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5 Ways to Make Money as a Poet

Ask any poet you know if they ever considered making a living from their writing and you're likely to get an incredulous laugh in response. That's because most poets—particularly the ones who have tried to do it—understand that the prospect of making a career out of their poetry is slim to … well, very slim.

In her article "Livelihood of the Poets," Rachel Friedman writes: The three best-selling poetry books of 2011 were: Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins, Leavings by Wendell Berry, and Come, Thief by Jane Hirshfield. Collins sold 28,406 copies of Horoscopes. If we estimate a 10% royalty rate, he made around $44,177 on it. Berry, in second place, only sold 2,928 copies of Leavings, making him about $4,377. Hirshfield did similarly, selling 2,250 copies earning $5,625.

Granted, even if you made it to the number-one bestseller spot, $44k is arguably not a livable wage in many parts of the country. With that thought in mind, as a poet, you might want to keep your day job even if your work becomes a bestseller. However, if you're looking to make a sizeable side income from your writing, that goal might be far less of a pipe dream than making a living from it. And here are a few ideas that can actually put dollars in your pocket because of your poems.

Online products

T-shirts, wall plaques, caps and aprons—the possibilities are endless for online entrepreneurship for poets who want to make a living out of their writing. With the right few lines printed on clothing, home décor, or other accessories, and the right amount of marketing put into selling them, your poems could be making you a livable income.

A quick search on Etsy for "poetry art" reveals pages of poems as wall art for sale. While many of these poems are written by famous poets, the option to sell your own poetry is there. You can view how others design the art and posters, and use it as inspiration for designing your own, including the media used.

Websites like Vistaprint.com provide printing services for everything from totes and luggage to t-shirts and polos. You create the design that goes on them—notably a design that includes your poetry—and then market those items in your own personal web shop or sales venue.

Greeting cards

If there's one poetic medium that still sells on a daily basis, it's greeting cards. In fact, this post from the Penny Hoarder offers a run-down of eight companies openly seeking submissions for greeting card copy. These companies have different submission guidelines and content requests, so you'll need to do some research to find out who pays the best rates and is seeking your particular style of writing.


This post from Poets & Writers offers a guide on the steps you'll need to take to get your poetry manuscript self-published. It includes an overview of self-publishing, as well as tips on vetting your manuscript, setting a budget, creating the final product, establishing goals, choosing a platform and devising a marketing strategy.

Keep in mind that your self-publishing success as a poet will be directly tied to two things: 1) Your appeal and ability to engage audiences, and 2) your marketing efforts. Let's talk a little about each and how you can increase your chances of sales should you decide to take this route.

Appealing to audiences

The number-one bestselling poet of all time is Shakespeare, according to Joan Acocella. Second is Lao-tzu, with Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet coming in third with his collection of twenty-six prose poems, delivered as sermons by a fictional sage. Published in 1923, The Prophet has sold more than nine million copies in its American edition alone.

In the above-mentioned article, Joan Acocella writes, There are public schools named for Gibran in Brooklyn and Yonkers. The Prophet has been recited at countless weddings and funerals. It is quoted in books and articles on training art teachers, determining criminal responsibility, and enduring ectopic pregnancy, sleep disorders, and the news that your son is gay. Its words turn up in advertisements for marriage counselors, chiropractors, learning disabilities specialists, and face cream.

The point the author attempts to drive home is the widespread appeal of Gibran's words. They are vague enough to apply to multiple contexts and multiple religious backgrounds, and thus, increase the readership to a much bigger audience. The author also notes how Gibran's use of comforting, inspirational messaging contributed to his success as a poet. She writes, More than the soundness of its advice, however, the mere fact that The Prophet was an advice book—or, more precisely, 'inspirational literature'—probably insured a substantial readership at the start. Gibran's closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.

What these numbers tell us is that in order to find commercial success as a poet, you will need to reach large audiences with an inspirational message. However, perhaps you're not looking to achieve the same success as poets like Gibran and Shakespeare, and simply want to make a decent, livable wage. In that case, keep in mind that the more niche your chosen topics, the smaller your audiences will be. If you need to write about trauma faced by women in abusive relationships, by all means, write about it. Just realize that your audiences will be limited and therefore, your sales will be as well.

Your marketing efforts

As with any self-publishing efforts, marketing will play a large role in the success of your sales. With social media advertising, particularly Facebook, you'll have better opportunity to reach larger audiences than you'd have without it. That's why it's important to include marketing as one of your primary goals when venturing into the world of self-publishing. Getting the book completed and published is really just the first step.

Joanna Penn is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers under J.F. Penn. She also writes non-fiction for authors, and her site, TheCreativePenn.com has been voted in the Top 100 sites for writers by Writer's Digest.

On her site, she offers free marketing advice for self-published writers looking to maximize the sales of their book. In this section, she covers everything from aspects of a successful book launch to building your author website and optimizing your book's advertising copy for online sales. Additionally, she includes details on how to:

  • Attract readers with a great book sales description
  • Choose the right categories and keywords for your book
  • Price books and use free downloads
  • Use author pseudonyms
  • Use box-sets and bundling


Teaching is a common day job for poets and allows you to be a poet while making a livable wage. However, as Rachel Friedman points out, with thousands of students graduating with MFAs in poetry, there are fewer than a thousand spots available for teaching positions for someone with those credentials. This means that there are a lot of poets unable to find teaching positions doing what they love.

However, you don't necessarily have to be hired by a university to make a living teaching about poetry. Many community centers and libraries rent out space to hold classes you've organized on your own. In fact, you could teach after-school poetry classes for teens, summer camps for elementary-aged kids, or even "parents' night out" workshops for kids to learn more about the process of writing poetry while their parents take a much-needed date night.


Jason Blume is a professional songwriter who is using his skills as a poet to make money. On his website, which offers advice for anyone interested in making money from writing songs, he notes: Success doesn't happen by luck or coincidence. There are no magic answers or quick roads to songwriting success; steer clear of anyone promising them. But, with hard work, practice, and perseverance, I've seen my students write #1 singles, sign staff-writing deals, publish their songs, win contests and festivals, have their songs recorded, and become hits.

The site Careers in Music provides this advice for anyone interested in songwriting as a way to earn money: As a Songwriter, except for the rarest exceptions, 100% of your income comes from royalties earned when people buy digital and tangible recordings of your songs (downloads and CDs) and from streaming, as well as 'performance royalties' that are generated when songs are played on the radio, broadcast on television, on the Internet, on airplanes, and in places such as restaurants, nightclubs, and concert halls.

A final note

While poetry is certainly not a lucrative career choice, writers who are passionate about the craft of writing it can certainly find ways to make an income from their poetry. As with any writing endeavor, if your passion for the genre and topic shows through, the likelihood of finding success in sales is much higher. So stay passionate and find your success as a poet.

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