to those collections has been mixed, the industry, as Maher reports, has been almost universally warm.
Kaur’s sales have been off the charts for a collection of poetry. And, as Maher points out, this rising tide appears to be lifting several boats, old and new — which may account, at least partly, for the generally collegial response among the publishers that Maher spoke to. Overall poetry sales in 2017 were up dramatically from 2016, and while Kaur’s collection led the pack by a healthy margin, other titles have benefited from the overall increased volume. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, published by Wave, cracked the BookScan Top 35, and several canonical backlist writers, such as Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou, and Pablo Neruda, also saw increased sales.
Several of the publishers Maher speaks to view Kaur’s success as an opportunity to develop a previously hidden or inaccessible readership, the idea being that if you can get one out of every five Rupi Kaur fans to buy a copy of your forthcoming collection, you’ll sell 200,000, and that’ll be dope. Sarah Gzemski of Noemi Press tells Maher, “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.” And Michael Wiegers at Copper Canyon hopes that current “trends mature into traditions.”
Kaur built her following largely outside the cloistered world of traditional publishing. She is alien even to those tiny, makeshift whirlygigs known as independent poetry presses. And, while the moment she appears to have created for herself may inevitably mature into a tradition, it seems somewhat unlikely that this tradition will much resemble the traditions that preceded her.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.