They say a novelist is a failed short story writer, and a short story writer is a failed poet.
Although I have huge respect for novelists and short story writers (I’ve done a little of each myself), I tend to agree. So does Mark Twain, who famously told a correspondent that he’d written a long letter because he lacked the time to write a short one.
Poetry is efficient. It can be beautiful, funny, and powerful, carrying the impact of 100,000-word tomes in just a few precisely chosen and placed words. In my not terribly humble opinion, this distillation of the literary form is the sign of the most talented writers of any age.
You Can Make Money Selling Poetry
The problem with being a poet is it’s not exactly a lucrative full-time profession.
Sure, Rupi Kaur has sold more than a million books and tickets to her speaking tours go for fifty bucks a pop. Sure, you and everybody else you know has a copy of Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. Sure, in high school you had to read Frost, and Tennyson, and Dickinson, and maybe Hughes or Brautigan if you were lucky.
But financially successful poets are few and far between, and making a living as a poet is close to impossible.
There’s an old joke:
“What’s a farmer’s most important cash crop?”
“His wife’s job in town.”
It’s pretty much true of poets as well. Most poets’ main source of writing income is whatever they produce in their day jobs.
But while you may not be able to make a full living writing poetry, you can make some supplemental income by selling your poems and through other activities we’ll call “poetry adjacent.”
How Poets Make Money
Once upon a time, poets lived off the patronage of wealthy nobles and royals. People with money liked the social status they derived from having poets and other artists on their payroll. Of course, that’s no longer a viable option for most aspiring poets. Instead, you’ll want to try your luck with a variety of other income sources.
1. Magazines and Anthologies
This option is the closest to how other kinds of writers make a lot of their money. There are plenty of poetry magazines, literary journals, paying websites, and anthologies welcoming poetry. You’ll have to submit regularly, but expect to sell only on occasion. On a per-word basis, poetry pays pretty well. But the market is small, and pretty saturated.
2. Self-Published Books
Book sales can bring in a surprising amount of money, but you’ll have to work for it. Traditional publishing deals for poetry books are pretty rare, but you can always write and self-publish/e-publish several collections of your poetry. By “several” I mean “at least ten” so you can benefit from some of the ways Amazon recommends and rates books. This takes effort, and some out-of-pocket cost for layout and editing, but can reliably trickle in some payments.
3. Poetry Readings
Readings at bars, schools, tea houses, community centers, libraries, bookstores … wherever you can get a booking, stand up and say your words. This can be at open mic poetry events (still popular in many cities), or something you arrange on your own. The idea here is to read publicly, then sell the books you’ve self-published. Don’t start doing this until you have books to sell.
4. Teach Poetry
Teaching gigs can be a great way for poets to make money. Many community programs and schools like to offer poetry classes, and qualified poets are kind of thin on the ground. These might not be full-time teaching jobs with benefits and enough salary to live on, but they can produce a nice paycheck for engaging, rewarding work.
5. Grants and Fellowships
Poetry is an art form, which means that grants and fellowships for poets are easier to get, and often more generous, than similar programs for other kinds of writing. Of course, this means you’ll also have to learn how to write effective applications, but it’s worth the time.
6. Speaking Engagements
Speaking engagements are like a cross between public readings and teaching jobs. You get one-off assignments to address a classroom, or work at a conference, or lead a panel at a literary event. They usually pay a small honorarium, plus an opportunity to promote and sell your books. These opportunities can be hard to break into, but once you book one or two you’ll find offers for others start pouring in.
Don’t Rely on One Source of Income
No single one of these is likely to make a significant amount of money for all but the most talented and fortunate poets. However, by systematically and aggressively pursuing all six, you can cobble together a decent secondary income. That’s why I recommend combining them.
This is good advice for writers of any kind, but is especially important for poets because money for poetry is so hard to find. Don’t settle for one source of income as a poet. Instead, run them all and watch them build each other up.
Build On Your Successes
Take this example:
Stefan has a gift for sonnets, so he gathers the 120 sonnets he’s written in his life and turns them into four books, which he puts on Amazon. He then uses CreateSpace to publish print copies of the same books, plus an all-in-one anthology he prices at three times the cost of a single book.
He then books himself a reading gig twice every week for three months. Each gig sells a book to about 10% of the audience, and his audience grows with each reading.
As that buzz grows, he sends an email to every private and charter school in town offering to do a poetry workshop. Because he’s become a bit of a minor celebrity, he books six such gigs. Each pays him a few hundred dollars, and he sells a few books. He turns two of them into regular assignments where he teaches a poetry unit in their language arts department.
With those successes under his belt, Stefan starts booking speaking engagements at literary events and conferences regionally. When he begins his next set of reading gigs, the house is largely packed because his name and face is out there in so many places.
Come winter, he settles in a bit to write more poetry. While he’s not writing, he starts work on grant applications.
You can see how approaching his poetry income like this not only creates individual streams of income from many sources, it sets up a situation where each stream makes the other streams larger. This takes focused attention, consistent follow-through, and about as much time as any serious part-time job. But when it works, it can produce a surprisingly good part-time income.
Use Your Poetic Talents
As a poet, you have a gift for stringing together economic phrases that have emotional impact. You can put that gift to work, even if you’re not always writing poems.
There are lots of companies and individuals who need economic, emotionally impactful phrases; seek them out and offer to write those phrases on demand. It’s different from waiting for the muse to strike and then capturing lightning in a literary bottle. Instead, you put that muse to work at the mill.
Non-Poetry Sources of Income
The first step, of course, is finding a mill where your muse can work. Good news: there are a lot of mills:
- Ad copy writing for agencies or as a freelancer, where a perfectly turned sentence can make your words famous
- Writing for greeting cards, which pays some of the highest per-word rates in the industry
- Songwriting, which is basically writing poetry set to music. Hard to break into, but potentially extremely lucrative.
- Social media consulting. The best Tweets and comments are poetic already. You’d be surprised how much the major players pay for those.
- Catalog copy, which is the soul of making the most impact with the smallest number of words.
- Bios and dating profiles, where a really great piece of short writing can literally change lives.
- Writing test questions. The market for this is huge, though the best gigs require you have some kind of advanced degree.
- Rules and instructions for games and “some assembly required” items. You probably know what happens when unqualified writers get hired for this.
- Speechwriting. Like songwriting, this is basically writing a poem for somebody else to read. It’s another one that can be hard to get started in, but that pays well once you’re established.
Being successful in any of these non-poetry pursuits does require a paradigm shift from what most people think of as poetry, and it’s not for everyone. Some folks view this kind of writing as selling out their talent.
But let me ask you this. What sells out your muse more: Writing for pay with a few of your hours, earning money while building your craft? Or working a job where you don’t write at all, and coming home too tired or without enough time to work on your writing?
Freelancing and Self-Employment
There’s also a growing market in being self-employed or freelance for gigs like these. Sites like Fiverr.com give you a place where you can sell an on-demand poem for a few dollars, while platforms like Zazzle and TeeSpring let you put your words on things like t-shirts and coffee mugs.
Of course, even if you do all the things I mentioned in this article, I can’t promise you’ll ever be able to quit your day job, but I can promise you’ll be able to afford a little extra beer, or to take a nicer vacation than you would without it.
Besides, you’ll be writing poetry. And that’s a pretty nifty accomplishment all of its own.