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Poetry Mailer Evokes Response Despite Late Drop

A test mailing for a new poetry series generated a 1.4 percent response against the 1 percent expected for The Library of America, a nonprofit continuity book club of classic American literature.

The response came from a one-time drop of 118,000 pieces to 23 mailing lists, including three house files. Mailers went to a sampling on the scholarly, literary review, magazine, book buyers and book club lists rented.

“The interesting thing was that there really was no pattern,” said David Cloyce Smith, director of marketing at the LOA, New York. “The magazine lists did the least well, but some of the large lists — the book clubs and book buyers — did extremely well.”

A total of 1,625 consumers responded to the charter membership offer to the new American Poets Project series with introductions by John Updike and Harold Bloom. The LOA offer is $8.95 for the first book and $19.95 each for the others in the series. Four books are in print, and another six debut in the next 12 months.

Produced in-house, designed by an outside consultant and printed by Quebecor World Inc., the 12-page mailer cover featured a picture of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay plus smaller photos of four other poets. Copy inside described the first book and the new series. A reply card was attached.

The mailer almost missed the holiday season. Scheduled for an Oct. 1 drop, it mailed Nov. 18 — a few days before Thanksgiving and long after most marketers had begun similar soliciting efforts. Reasons for the delay included book production running behind schedule and short-staffing at LOA, which has 16 employees and relies on donations to cover expenses.

“We were clearly nervous mailing in the holidays,” Smith said, “but it didn't hurt us at all. We were very lucky.”

Another trepidation was the opening offer price. Most similar book clubs lure people by selling the introductory book at a throwaway price of $1. The LOA asked $8.95.

“I wasn't sure if we were low enough,” Smith said. “[But] there was some indication that the price resistance wasn't an issue to the poetry audience.”

Circumstances may have played a role.

“There's really no competition,” he said, “and there's an unexplored interest in poetry. I think it's an untapped market.”

Certainly competition is dying, at least in poetry. The Poetry Book Club from the Academy of American Poets shut down. And though it specialized in other genres, Time-Life also shut its continuity program.

Running a poetry book club is difficult. Small publishers print most poetry books, so the books sometimes are hard to come by and in the numbers required.

For the LOA, though, it is a matter of perseverance as well as luck. The 9/11 terrorist attacks gave rise to a groundswell of patriotism in all things American. Though that did not lift sales, the economic shocks thereafter did not affect the LOA, either.

The American Poets Project is not the LOA's first stab at poetry. There are 10 poetry books in the regular series of 150 titles under print.

Founded in 1979 with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, the LOA boasts books on nature, history, politics, war and sports. Along with poetry, the fiction writing covers genres like crime, plays and classics.

Authors published include Tennessee Williams, George Washington, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allan Poe, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton, John James Audubon and Raymond Chandler. The latest addition to the LOA list are two volumes called “Reported Civil Rights: American Journalism” for the years 1941-63 and 1963-73.

About half the LOA's $7 million in annual sales comes from the publisher's 24,000 catalog and Web subscribers. Bookstores account for the rest.

Sales have grown nearly 10 percent in each of the past two years, Smith said. Prospecting contributed to that as well as the one-fourth of LOA's subscriber base that has stuck with it for two decades.

LOA typically mails four times a year to acquire and retain customers. Package inserts also have worked for the organization. The LOA.org site itself brings in 1,000 subscribers yearly.

Walter Karl, a Donnelley Marketing company, is LOA's list broker and manager. The Pearl River, NY, company intends to place the poetry list on the market in early 2004.

Emboldened by the holiday response, LOA intends to intensify the mailing to 250,000 pieces in the summer and 500,000 in the fall. Those mailings will carry the same call to action as the holiday test, but with tweaks. The current mailer did not have a picture of the poetry book on its cover. The July 1 and mid-October mailers will. And the incentive will be sweetened, as every fifth book ordered will be offered at half price.

“The challenge is to basically encourage or renew an interest in poetry,” Smith said. “We hope to someday publish between 100 and 200 books in the series, and that would include a large number of poets who are neglected or not read anymore.”

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