Books and social media – the two seem antithetical, an unlikely pairing. Whereas I spent my entire childhood devouring books like candy, kids nowadays grow up on iPads and phone apps. It seems like a myth to say that social media contributed to the revival of poetry’s popularity and readership, but it is the truth. No matter how much traditional poets and scholars in the literary world may hate to admit it, technology and social media play a big role in why people enjoy poetry in the present day.
Poetry’s Downward Trend
Despite all of the benefits that poetry can bring, it was struggling to stay afloat in the early 2000s. The National Endowment for the Arts polled the public about their arts participation and discovered that the share of Americans who had read at least one poetic work in the previous year had dropped from 17% in 1992 to 6.7% in 2012. Coupled with varied public opinions about poetry being elitist, frivolous, incomprehensible, or useless, and the debate that sparks every April for National Poetry Month – “Is poetry dead?” – it was obvious the literary art was not trending well.
Rise of the Instapoet
Enter social media. Specifically, Instagram. There is a reason why the term “Instapoetry” was coined – that’s due to the poetry community living on the social media platform. We aren’t solely talking about the major names like Rupi Kaur or Lang Leav either; to my best estimate, there are thousands of smaller accounts dedicated to poets who want to share their work with the world. Ranging from under 100 followers to over a million, there is such a broad and diverse set of voices out there. With an industry that is known to be dominated by white writers, it is reassuring to know there is somewhere for other voices to be heard – and potentially discovered.
That’s what happened with Rupi Kaur. Her debut poetry book, milk & honey, was self-published as a college student at age 21 and soon was picked up by Andrew McMeels Publishing after seeing the success in her sales and follower count – over 280,000 at the time, but now over four million. Her publisher rereleased her book in 2015 with an international distribution deal and followed up with a sister collection, the sun and her flowers. Between the two books, Kaur has sold over 8 million copies in 42 languages. A New York Times bestselling author, she has shown the world just how much power social media can have in the literary world.
Despite all of her poetic success, people are critical. Some say that her poetry is not true “poetry.” Catered to the short attention span of people scrolling through social media, her poems are not lengthy and lyrical in nature but short and direct. But poetry, after all, is meant to be a platform for advocacy and activism – and that is exactly what Kaur aims to do with her work. She regularly writes about domestic violence, feminism, racism, and other wordly issues that others can be afraid to speak upon. I wouldn’t say that she is a poet I desire to imitate in terms of poetic form or structure, but Kaur certainly has opened the gateway to other poets who want to share their work broadly and I admire that greatly.
Since her instant success and the other big names who have followed – Lang Leav, Courtney Peppernell, and Amanda Lovelace, to name a few – poetry’s popularity has been on the rise. 11.7% of Americans in 2017 had read poetry in the previous year, which is an increase of five percentage points from the prior poll in 2012. In the same year, BookScan had reported that poetry sales had doubled from the year before, thanks to publishers like Andrew McMeels, who held eleven of the top twenty bestselling poetry titles to claim.
Social Media & Self-Publishing
It isn’t just reading poetry that is gaining traction either – writing and publishing poetry is becoming more and more popular, thanks to self-publishing services like Amazon KDP and IngramSpark. Those are what I chose to use for my debut poetry book, Her Favorite Color Was Sunshine Yellow and I know plenty of others who have done the same. In fact, looking at my bookshelf full of poetry, 15 out of 43 of them are from self-published authors.
Social media has spurred this community of poets to share their work more and more frequently. Given the difficulty it is to get published by a traditional publishing house or literary journal, with some people receiving hundreds of rejections, self-publishing allows new poets to put themselves into the world. It doesn’t mean they will automatically have success in terms of sales, but platforms like Instagram allow people to build their own community of readers who are more likely to buy their book.
Through Instagram, followers are able to see the life of a poet – the inspirations, the writing process, the revisions, and any other stage of publishing. It allows readers to feel more connected to the writer, which is good for marketing a book. A deeper, more intimate connection generally equates to more sales because people genuinely want to support your work. That is what I have learned through my time on Instagram.
Is it likely that my journey will be the same as Rupi Kaur, with a major publisher discovering my book and deciding to sign me on? Unfortunately, not likely at all. The same goes for the vast majority of Instapoets out in the world. But it doesn’t mean we try any less to make a name for ourselves in the world of poetry – it is just different than what traditional poets are used to. And that’s okay because the world is changing and technology is evolving, so our mindsets need to adapt too.
Want to Read More?
Finished this post and interested in learning more about the history of poetry, its popularity, and the role social media has played in its revival? Check out chapter 1 in my new book, Poetic Potential: Sparking Change & Empowerment Through Poetry, available now!