In­stapo­ets Prove Pow­er­ful in Print

Poets and Writers - - Trends - –MAGGIE MILLNER

Since its in­cep­tion in 2010, In­sta­gram has spawned whole new gen­res of vis­ual en­ter­tain­ment. From tat­too artists to cookie dec­o­ra­tors, savvy users of the photo- and video-shar­ing plat­form have at­tracted vi­ral fol­low­ings that of­ten gal­va­nize lu­cra­tive com­mer­cial ven­tures off­line. The same goes for po­etry: Not only has the plat­form served as a launch­pad for some of the most widely read po­ets in re­cent his­tory, but it has also helped them sell thou­sands—some­times mil­lions—of books.

In fact, books by “In­stapo­ets” con­sti­tuted nearly half of all po­etry book sales in 2017, which, ac­cord­ing to NPD BookScan, nearly dou­bled since 2016. Lead­ing the sales ros­ter was Rupi Kaur, whose de­but col­lec­tion, Milk and Honey (An­drews McMeel Pub­lish­ing, 2015), sold more than a mil­lion copies in print last year and who boasts in ex­cess of 2.6 mil­lion fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram, in­clud­ing pop star Ari­ana Grande. Kaur’s sec­ond book, The Sun and Her Flow­ers, also pub­lished by An­drews McMeel, de­buted at the No. 1 spot on the New York Times pa­per­back best-seller list when it was re­leased in Oc­to­ber 2017; it stayed there for twenty weeks and has sold more than 1.2 mil­lion copies. Kaur’s po­etry epit­o­mizes the pre­vail­ing In­stapo­etic style, with its epi­gram­matic brevity, plain lan­guage, and em­pow­er­ing mes­sages, and she also sup­ple­ments her verse with glam­orous self­ies and hand-drawn il­lus­tra­tions. But while Kaur may be the high­est­gross­ing poet of the mo­ment, she is hardly alone in mak­ing the suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion from so­cial me­dia to print; twelve of the twenty best-sell­ing po­ets of 2017 got their start on In­sta­gram.

Other writ­ers on that list in­clude Amanda Lovelace, r.h. Sin, and the pseudony­mous At­ti­cus, whose de­but col­lec­tion, Love Her Wild, was pub­lished last year by Si­mon & Schus­ter’s Atria Books im­print. The book was a na­tional best-seller and landed At­ti­cus among the top ten best-sell­ing po­ets of 2017. His In­sta­gram fol­low­ing has also more than dou­bled since the book’s pub­li­ca­tion, cur­rently com­pris­ing more than 700,000 fans. Like Love Her Wild, most com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful books by In­stapo­ets con­tain a num­ber of po­ems that don’t ap­pear on the au­thors’ so­cial me­dia pages, in­cen­tiviz­ing se­ri­ous fans to buy a copy, and the books dif­fer from most tra­di­tional po­etry col­lec­tions in their in­clu­sion of pho­tog­ra­phy and il­lus­tra­tions, main­tain­ing the vis­ual qual­ity that has helped make In­sta­gram so pop­u­lar. So­cial me­dia can also serve as a free mar­ket­ing tool; In­stapo­ets of­ten ad­ver­tise book deals, dis­counts,

new edi­tions, and tour dates on­line.

Still, as Sarah Cantin, se­nior edi­tor at Atria Books, points out, “Vi­ral on­line fol­low­ings do not guar­an­tee com­mer­cial book sales.” In­stead Cantin at­tributes the suc­cess of Love Her Wild to At­ti­cus’s tal­ent for sto­ry­telling across a range of medi­ums, as well as the book’s pleas­ing de­sign and the cul­tural hunger for pithy, mo­ti­va­tional writ­ing that “makes the reader feel seen.”

Sara Sar­gent, ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor at HarperCollins Chil­dren’s Books, echoes this sen­ti­ment. “In­stapo­etry is the height of feel­ing that your lived experience is shared,” says Sar­gent, who re­cently edited Light Fil­ters In, the de­but col­lec­tion of eigh­teen-year-old In­stapoet Caro­line Kauf­man, pub­lished in May. Sar­gent sees books like Kauf­man’s strad­dling sev­eral mar­kets; they’re po­etry but with a young adult spin, sup­ple­men­tal art­work, and even di­men­sions of the self-help genre. “In­stapo­etry is part of the grow­ing cul­tural trend around self-care and self-dis­cov­ery,” she says. “Jour­nal­ing, col­or­ing books, self-help: It all has to do with our com­mit­ment to fig­ur­ing out who we are.”

No pub­lisher has cor­nered that mar­ket more ef­fec­tively than An­drews McMeel, which, in ad­di­tion to be­ing one of the first com­pa­nies to pro­duce adult col­or­ing books, pub­lished eleven of the top twenty best-sell­ing po­ets last year, in­clud­ing Kaur, Sin, and Lovelace. Kirsty Melville, McMeel’s pres­i­dent and pub­lisher, as­cribes the wild suc­cess of the In­stapo­ets in her cat­a­logue to “the emo­tional in­ten­sity, passion, and mes­sage of their work, which res­onates with us at a time when many young peo­ple feel dis­af­fected from the main­stream.” She adds: “I think the dig­i­tal age has fa­cil­i­tated a con­nec­tion be­tween writ­ers and read­ers. In ad­di­tion, al­though these po­ets share their work on­line, pub­li­ca­tion in book form is also cher­ished. The book is one of the oldest, most suc­cess­ful, and most val­ued in­ven­tions for shar­ing ideas.”

But as In­stapo­etry has taken up more and more space on po­etry shelves at book­stores around the world, the craze has also had its fair share of de­trac­tors, who con­sider the writ­ing trite and un­re­fined, bear­ing a ten­u­ous

re­la­tion­ship to po­etic tra­di­tions be­fore and be­yond the In­ter­net. (A 2017 ar­ti­cle from Dead­spin calls Kaur’s po­etry “piti­ful, va­pid, ex­ploita­tive, and pos­si­bly pla­gia­rized.”) When asked whether In­stapo­etry might func­tion as a gate­way to other kinds of po­etry, ed­i­tors and writ­ers give mixed re­sponses; many think the In­ter­net sub­genre is helping to rein­vig­o­rate a cul­tural in­ter­est in po­etry in gen­eral, while oth­ers con­sider In­stapo­etry a pop phe­nom­e­non with lit­tle con­nec­tion to the lit­er­ary world. Still oth­ers re­fute the distinction al­to­gether.

Re­lated or not, book sales are up for both tra­di­tional print po­etry and In­stapo­etry. “Po­etry on the whole feels re­vi­tal­ized right now,” says Cantin. “If more book­stores cre­ate ta­ble dis­plays fea­tur­ing po­ets of all back­grounds, if more young peo­ple, in par­tic­u­lar, feel that po­etry is rel­e­vant to their daily lives, so much the bet­ter for the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try and for read­ers alike.” When asked why he thinks peo­ple con­tinue to buy po­etry in an age when new tech­nolo­gies threaten to re­place the old, At­ti­cus replied with his sig­na­ture In­stapo­etic brevity: “There’s a magic there you can’t find on­line.”

Rupi Kaur

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