Poetry Publishing and Money: A primer for beginners

mybooks

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. 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. 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.)

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 more than 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.

 

 

Want my books? You can buy Reckless Constellations here or here.

You can buy The Magician’s Handbook here.

Contact me through Twitter @uniambic if you want to buy signed copies directly from me. I have a few copies of Necessary Myths and The Trouble with Rivers too.

Not Dead Yet, but Not for Lack of Trying

Poetry may not be dead yet, but we’re certainly on a path to talk it to death.

from the New York Times 7/28/14

Is Poetry Dead? Not if 45 Official Laureates Are Any Indication

More poetry matter from the New York Times 7/18/14

Does Poetry Matter?

And a response from the Los Angeles Review of Books 7/21/14

How Much Does Poetry Matter? 

 

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 (see Rae Armantrout and Duran Duran for more on that). “It’s meaninglessness masquerading as meaning,” as Ladin writes.

I won’t begrudge any poet the right to write the kind of poem he or she wants 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.

“He’s either a simpleton, a liar or both.”

I can’t help myself. More on master-of-none James Franco. Read the take-down here 

But who do we blame, him or the people that make him possible, his enablers? Here’s what Ian Belknap says:

My problem is with the people who ostensibly believe in the arts, as Franco claims he does, who then erode the value of art from within. If it was just some idiot making bad art — well, there is no end to bad art. No, my qualm is with the access to an audience, resources, publishing and galleries by people like him.

Nature Poets Write the Worst Titles

happy treeIn my graduate school workshop I was labeled the Tree, River, Fish guy because most of my poems had some combination of those elements in them.  I’m not sure exactly how that happened, or how I got in the habit or writing about situations that generally fell in the category of nature poetry, but here I am, 20 years later, still doing it. I like fishing, camping and generally staying away from crowds, so maybe that’s how a nature poet is born.

I’m also drawn to poets who’s subjects overlap mine (though that’s hardly a prerequisite for a poet I like), but it happens. I’m hoping to teach a short class or reading group on “nature” poetry at Musehouse someday, if I can convince enough people to sign up. If you’re interested, and in the Philadelphia area, let me know.

While collecting ideas I came across an anthology, Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary Nature Poetry. From the title it seemed perfect—I could probably use this for a text for the course, but I think it’s out of print and the press out of business. I picked up my copy used.

Anyway, after Amazon delivered my copy, I opened the book to see who and what was inside, and was struck by the titles. No, it’s not that they were spelled wrong or employed gratuitous profanity. They were boring.

Boring.

I know I don’t always write the best titles for my poems, but I do take them seriously. I do sometimes struggle with titles, change them several times and think hard about what work they do or don’t do for my poem. To see a book full of “nature poems” with titles like The Deer, Landscape, Spring, Wish, Meadow… you see where this is going. And it keeps going like that… 300 pages worth of poems with one word titles. Open up a field guide to the birds of North American and look at the index. You’ll find as much creativity there as in the table of context of this poetry anthology. Should I go on? Annuals, Wave, Chimney Swifts, The Birds, The Bees (I confess that I have a poem called The Bees too), The Mouse, Cold, Turtles, Slug, Song , etc.

The worst two, from Marvin Bell and Cornelius Eady: Nature and Nature Poem.

But there are good titles here too, a few: I Stand Beneath the Mountains with an Illiterate Heart, A Little Heart to Heart with the Horizon, Lion of God in Vermont in May, The Snow Monkey Argues with God (a David Huddle poem, and one of my favorites in the book), Kicking and Breathing, Protecting the Children from Hurricanes, In Answer to Amy’s Question What’s a Pickerel (I’ve admired this Stanley Plumly poem for years) and so on.

When I was sending a book manuscript around to friends for opinions, one friend told me to look at my titles, because he believed there were only a few that attracted enough attention to warrant a stranger opening up to that page.

Is that what a title is for? In the Musehouse workshop I run, we had a discussion about titles last week. Some, we decided, were necessary to set the stage, establish a place or situation, like the titles in these poems:

In the Nursing Home by Jane Kenyon

She is like a horse grazing
a hill pasture that someone makes
smaller by coming every night
to pull the fences in and in.

She has stopped running wide loops,
stopped even the tight circles.
She drops her head to feed; grass
is dust, and the creekbed’s dry.

Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.

Turning Forty By Kevin Griffith

At times it’s like there is a small planet

inside me. And on this planet,

there are many small wars, yet none

big enough to make a real difference.

The major countries—mind and heart—have

called a truce for now. If this planet had a ruler,

no one remembers him well. All

decisions are made by committee.

Yet there are a few pictures of the old dictator—

how youthful he looked on his big horse,

how bright his eyes.

He was ready to conquer the world.

Some titles serve to capture a theme, contribute to the mystery, create (or even upset) a sense of context or a hundred other things. There are no rules. But there are a lot of lazy titles out there. Apparently nature poets are some of the worst offenders. Of course some of these boring, single word titles may be a lot more than is obvious at first look when attached to the poem—when used right, a simple title can cast a larger shadow than the word itself. But you’ve got the read the poem, do the math, to find out.

Also, read this post where Jane Hirshfield shares some of her thoughts on nature poetry.

Who Put the Washington Post in Charge of Poetry?

Today the Washington Post published an article by Alexandra Petri that asked, Is Poetry Dead? The article was a response to Richard Blanco’s poem at President Obama’s 2nd inauguration. I get that Petri didn’t like the poem. So what? But what bothers me more is she somehow decided that she’d been granted the power to decide what poetry is supposed to be, supposed to do, for everyone else.

It’s a stupid and ill-argued article, but it’s also a reflection of what so many narrow-minded people probably believe about poetry. The article makes ridiculous and incorrect assumptions, but my guess is it’s not that far off from what a lot of people were thinking while Blanco recited his poem. Why is that? Why does Petri insist that poetry needs to change something? Does Petri even read any contemporary poetry (I doubt it)? Does Petri understand the enormous variety of poetry flourishing in the US right now?

Possibly even more important–how has an attitude like that spread? Has poetry moved away from popular society or has society moved away from poetry? Was poetry dumped by its girlfriend or the other way around?

But wait, there’s more. John Deming wrote an open letter response on Coldfront. You have to read it.