Yesterday a post with the sensational headline BlazeVOX Goes Vanity Press? appeared at HTLMGIANT. It generated a stream of criticism in the comment field and prompted this explanation from BlazeVOX publisher, Geoffrey Gatza and a few hours later, this announcement stating he will be closing the press at the end of the year. (Update: after this article was posted, Geoffrey Gatza announced he would not be shutting down BlazeVOX.)
Publishing poetry is a thankless job. What begins as a labor of love can often sour rather quickly. Despite technological advances, such as print-on-demand, publishing books still cost money, supporting and promoting books, even creatively and with a shoe-string budget, costs money. Very few people, including poets looking to be published, buy many poetry books. If I sold anywhere near the number of books that I receive as submissions, No Tell Books would be making a small profit. No Tell Books is not making a small profit. When all the costs are put together (including printing, postage, author copies, review copies, design, proofreading, holding reading events, advertising, travel and costs to participate in book fairs and conferences), No Tell Books loses thousands of dollars each year. I lose money on things like bookstores not paying invoices (around half never pay for books ordered and received so now we require all payment up front, which means many bookstores won't order directly from us). When I travel to speak at universities about poetry and publishing, I often loses money, even if I'm being paid. For instance, once I drove 8 hours to speak at a university. They paid me $150, but gas, meals and a modest hotel cost more than that--and I have to claim the $150 on my taxes as income. Yes, I claim my expenses too, but since my expenses are always so much more than my income, every year I taunt an IRS audit.
I do a lot of things knowing I am losing money because I believe it's important to promote the books I publish. I also believe it's important to educate people on diy-publishing and poetry. But it's draining, really draining. I gave a reading and spoke at a classroom at a university. After my reading, I sold one book and had two stolen. Luckily that university paid me $500 and covered my hotel and airfare, so the sting was much less than if I paid my own way. Often I'll travel to give readings at independent reading series. These are almost always on my own dime, but I go because they often bring big crowds. I can't tell you the number of times I'll read to a full room of 50-100 grad students, the girls in their pretty leather boots, the boys with their fancy scarves, all enjoying pricey cocktails and nobody will buy a single book afterward. But many want to know when is my next reading period.
No Tell Books' best selling title broke even after three years and is now earning a very modest profit. This is by an author whose work has appeared in places like Poetry and Best American Poetry. This title has been taught at universities. How many copies does one have to sell to be the best selling title at No Tell Books after four years? 228. That is not a typo. This number doesn't include what the author has sold herself, probably around 200 copies on her own. But the press doesn't earn money on those sales.
So if that's a best seller, what's a flop? 74 sales after five years (again, this number doesn't include what the author sold on his own, which was maybe 50 or so). (UPDATE: Gatza states, "In general, books by new authors sell around 25 - 30 copies." Shocking? Only if you don't know the first thing about poetry publishing.)
This is the reality of poetry publishing. There are certainly presses that sell more copies. A poetry title reviewed in The New York Times can sell 2-4k copies, it is true. But small, independent presses, those small shops, usually run by one or a few people, rarely see those kinds of sales. University presses, for the most part, don't see those kinds of numbers for poetry. I attended a panel by the publisher of Grove/Atlantic and he said his press' poetry sales was around 800 per title. They publish "big-name" poets, their books are often shelved by chain bookstores, they have good distribution, a strong reputation . . . and that's what they sell. Publishing poetry is their charity--their poetry titles are subsidized by their fiction and non-fiction sales.
This is why there are so many poetry contests. Because, in general, poets will spend a lot more money on their desire to be published than they will on poetry itself. Because the readership of poetry by non-poets is ridiculously tiny. When people don't believe me, I ask them how many poetry books did they buy in the past 10 years. Few can come up with one title.
If we're going to talk about ethics, I think giving a donation to a press that's publishing your book and supporting you as a writer is far more ethical than giving money to presses that likely won't read more than a few pages of your manuscript, that likely won't even forward your manuscript to the final judge(s) for consideration, that really have no interest in you or your work at all.
$250 to support a really good press that's going to support you as a writer (if we're going to be all capitalist about it, a press that is going to be give you ALOT more value than $250) or entering 10 contests where your manuscript many never once be seriously considered. If we're going to use terms like "scam" -- what's the scam here? What's not transparent? A publisher wants to publish your work, he asks for a donation--you have the choice to say yes or no. You can walk away, no harm, no foul (except maybe to your precious ego). If you say yes, you know you're getting a book from a press that has a proven track record of publishing good books. When you send that check into a contest--what do you know? Do they tell you who has read your manuscript? How many pages? Do contests ever write back to the folks who enter and say, "Hey, we're never in a million years going to publish this manuscript, so save your money and don't enter next year?" No, those people who never had a chance will get an announcement about next year's contest. And then the contest after that.
I haven't entered a contest in over 7 years, yet a week doesn't go by where I don't receive an announcement imploring me to enter or help promote a book contest. Can we be that critical of these presses? Let's be honest, most poets entering these contests know little to nothing about the presses they hope will publish them. Few have purchased or even seen previous titles published by these presses. The cycle can't exist without participants. Lucky for the cycle there are plenty of participants to go around. Long live the cycle! Oh, it will, it certainly will.
I had a successful money job in the '90s. Because I saved some of my earnings from that job, I was able to put roughly $25k of my own money into No Tell Books over the past 5 year. That's money gone, most of which I'll never get back. Most people aren't able to do that. Most people who are able to do that, would not. They are smarter or more savvy and put that money into their homes or travel or their children's college education or pretty much anything else. I am wildly fortunate and probably have a touch of the crazy. In 12 years when my son goes off to college and I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to pay for it all, I may curse this entire publishing venture. I may wish that I asked for donations. Or maybe even held a contest.
What occurs to me is that it makes less and less sense for poets to seek publishers at all. Since there is no money in poetry publishing, little prestige and perks for publishing poetry, an intense requirement to invest one's own time, energy and often money -- and doing so opens one up oneself up to all kinds of scrutiny and criticism about how one is managing to do the MIRACULOUS TASK OF PUBLISHING POETRY-- why would ANYBODY want to publish someone else's poetry? Aside from having a touch of the crazy?
More poets need to be publishing their own poems, books, projects, etc. We need to get back to focusing on the poetry itself instead of HOW it's being shared and distributed. Truth is readers don't care if the work was subsidized by the author or not, it's not a factor in what they chose to read or buy. It's not something that crosses their minds.
Let us be artists and create art and share it however we can. Let us not worry ourselves with other artists' methods of sharing. Let us save our disdain for the works themselves. Like God wants us to do.
Editor & Publisher of No Tell Books
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But you know, this is making me think that we poets are doing an awfully bad job of marketing poetry - both authors and publishers. I mean, I worked in tech publishing briefly, where 8K sales for a book - yes, I published a technical book - was considered a failure because we expected 60K. They bought bookends at the bookstores, they paid for trips to conferences and speaking engagements, they went to major book and tech fairs to pimp their books - in other words, they invested a lot to make the sales they did make, and, you know, techies need their special weird books. But how to make that happen for poetry? I think our expectations are too low and our methods safe and outdated. Of course, when I come up with the awesome genius-y answer to all this, I will let you know...
But I think a key will be general poetry evangelism - the idea that poetry can be fun and enjoyable - spread to all age groups and outside of the all-poets audience...
I sell a lot of books when I offer Tarot readings -- but it's an hour investment per order (usually only one book). It takes weeks and it's exhausting. Every idea I've come up for selling books is a huge time/energy commitment. Not only is there limited money, there's limited energy and time.
Too bad the Poetry Foundation isn't doing anything useful with its vast sums - like funding poetry publishers, lit mags, or poets!
Maybe they should spend another few hundred thousand dollars on a focus group. That last one was so very helpful.
I buy as many books as I can (which right now isn't many, but that should change as the year comes-I hope). If I knew up front I needed a 'donation' to publish with BlazeVox or Reb or someone who does quality work I would probably try to come up with it- I do my own small chapbooks and even THAT is work and a cost investment-in the end I give away far more than I sell.
I don't think there are any bad guys here- we're all working to get poetry in front of people who are NOT poets- if we could do that better it would certainly help!
I think you're right, Shann. While I may not like certain tactics some presses use to raise money, there aren't any bad guys here.
Thanks for posting this, Reb, and thanks for explaining to people a little bit about how poetry book economics work. My book has sold somewhere between 100 and 200 copies, and I saw way more of that than if I had published with a contest press (or even that rarest of unicorns, non-fee-charging, non-alternative-publishing-model poetry press).
P.S. My number excludes direct BlazeVOX website sales and SPD sales, which I don't know offhand. I do get royalties on those as well, which I simply convert into additional author copies at cost.
Steven, sounds like your first book did really well at BlazeVOX. Too bad you were scammed. :P
Great post, Reb. Here's my two cents:
I'm glad some very thoughtful discussions are going on about the business of poetry publishing. You hit on one of the core issues I have with "poets", the ones who come up to you after a reading and either ask you to read their work for free or want to know the personal info for your publisher while walking out without buying a book ... Any book * sigh*
Been meaning to write sometime and wanted you to know that what you and some other publishers have written about contests and buying books has changed my behavior.
I'm old, but new to poetry and literary publishing. When I started writing poetry a few years ago, all I saw promoted out there--even by well-known literary magazines and presses I vaguely remembered from college long ago--were contests. I thought that was how one got published nowadays. I can't believe I spent even the small amount of money I did on such nonsense. Now I spend it on books and events instead.
I had a parallel with running as well--rarely do big commercial races anymore. With small homegrown events there's no swag, no tank of Gatorade, mostly volunteers who really do the trail conservation. It requires more self-responsibility. Yet I still get to share the dirt with elite runners who leave me hours behind.
The contest model's a monster, as you say, and those trying to do it another way are up against lots of promotion--some people, like me, don't realize there are alternatives. I still get lots and lots of emails about contests. I think that means they really care.
Yes, fine post. I said as much with this on my blog and in my first book interview:
"I think poets should find other ways to support the small press than rationalizing their contest reading fee as support. Poets should support presses without the ulterior motive of submitting to them. We all should buy more books just to buy and read them. More presses would survive that way."
Oy! 25K! But your harp will be fur-lined with mother-of-pearl accents! Thanks, Reb. Good points all.
PPHartigan - Self-Published and Proud of it.
I couldn't agree more, and thank you for the time you took to so thoughtfully and fully respond.
"More poets need to be publishing their own poems, books, projects, etc. We need to get back to focusing on the poetry itself instead of HOW it's being shared and distributed. Truth is readers don't care if the work was subsidized by the author or not, it's not a factor in what they chose to read or buy."
PRAISES to you, Reb, for saying what most won't admit.
dear reb, "touch of the crazy,"
yes, and yes, and yes again.
(not sure about the god part.)
love and crazy,
Be sure about the God part. God texts me all the time about small press publishing. I'm in the inner poem circle.
Any poet who pays a fee to enter a poetry "contest" is a fool and part of the problem. Any venue that hosts one should be boycotted until they give it up. It's an appalling scam that preys upon the very people they rely upon.
Playwrights joined together and boycotted contests that asked for fees. My playwright mentor(s) all separately told me never to send to fee based contest;only in solidarity would the boycott work. I am, primarily, a poet, though. And wonder: what are we left with if we self-destroy small-presses who exist by contest capital alone? I am not sure the publishing status quo is acceptable, for sure, but how far do we cut off our own noses?
Internet publishing is gaining ground; we are in cultural transition--maybe this is a key?
For now though, with over twenty years of grinding out the po' stuff with many, many, live, international performance creds, three one woman shows, and two CDs, I still need to be published in print in order to teach. You just cannot get past the hard print publication qualifications in order to teach; in order to pass on experience and inspiration to a new generation of poetry readers and writers you gotta have a book.
>>what are we left with if we self-destroy small-presses who exist by contest capital alone?
That's a good question. Maybe, if there is a tiny readership for poetry, we don't need hundreds of markets that can't legitimately support themselves by providing their product to interested consumers. Maybe there's a bigger problem in having 10,000+ poets strugging to publish to a market that can't support them, who are so desperate that they will support scams and thinly-veiled vanity publishing schemes (I'm NOT commenting on the BlazeVOX discussion here) while pretending that everything is okay.
I agree with a previous comment: poetry needs some innovative marketers. Americans are used to being TOLD what to consume and SOLD on it. If you wait for them to come find you on your own merits, you will be waiting a very long time indeed.
I must be one of the crazies... I would imagine I buy 20-25 books of poetry per year. That includes anthologies, chapbooks and collections by poets known and unknown. I am further bonkers to say I read much more poetry than fiction. However, I think people don't read modern poetry because they don't understand the language and because poets have forgotten their roles as story-tellers in verse.
Club Touch of the Crazy is Hawt. More people should join.
I am with Susan, I buy poetry books and am a poet, because I want to support my fellow poets and enjoy reading the work!
However does this mean I should never pay to have my work entered in any journal? They are disappointing in many ways because most of them you never hear if you were even rejected, just nothing, money gone *poof*
Seems like the 'small press vs self publish' here is a no brainer. I say if we are required to pay some of the publishing costs self/help promoting would be a requirement, cutting back costs, time and energy...Seems I am heading in a self publishing direction because this scares me. I am being published by journals...
I'm a firm supporter of self-publishing. Of course, there's no reason that you can't do both, if you like. I've been published in a lot places, some pretty big and I *also* self-publish.
Now that I'm no longer dirt poor - when I go to a reading I buy the author's book as an appreciation (unless I can't stand it or it's fifty bucks). Sometimes I get it signed, partly because it's flattering to the writer.
The reading is usually free so buying a $20 book isn't a bad deal.
To get a book I could see pitching in on the cost of publication, sure. Like you say, the contest racket can suck hundreds of dollars from your pocket pretty fast.
I've self-published chapbooks; if they're cheap and if you aren't afraid to accost your adoring fans they're not a hard sell - and the "no thanks" is really not more painful than a rejection slip.
I'm now helping research poetry for the library where I work so I get to be a part of putting money into the hands of poets & their publishers. That's pretty cool.
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