Thursday, June 28, 2012

Chapbook Rookie: Interview with poet Joshua Michael Stewart

Stewart, staring longingly into outer space
I recently had the chance to talk shop about chapbook marketing with poet Joshua Michael Stewart. After sending him a thank you on Facebook for pre-ordering Braiding the Storm, Stewart shared some advice with about his experiences promoting his two chapbooks, Vintage Gray (Pudding House Publications, 2007) and Sink Your Teeth in the Light (Finishing Line Press, 2012), and the different approaches he took with marketing the second time around.

All of Stewart's advice was helpful and encouraging, so I thought other poets might benefit from his advice. Thus began the spark for this enlightening and frank interview below. I highly recommend cozying up with his words. Not only am I a fan (see proof at the end of this interview), as an editor I've published Stewart's work in Weave. His poems have also been published by Massachusetts Review, Euphony, Rattle, Cold Mountain Review, William and Mary Review, Pedestal Magazine, Evansville Review and Blueline. You can find more of his work online here Stewart resides in Ware, Massachusetts, but you can visit him on the web at Fictionaut, Facebook, and Twitter.


Many people swear by social media and email, while others say that in-person marketing, such as book parties or readings yield the best results. What types of marketing, both before and after a chapbook’s release, have been most successful for you? Which approaches do you feel are a waste of time?

I’ve heard over and over again that readings are where it’s at, but it’s not about the readings or even (sadly) about the quality of your work. It’s about establishing relationships. In order to make any sales at readings you need to do a lot of them and become an active member of that community. The hard truth of the matter is that most people won’t buy your book because you’re a great poet, but simply because they know you.

Social media is also about establishing relationships. I’ve had more success with selling my chapbooks via the internet. I would have to say it’s because it’s easier to establish and maintain those relationships on a daily basis. Also it’s easier to get my work “Into their hands,” by posting poems, or links to poems published in E-zines. I think I can be bolder with my tactics online. With my first chapbook, Vintage Gray, I simply would post announcements on my wall, and frankly, hardly anyone took the bait. Then with my second chapbook, Sink Your Teeth into the Light, I sent emails with links and sample poems to everyone in my friends list. I pissed a few people off by doing that, a couple even un-friended me, but the bottom line is, I sold more chapbooks in one week by doing that then I did in three years by just posting announcements on my wall. Like it or not, cold calls work.

How would you rate the importance of having an online presence with regard to marketing? Do you have any particular online services that you swear by?

Facebook mostly, I do use Twitter, but my success with Twitter is limited, but that’s probably because I don’t use it as much as I should. Obviously, it is extremely important to have an online presence when it comes to marketing. Think of all the writers, musicians, and whatever else you have knowledge of thanks to the internet that you would’ve never come across otherwise. For me, one who hasn’t owned a TV in thirteen years, and except for NPR, doesn’t listen to the radio, the only way someone has a real chance to market a product to me is going the online route.

Since you have had the experience with marketing multiple chapbooks, what was the biggest thing you learned from the first that changed your promotional approaches for subsequent titles?

I learned that I needed to do more of it. Marketing is really a fulltime job. Again, if you want people to buy your product you need to put that product in your customers’ hands. This is marketing 101, but the problem with me, and I’m sure with most writers is that we’re artists, not businessmen, and you need to be especially if you’re a poet, because no one will do it for you, for the most part not even your publisher.

It’s easy to go overboard with marketing, to the point where your audience begins to tune out. How do you know when enough is enough?

I’m not sure. Again, I always think I’m not doing enough. I guess one thing you don’t want is to have everyone you market to all be swimming in the same pool. If everyone you market to is on your Facebook page, then after you’ve posted your book on your wall for the 30th time this week, you’re pretty much washed up. This is where I start taking my own advice. This is why you need to be online and do readings in as many diverse venues as possible.

Marketing is time consuming and one can really devote an endless amount of time to it. Is it difficult to promote a book while still developing new creative work? How do you strike that balance?

Well as I said, it’s a fulltime job. It’s difficult to promote—period. Since I’m a poet, which is another way of saying I can’t make a living by just writing poetry, I already have to balance many other responsibilities along with the craft of writing. So, what’s one more thing? I have sacrificed a lot to devote my life to art. I’m not married, nor do I (or ever will) have children for the simple fact there would be that much more balancing to deal with. I could be working in a job where I make far more money than I do, but that would mean more time and mental energy devoted to something other than art. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis.

What advice do you have for poets who feel timid about book promotions?

Believe in yourself and your work, but with that always strive to improve your craft. And for God’s sake always hold craft above all else. What you have to say is meaningless without caring how you say it. I admit I’m a bit too timid for my own good, and when it comes to promoting anything, especially poetry, you have to be bold and do whatever it takes to get people to read your work. Even if it means some people will delete you from their Facebook page. Those people would’ve never bought your book in the first place, so fuck ‘em.

One thing that many poet's do not think about, or think is even an option, is having their chapbooks sold at independent bookstores on consignment. I live in Western Massachusetts, and I'm lucky to have at least seven independent bookshops relatively near my home. The way it works is that you either call up to speak to the owner, or better yet, go to the store in person and tell them you'd like to sell your chapbook on consignment. This means the owner finds a spot on the shelf for your chapbook and in return, the bookstore receives a percentage once one of your chapbooks have sold. The way I have it worked out with most of the local bookstores around me is that if one of my chapbooks is sold for $10.00 the bookstore takes $3.00 and I keep $7.00. It's not a bad deal considering all I have to do is gloat about having one of my chapbooks sold at an actual bookstore.

What current projects you are working on? What are you in the process of promoting? 

I’m promoting my two chapbooks, Vintage Gray and Sink Your Teeth into the Light, which people can find both at my web pageSink Your Teeth into the Light can also be found at Amazon.

As for current projects I’m currently working on a book project with illustrator Bret HerholzIt’ll be a collection of poems that will unfold like a hard-boiled detective novel that will also include illustrations and possible elements of the graphic novel.

me, enjoying Joshua Michael Stewart's chapbook

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