Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The State of Poetry Book Publishing in America Today

88º (10:00 a.m.) ~ on our way up to 102º if the forecast holds true, heat index could top 115º in places, a chance of severe storms and rain as a cold front confronts the heat, crossed fingers

Yes, I've been absent.  No, this summer has not progressed as I thought it would.  I'm pretty much okay with that and am trying to embrace the fallow period of regeneration.

However, during the fallow periods, the rejections continue to arrive, and here I am speaking particularly of the book rejections.  After over a decade of placing individual poems in national journals, those minor, individual poem rejections might sting for a moment but then I'm on my way to submitting somewhere else and I forget that pang.  Also, given that I might have any number of individual poems circulating at any one time, there are enough acceptances scattered about to soothe those little paper cuts.

With the book, things are entirely different.  One manuscript circulating in search of that elusive acceptance, with each submission requiring a submission fee in many cases (more on that later).  This means that the rejection wound has no chance to heal until, perhaps, one day when an acceptance arrives.  Until then, the wound starts to heal and is then sliced open time and time again, festering, oozing, throbbing.  I exaggerate for effect.

As many of you know, book #2 (fairy tales & saints, glacial elegies) for me has been on this journey for years (I do not exaggerate).  Yesterday, I received another rejection for it, and I've been racking up rejections for book #3 (the fever book) as well.  What sparked this post was the information that came along with yesterday's rejection.  The editors noted that they received over 700 manuscripts for this one contest.  Over 700 manuscripts.  Holy poets, Batman!

How on earth does my manuscript stand a chance of rising to the top in that ocean of words?  Of course, there must be many of these 700 manuscripts that are quickly dismissed for being too short or too long or for not following any of the myriad rules required for submission.  And, I imagine that some of the manuscripts reveal themselves as having been submitted without being proofread or polished.  Still, that leaves hundreds that will be seriously considered.

When I first started on this journey I was told the following:
1.  Publish the individual poems in national journals in order to establish a reputation and show an awareness of the poetry business. (done)
2.  Have others you trust read your manuscript and make suggestions for revision.  (done and done and done again, with thanks to all my readers)
3.  Revise and polish. (done)

After that, what is there?  Hope, magic, luck? Karma? (Ack! What righteous poet did I offend unknowingly?)  Does it all really depend on networking and schmoozing? (I hope not!)

I confess, I've acquired a bit of a complex.  Consider the mixed message: my individual poems place in national journals (hooray, I'm a "good" poet); my books fail to be published (ack, I'm a "terrible" poet).

Now, back to the idea of reading fees, and let me say first that I admire publishing houses that take a chance on poetry, and I know that the editors, production staff, and marketers are doing all they can do to keep it together and running smoothly.  However, as I said on Facebook recently, I am completely open and willing to include a reading fee when I'm submitting for a contest, wanting to support the winner (should it not be me) and the publication/marketing of the winning book.  However, I am puzzled by presses that require a reading fee for non-contest submissions.  These presses often label these as open submissions but charge the same amount as the contest.  The reason why is this: presses need to subsidize the cost of publishing poetry.

*Aside, when a friend from another academic field read my FB post about this she was stunned.  "You have to pay someone to read your manuscript on the off chance that they might publish it?" she asked.

I am of two minds here.  Yes, I want to support American poetry, and I do so by buying far too many books of poetry each year (my towering stack of to-read books and the negative balance in my checkbook will prove this).  However, is it a good model to ask poets to subsidize the publishing house where they hope to someday publish?

This is a personal matter that each poet approaches differently.  I confess, I have paid reading fees during open submissions to presses that I love, but I'm rethinking that, as I simply can't afford it on a community college instructor's salary and with two books circulating.  I am open to paying a reading fee that is half what the contest fee is as a way to help with the overhead costs (minus judges, minus monetary awards to the winner).  Again, everyone approaches this differently.

And this issue of presses (mostly independent presses not affiliated with a university or major New York publishing house) needing to be subsidized makes me wonder, are they publishing too many books each year?  Ack!  Of course, I don't want there to be fewer poetry books published, but if the business model can't sustain the list to the point that emerging poets have to subsidize the house, don't we need to look at the model again?

Finally, I'm a huge proponent of poets supporting poetry by subscribing to lit mags and buying books of poetry.  That seems to me to be the healthiest model out there.  If all 700 poets who submitted manuscripts to the contest I referenced above were to buy (and read) ten books of poetry a year, well, you do the math.  Yes, books of poetry are expensive.  Most paperback copies are now around $15 with some well above that.  And, yes, if you are in grad school or raising a family, $150 a year (ten books of poetry) will pinch.  But, if we, the poets, get frustrated by the rising costs of reading fees, don't we need to be part of the solution?

I suppose then, that my challenge, my call to action, is for each of us to evaluate what value we place on poetry, and by that I mean, of course, poetry written by others.  If all a poet wants is to write his/her own poems without supporting his/her peers, then I suppose we will be fated to the current model in which more and more publishing houses are forced to charge reading fees outside of contests.

This is a touchy issue, I know, and I hope if you are still reading at this point, that my comments will be taken as intended, as a way to open dialogue, as a way through the difficulty toward a better situation for us all.  I'm open to suggestions!

Vive la poesie! 


Shawnte Orion said...

I'd like to think that if anyone should have accumulated enough good-poetry- citizen karma, it would be you. I am pretty good about buying a decent number of current poetry books and try to promote them at the monthly readings I host, but you make my attempts seem measly.

Hopefully, that kind of goodwill will come back to you soon.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Shawnte! I know you are out there walking the walk AND talking the talk, as well. Carry on, my friend!

Donna Vorreyer said...

A wonderful post about a great dilemma. Supporting poetry by buying the work of others (and maybe reading someone else's poem at the open mic, someone others may not be aware of?) is not financially easy, but it is certainly the right thing. I look at it this way- some people easily spend 15 dollars a week on Starbucks. That's a book a week. I'll pick the book every time.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Hi, Donna! I confess, I almost wrote about the Starbucks $$, but I do love my coffee. I just make it at home to save for books! :) Whatever works.

Erin said...

Oh goodness, if I spent only $150 a year on poetry books, it would be a very sad year. My partner just built another three bookshelves so I could find a place for everything. I work a part-time job for a non-profit, so you know that books are my number one priority if I'm willing to spend what I spend.

But hey, I look at it as being part of the big conversation. I want to know what other people are writing. I want others to read my own work. Reading is a crucial part of the writing life. And I know that I don't have to tell you any of this, as it is plenty evident that you are struggling in the trenches with the rest of us. Bless.

Karen J. Weyant said...

Great Post! I, too, spend a lot of money on poetry books. I think a nice compromise in the publishing world is when publishing companies request that someone who submits a manuscript for consideration buy one of their books. Cooper Dillon and Steel Toe Books both do this.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Erin, thanks for offering up your thoughts and for all you do for poetry!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Karen, yes! I love that system.

Jeannine Hall Gailey said...

I will also say I find the fee system a bit problematic because doesn't it de-incentivize the presses from actually marketing the books? I mean, if they're making money from wanna-be-published poets, do they actually have much motivation to try to push and sell the book they end up publishing? That's why I prefer open readings that actually provide a book (or two) for the fee. At least they're getting the books into people's hands.
To you personally, I would say - look at some of the smaller presses out there that do fee-free readings. There are more of them than we think! and contain two good lists!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks for adding to the conversation, Jeannine, and especially for the links. I am trying more and more of the smaller, indie presses all the time. Crossed fingers!

Diane Lockward said...

Sandy--Terrific post, loaded with points I could respond to, but rather than go on too long, I'll add to the list of concerns those presses which compel their authors to accumulate pre-publication sales. In effect, this forces the friends and relatives of the poet to put up the funds for the publication costs. The publisher takes zero risk. One of these presses that does chapbooks only now cranks out 100 chapbooks per year. Another press that does not require pre-pub sales puts out at least 50 books per year under a multitude of imprints. The authors are required to format their manuscripts into the publisher's program. He then does zero editing. I recently bought one of these books because it was by a friend. I can't even read it because the font is so small, maybe 6pts. Where was the publisher? Well, I've gone on too long. Much to mull over here.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Hi, Diane,
Many thanks for expanding the conversation. I can't even imagine trying to force poetry into a pre-built format. Prose, yes, but poetry with all of its variables?