Lies, Damned Lies, and Poetry "Best Sellers"

I'm not trying to pick on the poets and poetry lovers out there. I write poetry on occasion, and read the genre with a passion. As a writer, I can truly say here's nothing harder than compressing language into that perfect blend of syntax and meaning which makes up a great poem.

But today a friend e-mailed me a link to the Poetry Foundation's list of poetry best sellers. I began browsing the contemporary poetry best seller list to see what books were popular with readers. However, very quickly my bullshit meter began going off. There are books on the list which have been out for years and shouldn't still be listed as best sellers. So I did a little digging. What I found out is that the Poetry Foundation must have a different definition of "best seller" than the rest of the world.

First off, the facts. As of the week of Nov. 2, 2008, the number one contemporary poetry bestseller is Ballistics by Billy Collins. However, if you head to the listing for the book, you will see that the book's sales rank is only 5,236 (as of the date and time I wrote this). According to this analysis of the sales ranking, that means Billy Collins' book only sold 15 to 20 copies through Amazon over the entire last week. The number two book on the list, The Niagara River by Kay Ryan, had a sales rank of 22,024 (meaning 1 to 5 books sold the last week through Amazon), while the number three book (The Truro Bear and Other Adventures by Mary Oliver) had a similar sales rank as Ryan's book.

Worse, the Poetry Foundation's list of Small Press Best Sellers number one seller for October is from Unincorporated Territory by Craig Santos Perez, which isn't even available through Amazon. The number 2 seller isAction Kylie by Kevin Killian, which has a sales rank of 1,417,289.

Now granted, these numbers only focus on sales. And since Amazon doesn't reveal exactly how its sales ranking compares to book sales numbers, all of this is estimated. But if these really are the types of numbers seen through the biggest bookseller in the United States, sales through all other bookstores can't be that high. (For another analysis of Amazon's sales rank, go here. According to this alternate estimate, these poetry books may have slightly higher sales numbers. But as the author of the analysis states, a book must have a sales rank under a 1,000 to be seriously successful title, while a rank of 10,000 or more means a book is "no bestseller.")

This analysis isn't meant as an attack on any of these poets or their books. I understand that poetry doesn't sell as well as fiction, nonfiction, or, based on these numbers, just about anything else in the book store. But for the Poetry Foundation to label these types of numbers "best sellers" is misleading. I mean, in poetry the specific words you use matter. Don't use the term "best seller" when a book only sells a few copies a week.

BTW, not all the Poetry Foundation lists are misleading. On their list of Children's Poetry Best Sellers, the number one book is the 30th Anniversary Edition of Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. When I last checked that book's sales ranking, it was a very respectable 284, meaning that 150 to 200 copies were sold in the last week through the online bookseller. I'd call that a true best seller (although the number still pales compared to fiction best sellers). But I doubt the Poetry Foundation wants to trumpet the fact that a dead poet's wonderful collection of poems for kids is out selling the country's top contemporary poetry book by more than a 10 to 1 ratio!