Three years ago, an unpublished poet from Toronto took the stage at the semifinals for the National Poetry Slam in Oakland, Calif. Sabrina Benaim was visibly nervous as she read “Explaining My Depression to My Mother” aloud for the first time, delivering the deeply personal poem in a breathless burst that has been immortalized in a YouTube video recorded at the event.
“I honestly can’t remember,” she said when asked by PW to describe the experience. “I was panicking. I was just so nervous and afraid. Her performance went viral, racking up more than 5.7 million views on YouTube and an estimated 50 million views across all social media platforms.
For the next few years, Benaim worked on a poetry manuscript and stayed in contact with the thousands of people who discovered her through the video, including young people coping with depression and parents grateful for a glimpse into a child’s struggle with it. “If you find art that you can connect with, then the artist can be available for you to say ‘thank you,’ ” Benaim says. “Because we are all really just the same. Even though we don’t know each other, we’re still going through the same stuff.” She still receives about 100 fan messages every week on social media, and spends an hour a day answering them.
“Explaining My Depression to My Mother” is the cornerstone of Benaim’s first collection of poetry, Depression & Other Magic Tricks. Minneapolis poetry press Button Poetry—which shot and uploaded her inspirational video back in 2014—released the book August 22. Her viral success helped Benaim cultivate a community of dedicated fans, and preorders on Amazon topped 5,000. Given the demand, Button Poetry augmented the initial first printing of 25,000 copies with a second run of 15,000.
Button Poetry has video in its DNA. The organization launched in 2011 as a scrappy group of poets sharing performance poetry videos online. It didn’t start publishing books until 2013, but the publisher now has nine employees and additional contractors.
“It’s easy to think that poetry is static or dead or not engaging,” said founder Sam Cook. “But seeing someone perform their own work is a very visceral, very visual, [and] very compelling experience.”
Benaim’s book will be Button’s 16th release. The publisher will publish six books this year and 10 books scheduled in 2018. Button Poetry has nurtured a large social media community for this list of poets. It has accrued more than 1.2 million Facebook followers, more than 774,000 YouTube subscribers; and, since 2011, almost 163 million video views.
Much as movie trailers engage fans before a film’s release, Button Poetry reaches out to potential readers a year or more before each book is actually published. “We broadcast videos of the authors we publish,” Cook said. “We can get video in front of the eyes of millions of people over the course of a year. We can find the people who care about the poet wherever they are and bring the video to them.”
Once a book is published, the press supports new authors with monthly live poetry events, livestreamed online events with authors, YouTube video features, and hundreds of shareable digital miniposters quoting Button poets. For Benaim’s book, it scheduled a book release party in Toronto with a night of readings.
Button Poetry is distributed by Los Angeles–based SCB Distributors. “We have distributed poetry books since our beginning 30 years ago,” said SCB sales and marketing manager Gabriel Wilmoth. “But we have only seen the genre really take off in the last several years.”
Both Cook and Wilmoth see Benaim’s early success as part of the poetry publisher’s upward trend. According to Cook, two other Button titles have sold well this year: New American Best Friend by Olivia Gatwood and Autopsy by Donte Collins. The Academy of American Poets recently gave Collins its Most Promising Young Poet award. Wilmoth also predicts that Rudy Francisco’s October 2017 title Helium will be another hit for the publisher.
On the heels of these poetry success stories, one sales rep for SCB suggested the creation of a poetry-focused sell sheet. Given the surge in sales, the rep coined a new catchphrase for the trend: “Poetry is the new adult coloring book.”