As long as we're talking about cold hearted calculations, I figured it was time to say something about poetry again. Not the art, I'm one of those weirdos who remembers the poems I like, even though I wouldn't agree with most as to what the poet was talking about. I probably wouldn't agree with the poet either, if any of my favorites were alive to express an opinion, but as with rock n' roll, it pays not to confuse the messenger with the message.
I read an article by Willard Spiegelman this week in which he mentioned the submission process at Poetry Magazine. It should be called a rejection process. According to the article, Poetry Magazine receives around 30,000 submissions a year and publishes around 300 poems. That's not quite as bad as a lottery ticket, submitting a poem to Poetry Magazine does actually increase the odds that it will be published. But the question for us self publishers is, does publishing significantly increase the odds that you will earn a living as a poet?
The Census Bureau lists Poet in the Industry and Occupations Index, but they lump poets into the Writers and Authors category. Likewise, the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes poets in the category A183 AUTHORS. I spent some time googling around without finding even an estimate of the number of professional poets in America, people earning their living primarily from writing poetry. I'd assume there are at least dozen or so at any given time, Poets Laureate, some poets writing on grants, some visiting scholars or chairs at universities or liberal arts colleges. I did find a reference to the Poets in the Schools program in California, where "professional poets work with children", though it wasn't clear from the reference if they get paid.
Interestingly, Poetry Magazine maintains a Poetry Bestseller List on their website, which goes to show I'm not the only person involved in publishing who expresses a passing interest in sales. The top selling contemporary poet in the country these days appears to be Billy Collins, with two books dancing around the 10,000 rank on Amazon. Between those two books and his extensive backlist, if he was self published, I believe he'd be earning a better living from self publishing than I do. Of course, the ability of a self published poet to achieve fame would depend on what came first, the publications or the platform.
Overall, I suspect it's easier to earn a living as a famous dead poet than a famous live one, though the taxes will kill you in either case unless you do a lot of traveling:-)