Poetry Publishing and Money: A primer for beginners

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It’s manuscript submission time, which for me, means figuring how much I can afford to spend this year on contest and reading fees. So this seems like a good opportunity to talk about poetry books and money, especially for people new to this game.

Friends and family who aren’t authors, and friends who are authors, but trek in the novel world, act surprised when I joke about how little poets make from their books. There are of course poets who make a decent amount of money on books, but they’re rare. A recent article in The Guardian claimed that poetry sales are booming these days, but booming in comparison to what? It’s a small boom when you compare it to popular novels, celebrity biographies, or the latest screed about the Trump administration. And most of the top sellers in poetry are either by dead people (Leonard Cohen, Seamus Heaney, Homer) or Instagram poets, not the typical small-press publishing poet in the US.

I’d guess there are maybe a dozen poets in the US who can live off their poetry book sales, maybe 11 now that we lost Mary Oliver. There are maybe 50 more who make a decent amount of money traveling around doing readings at universities (the only places that pay poet a reasonable amount for readings) and doing guest workshops at conferences, but that lifestyle tends to be short-lived and cycles around a poet’s most recent award-winning book. The rest get by with other jobs. Lots of us teach, but many more do other things, and squeeze in readings (usually unpaid) and conferences (sometimes paid, sometimes not) where they try to sell a few books when they can.

Aside from the famous few, most poets make their book money from selling them in person. Few bookstores (despite the resurgence of independent bookstores) offer little more than a couple of dozen poetry titles, and they’re mostly from large presses (large independents like Graywolf and Copper Canyon) and the year’s biggest award winners (plus some Instagram poets and Homer). Amazon of course sells everything, but that company makes it very hard for a publisher to make much of a profit, so by the time the author gets a cut, you’re looking at a year’s sales being enough to buy a case of beer, craft beer if you’re lucky.

Contests, Reading Fees and Costs

So, back to contest and reading fees, and why. Poetry’s not very profitable. Neither is fly fishing, but people do both out of a love for the thing. Since they know they’re not going to make much or anything selling a book (usually), publishers will try to bring in some of the money up front in the form contest or reading fees which then go toward paying the contest prize, and paying the editors and production costs. Without those fees, as painful as they are for both sides, many good publishers couldn’t stay in business and many books wouldn’t exist. Because poetry publishers rarely give advances anymore, the contest model can be better for poets than a straight-forward royalty arrangement, because what good are royalties if you’re mostly selling the books yourself. Of course that will vary depending on the publisher, the poet, the book and what you want or expect out of the process.

bookboxLet’s say the typical contest prize is $1,000 (some pay out more, few pay out less). I looked at my last three books and saw that I averaged 12 submissions for each one, at about $28 for each submission. That’s $336 spent getting each book published (update–I’ve way exceeded that for my 5th, still-unpublished manuscript). Some of those fees give you the winning book or a subscription to a journal, so they’re not all just lost money. But still, I figure I have to budget at least that much for my next book (see update note above). Let’s say I win one that pays me $1,000 (my last one paid more—Yay! but play along anyway) plus 20 author copies. Of course I’m going to want more than 20, so I pay the author accommodation price, which tends to be fifty or sixty percent of the cover. Let’s say the book costs $16, so my price will be $8 a copy. Pretend I buy 100 copies because I plan to do a lot of readings. That’s $800, plus the $336 I would have spent in contest fees, and I’m already $136 in the hole by the time I’ve signed the contract.

But I’ve got my book (Yay again!) and 120 copies to sell. Of course I have to give some to family and a few friends. Let’s say I give out 25. Then there are review copies. Maybe the publisher sends out some, maybe not. I’ll add another 5. Now I’ve only got 90 copies of the book left and haven’t sold a thing. How about readings—hopefully I’ve set up a lot.

Selling It

Selling books sometimes feels like selling Girl Scout Cookies door-to-door, and the only flavor you have to offer is Trios. Selling books at readings can be hard. In 2018 I did 18 readings (I had two new books to promote). On a good night I’d sell 10. At a typical reading where 12 people show up I may only sell three or four copies. And usually you feel obligated to give the host a free copy (one venue told me that was a requirement). So let’s say you drove 45 minutes to read at a coffee shop, had to buy your own coffee ($4) and pay for parking ($12), sold three copies (at $16 each minus the $8 you paid) and then gave one away ( another lost $8) and drove home to watch Game of Thrones (HBO costs $14 a month). That kind of thing tends to sour a person on readings.

doylestownreading-e1548618397978.jpgWhat about bookstores? Bookstores are great places to read, especially if the place has a long-established reading series, but they present another financial challenge to the writer. Bookstores are in the business of selling books, and they offer you a venue and an audience, so they expect a cut. If you bring your own books, the store will usually expect about a 40% cut. So maybe you sell a few copies, and the store takes 40%, which leaves you with $9.60. But you paid $8 for those books, so now you’ve only made $1.60 per book. How many do you need to sell to make that bookstore reading worth the trip? Of course one good paying gig at a college could make up for several disappointing coffee shops. (Note: I don’t begrudge bookstores their need to make money–they have staff to pay and lights to keep on, but it’s still hard on the small press poet.)

So, when non-writing friend ask me how poets make money on books, I have to factor in things that aren’t directly attached to book sales. Did I get invited to teach at a conference that year? Did I teach a night class workshop? Did I serve as a judge for a poetry contest? Since none of those things would have happened without the existence of my books, I count them as book-related profit. That’s how poetry accounting works—it’s different than regular accounting.

This all sounds like a lot of grousing and complaining. Is it all worth it? That depends on how important money is to the whole scope of being a poet. To me, it’s worth it. Writing, hopefully writing well, and having a book in hand to prove it, is a poet’s marker in the ground that they did something worth saving, worth sharing and worth lasting. Every person or organization who’s helped support a poet, especially the small book publishers, the independent bookstores, the coffee shop readings and the small journals and websites are part of a network creating a legacy for something important to survive. I get value from having a book to show my family, to share with my friends, and knowing that in a few other homes, my book is also being shared—that’s an enormous reward even if it doesn’t pay for much coffee. The readings and events I do to support my work allow me to meet and talk to people I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. It’s led to great conversations and some great friendships.

Sense and Instability: Attack of the Hip Non Sequitur

In the current issue (Jan/Feb 2014) of the American Poetry Review, Joy Ladin savages a Matthew Dickman poem in her essay called Emperor of Ice Cream. The point of the exercise wasn’t to beat up on that poem—the poem was just a handy example used to help her make her argument. The essay looks at the current fashion of hip non sequitur sort of poetry—poetry that, in her words, is “sense optional.” See also: Ashbery.

While parsing Dickman’s Bougainvillae, Ladin raises a number of important questions pertinent to poetry today. In coining the term Hip Non Sequitor she’s given a name, or maybe a category title, to much of what is populating the popular poetry journals.

While she never comes out with a clear judgment-making statement, it’s seems clear that she’s more on the side of sense than non sense. In fact, her most damning statement at the end of the essay suggests that the trend to abandon sense in poetry is the reason so many readers have simply abandoned poetry. “As such meaninglessness becomes ever more common in published poetry, readers stop expecting poetic language to have any relation to sense, which means that poets need worry ever less about it.”

So that’s it? We shouldn’t expect much from poems. She suggests that in such poems, the reader’s search for sense, and lack of finding it, “give way to boredom.” Exactly.

The author isn’t arguing, and neither would I, that poems have to mean in the same way as conversational text or other text, such as prose fiction, do. But so often poems seem to be hiding behind a defense that since they don’t need complete sense that they won’t even bother trying. Just throw the words up into the air and see where they land. There’s a serious lack of responsibility going on in that method. On the other hand, some poems prance around in motely, proud of their senselessness, relying on some higher poetic Morse code that only they understand. “It’s meaninglessness masquerading as meaning,” as Ladin writes.

I won’t begrudge any poet the right to write the kind of poem they want to write, but I reserve the right to not care about them. If meaninglessness is the object, I can get that without reading the poem. For me, poetry itself involves a quest for meaning, for connection. Poetry is largely built on metaphor which seeks to connect one thing to the other thing in order to help the poet (and the reader) make sense of the world. That’s the point, or at least a pretty important one. (yes, I’m oversimplifying, but this is just a short bog post after all)

By the way, I happen to like a lot of Matthew Dickman’s poetry. My copy of his book All-American Poem is full of dog-eared pages and underlined passages, but while the Dickman poem in question has some lovely moments, Ladin was spot-on with her overall critique.

Connect and follow on twitter @UnIambic

The Great MFA Debate Continues

” Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. ”

 

From Get a Real Degree by Elif Batuman at The London Review of Books.

The Trouble with Poetry Readings

Donald Hall recently wrote some observations on the ubiquitous poetry reading for The New Yorker. I won’t summarize it for you—read it for yourself here. It’s long, but worth your time.

It also got me thinking about all the readings I’ve done and attended.

I’ve been doing a lot of readings the past two years. Some sprung from an award I won. The award apparently got my name out to a few people I didn’t know previously (which is easy, because I know hardly anyone). Then early this year my first book came out, so I actively courted readings in the hope of selling books (sometimes it worked, sometimes not). When I’m not doing readings (which is most of the time) I try to attend as many as my schedule allows. Here I attempt my random observations on poetry readings.

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My first “real” poetry reading was (I think) D. Nurkse at Bucknell University in the mid-80s. I was a student at nearby Bloomsburg University, and one of my literature professors, who I occasionally drank with, took me to the reading. Around the same time I also heard Harry Humes there. It may even have been the same reading. Not sure. Either way, I got some books signed.

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 Since I go to a lot of readings I have a lot of signed books. Most poets try to write something nice (“thanks for the support…”). At that first reading, Nurkse just wrote his name at the top of the page like he was signing a math exam. After a reading at Bucks County Community College in the early 90s, where I was teaching at the time, Jack Gilbert not only signed, but also drew a little picture in my copy of The Great Fires. I try to write something funny, but often just scribble so people assume it says something funny.

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 As Hall notes in his post, many poets butcher or drown their poems at public readings. That’s why I have trouble remembering so many of the readings I’ve attended. Jack Gilbert was quiet, but he had a seriousness to his reading as if he was re-experiencing the poem in front of us. Thomas Lux punches his poems out like a nail gun. Robert Hass–I know I saw him in Philadelphia, but have no memory of what it was like.

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 Robert Bly often repeats himself at readings (not in the same way my grandmother used to repeat herself). He seems to truly enjoy the process of reading aloud, and when he comes to a line he likes (or thinks you should like) he says it again. Sometimes that means he reads the whole poem again just because he enjoys doing it. I like that, though I wouldn’t try it myself. You’d just call me insufferable.

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 I don’t know if I’m a good reader. I read my poems out loud all the time—as I’m writing, revising or just reading my poems over again. I walk around the house at night doing that. I’m not sure what my poems should sound like or what I should sound like. I recently had one audience member complement me on my reading style, and at the same reading another person asked me why I read my poems “like that.” I’m not sure what “that” meant. My wife says I hunch over when I’m reading.

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I envy people who have a strong reading voice–like a radio voice. Southern poets have a clear advantage. A southern accent makes any line sound cooler. I don’t think a southerner ever said that about a Yankee accent.

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 I have a personal rule: At every poetry reading I must buy at least one book (if books are for sale). If no books are for sale, then I at least buy something from the host venue (coffee, beer, muffin, whatever…). I’m always shocked when I see a crowd of 30 people show up for a free reading, and the poet only sells 3 books. That’s shameful. Books are cheap, and we need to support each other. I’ve been that poet. I once drove more than two hours for a venue where I was invited to be the featured reader. Only about 10 people showed up. One bought a book. The venue complained that I brought in my own bottle of water (I’d just come in from a pizza place), made me throw it out and buy another bottle of water there. Remember, most poets are unpaid for readings. Selling a few book copies is all we’ve got to pay for the gas and pizza.

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At that reading I traded a copy of my book with another poet for his book. Trading books with other poets is cool. I do that whenever I can. Also, if you like the reading, offer to buy the poet a beer, especially if it’s me.

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Should poets be paid for readings? If you’re Donald Hall, then of course you get paid. I’ve been paid about four times in my life for readings. One was a public library. Once was at a university, and it paid nicely (and included dinner). If you work at a University, please invite me to read. I’ll be gracious.

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At most readings, the host or venue treats the visiting poet very nicely, but there have been times… At a reading I did in Skippack (at a coffee shop that no longer exists), I got the impression that my presence was an inconvenience to the manager even though I was invited. The shop didn’t want to move any seats to accommodate a reading, didn’t want me to read too long because a guitar player was coming later that evening, and I was expected to pay for my one cup of coffee. Luckily, only about three people came.

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Sometimes you can tell when half the audience is only there for the open reading after the featured poet. They spend the whole time heads down, shuffling through their own papers, tapping on a phone… then jump up for the open period. Those people suck.

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When a host says you get 15 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever, does that mean you automatically get an extra 10-20 percent extension? I seem to see that a lot. Sometimes I mind. Sometimes I don’t. Usually the times I mind are when I’m last in line out of a series of readers and find out that now I’ve only got 4 minutes because we’re out of time.

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Applause. People should know by now that they don’t need to clap after every poem. Maybe an occasional spontaneous burst, but not EVERY poem. Save the applause to the end.

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I admit that my mind wanders during poetry readings. Unless the presentation is especially engaging (or it’s Donald Hall), I sometimes have trouble focusing, especially on long poems. Maybe that’s why I don’t write long poems. If any of you out there see that look in my eye while you’re reading, I’m sorry.

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At a reading at an art gallery I was impressed with how closely the audience was paying attention. Their eyes never seemed to waver from me at the front of the room. After the reading I realized that behind me were two life-size nude portraits , one of a lovely women and one of a very interested man.

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Sometimes I wonder why no one wants to sit in the first row when I’m reading. I don’t think I spray when I speak. Lately I’ve been trying to sit up front so I get a better view for taking videos with my phone.

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It’s late, and I’ve run out of ideas. Please add your own thoughts to this. If you want to hear me read, I’ll be at the Good Karma Cafe on Dec 2 with J.C. Todd.