When I was in the early stages of planning No Tell Books, I attended a panel given by Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin and some of its authors. Grove/Atlantic publishes contemporary poets like Kay Ryan, Mary Oliver, Harold Pinter, Claudia Rankine, Mary Jo Bang, Bruce Weigl and keeps in print books by e.e. cummings and Frank O'hara.
Entrekin said quite a few things that struck me. First, he said all their contemporary poetry books lose money and are subsidized by the sales of the non-poetry books. He said average sales are around 800 copies per poetry title. Those are books by well known, well-reviewed, award winning poets. These are books often stocked in bookstores.
I asked him what advice he had for someone starting a poetry-only press. He laughed. He said he didn't recommend it. Then he said that if I was serious to do everything and anything to keep the cost down so I wouldn't lose too much money. Then he reiterated that I probably shouldn't do it. I asked him what he thought about POD. He said that was probably a smart way to go.
He also stressed the importance of the relationship between authors and publishers. He talked about building backlists.
It was probably the most helpful publishing panel I ever sat in on. I took much of what Entrekin said to heart. Some of what he said I decided only applied to an old world publishing model that I didn't expect to participate in. I do keep my costs low so if a title sells between 200-300 copies, the press breaks even. If a book sold 800 copies -- that would be a poetry jackpot and many other titles could be subsidized by that as well as the author getting a sizable percentage of the profit.