Saturday, July 13, 2013

The State of Poetry Book Publishing in America Today, Redux

84º ~ good fortune weather continues today, all hail summer in the South, everything green and thriving, clear skies and sun shining down for miles and miles

When I wrote my recent post about the state of poetry book publishing, I clicked on the "publish" button with great hesitation.  Was I shooting myself in the foot with publishers? Was I creating bad karma for my own manuscripts?  Would I get a mangled and heated argument like the one that cropped up on HTMLGiant at about the same time? Or would I get a level-headed discussion?

I am so happy to thank all of you who helped make it the latter.  The comments on both the Facebook thread and on the blog post have been helpful and insightful.  We might not have solved anything directly, but I truly believe that open and honest dialogue is the only way toward a solution.

Given that spirit, I thought it might be helpful to recap and regroup here.  (I present the following information simply as information.  If I've mis-stated something, then please, feel free to correct the mis-information.)

The traditional way of publishing works like this for almost every other genre (literary novels, mass market fiction, self-help, academic textbooks, general interest nonfiction, etc.).  The writer writes; the writer submits either a full manuscript or a synopsis to either an agent or editor at no cost; if agents are the norm, once the mss. is picked up, the agent then works to sell the book to a publishing house and the agent takes a percentage of the author's advance and/or royalties; if no agent, the mss. gets picked up by a publishing house and the writer gets either an advance and royalties or just royalties.

The current state of poetry (and some short fiction) publishing relies heavily on the contest model or reading periods with submission fees.  More and more rarely, poetry publishers will host truly open reading periods in which they consider mss. for no fee.  Very few poetry publishers are willing to read mss. all year round and without a fee.  Here, things go like this.  The writer writes a complete book and attempts to get individual pieces published in lit mags; the writer then pays $15 - $30 for each contest or reading period to submit the mss., along with 100 - 800 other writers.  (There is no such thing as an agent, unless a poet has worked in another genre previously.)  If the writer's manuscript wins, the writer receives a cash prize of $500 - $3,000 (with most being in the $1,000 range).  Sometimes the writer receives a certain number of author copies and/or the chance to purchase at 50% cover price, and the writer might earn royalties after the publisher recoups that prize or sells the first press run, which can be over 1,000 copies, depending on how the contract is written.  Note: Some publishers do award royalties on top of cash prizes.  If a mss. is chosen during an open reading period, perhaps there is a royalty awarded; this information is not included in the reading period guidelines (or in contest guidelines for that matter) in most cases.

When questioned about these fees, publishers often state that poetry doesn't sell well enough to be self-supporting.  Fees are used to pay overhead and production costs.  (**Reminder:  I'm pretty much okay with the contest model, as I know there is a cash prize at the end; however, I struggle with the fee-based reading period when the terms of publication are not spelled out for the author on the front-end.)

**There do seem to be more books of poetry than ever being published, perhaps as a result of this system and poets being willing to spread the cost among themselves.

**Publishers work for the love of poetry, and I don't dispute that.

Let me say that I know I'm speaking in generalities and we can all think of exceptions to the above; however, in general, many poets end up spending hundreds of dollars on fees with very little in return.  The low chances of being that 1 in 500 whose work is chosen does lead to feelings of frustration. The comments on my previous post and on the FB thread have helped me see more clearly what is happening.  I apologize for not naming each contributor to the conversation.  What follows are some questions and some calls to action, sometimes listed specifically by a commenter to the previous post and sometimes something I'm already thinking about our doing.

What is the responsibility of the publisher?  What is the responsibility of the poet? How does money, (i.e. financial profit for both the publisher and the author) fit in? What is the goal?

If we accept as true that publishers cannot sell enough books of poetry to pay their overhead, are publishers accepting and printing too many books of poetry? (I know, sacrilege!)  If publishers aren't selling enough poetry, why aren't people buying?  Who is our market and how do we reach it? (Anecdotally, we hear that poets don't buy contemporary poetry, but when I poll my friends, it turns out we are buying lots.  Are we the minority?)

Most folks agree that each individual poet needs to decide how he/she feels about all of these issues, and I agree with that.  However, I do think there are things we can all be doing to get more poetry into the hands of more readers, increasing the number of book sales along the way.

Calls to Action, in no particular order, after the first:

1. Contribute to the American poetry community in any way you can.  While a person may be able to write in a vacuum, if that person expects others to read and buy his/her work, then that person is obligated to do so in kind.

~ Subscribe to literary magazines and journals.
~ Buy books of poetry
These two do require us to commit dollars to our beliefs; however, I argue that these dollars hold the real power.  If we do not invest in the product, then publishers truly do have no other way than charging reading fees.
I recognize that grad students and others with family obligations may not have much loose change.  One action item here would be to lobby the local libraries (both academic and public) to subscribe or buy.  Another action item is to spend a month tracking your money, dollar by dollar.  At the end, you may be surprised at what you spent on coffees, eating out, movies, popular magazines, etc.  Of course, we all enjoy relaxing in these ways, but could you cut out one or two and buy a book that month instead?

~ Read poetry being published today
Again, if money is the issue, there are some fine librarians out there just waiting for you to inter-library loan request some books of poetry.
With the advent of online journals and even books of poetry being offered online for free, there really is no excuse for not reading, unless you lack internet access and access to a public library that offers such.

~ Talk about poetry
If you participate in social media, blog, tweet, or FB about a book or poem written by someone else that excites you.  If you've found something online, send out the link.  If a poet is willing, do an online interview about that poet's work.
If you'd rather kick it old school, volunteer to write formal reviews for your favorite lit mag.
If you teach, hand out reading lists (or email them to save on trees).  Take that reading list with you to readings and conferences and refer to it often.
For that matter, carry around the book you are currently reading, and if friends or strangers asks about it, tell them, gently so as to lure them in rather than scare them away.

~ Give books or lit mags as gifts
If you spend some time thinking of the recipient deeply, I bet you can think of a book that person might like.  Remember, it might not be the exact kind of poetry you write.  Still, I've given or sold my own book to countless numbers of people who are not poets but who expressed an interest.  I've done it simply by being myself and talking about poetry, by being a poet without apology.
If you run a reading series, consider giving books of poetry (or copies of lit mags) as door prizes.
If you teach, do the same in the classroom, or just select a particular book that seems to match a particular student and pass it on.
If you've finished with an issue of a lit mag and don't know anyone else who wants to read it, leave it on a table at the local coffee shop, on a seat on the bus, or in any other public area.

~ Form a poetry book club
This can be done locally at a bookstore or library, or it can be done globally using Google chat and other social media.

~ At readings, read a poem by someone else
If you are giving a reading, open by reading a poem by a poet you admire.
If at an open mic, do the same and encourage others to join you in the practice

~ Encourage publishers to offer a book from their backlist in exchange for a reading fee
This serves the double purpose of getting more books into more hands and helping the publisher with warehouse costs (did you know part of the overhead is housing all those copies, paying for the (climate-controlled) space and paying insurance on the stock)?  *Another reason I'm an advocate for small print runs, which are much more affordable now that publishers can print from digital files.

~ Consider presses that read for no fee and support the books they've already published
Some are listed here and here (with those requiring fees marked as such).

~ If money is not the goal, and simply finding readers is, consider publishing online for free
You can read more about this option here.

~ Be generous to one another
Exchange poem drafts for workshop comments with a fellow poet.
Exchange manuscripts for revision comments.
Say "yes" when asked to blurb or otherwise support someone whose work you admire.  If you don't know that person's work, ask for a sample before you say no.

Viva la poesie! 


Susan Rich said...

Beautiful post, thank you!

Kathleen said...

All great ideas. I try to do as many of these things as I can, and I'll try to do more. Until I drop.

I've been thinking about all this since I read your earlier post on it. Still musing on it all.

And now I've finally read the "Poetry Slam" article in Harper's Magazine, so I'm musing on that alongside this!


Sandy Longhorn said...

Hah, Kathleen, at first I thought that there wa an article in H about poetry slams, then I realized you mean the article that slams us all for being mediocre and boring!

Kathleen said...

Ah, what I took away from the Harper's piece was that we are not "big" enough, not ambitious enough in an artistic way. I didn't think he meant careerist ambition, but poetic ambition--he wants to say something bold, profound, lasting, etc. I'll keep musing and re-reading. I took it as a challenge to all of us writing poetry today.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Kathleen, great addition here. I confess, I skimmed the Harper's article, and the rebuttals. It seems like some form of the attack on current poetry is always happening. We are always being proclaimed dead or insignificant. Nevertheless, I persevere in the challenge to create.

Donna Vorreyer said...

Thank you for this post - a necessary conversation and one that you are handling with grace. I do try (like Kathleen) to follow your advice, but it's always good to be reminded. Today's heat and humidity are keeping me inside, so maybe it's a good day to buy some books!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Donna, thanks for reading and for doing all you do for poets & poetry!

C.A. LaRue said...

Love your blog! I linked to this discussion and tried to come at the issue from a slightly different angle in my post on my blog page. Interesting conclusions drawn. Love to hear what you think..

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, C.A. I'll head over and check out your post.