Having just received word my latest chapbook, Friday in the Republic of Me, is about to hit the presses, I thought I would revive one of my old posts concerning publishing and the concept of contests. To be clear, I have won exactly one chapbook competition in my life. Since then, I have had the good fortune to have found an editor willing to work with me on a whole laundry list of publications. Michael, over at Foothills Publishing, has been wonderful through the publication of three chapbooks and one full length book.
So, in addition to this being a sales pitch, I want you to read what I have said in the past about the things which I feel are important regarding contests, publishing, fees, awards, and a lot of other ramblings. This particular post comes from August, 2008, about the time I received my contributor copies of my third chapbook, Working in the Bird House. Long before my full length book was accepted, dropped and then picked up again. It was just before I started writing what would become my manuscript, Sailing This Nameless Ship, based upon The Telemachy.
The first part (smaller font) was my response to a post by Collin Kelley.
150 years ago, a poet could make a living being a poet. Poetry books were plentiful and some were dreadful (just like the over saturation of the so-called psychological serial-killer murder novel) and some were astounding, but most poets could make at least a simple living.
Poets look to the contest because that seems to be one of the three or four so-called legitimate publishing venues offered and virtually 90% of all presses who make themselves known to the writing world at large (see what I did with the word large?) operate on contests and the fees they generate. They try to attract quality judges with honorariums and hope to pay poets a stipend up front because they know if a press run of 500 or 1000 sells out, that is a contemporary miracle unto itself.Readership of poetry is down.
That much is obvious, but what should be as plain to see, is the establishment refuses to acknowledge that. Where the old leadership could once get away with putting down self-publication as being base and tacky, they forget that money has become a part of the series of questions editors have chosen to be subject to when deciding what to publish. The big houses only publish the 3-4% of those poets who will sell out a first run without breaking a sweat---and that determination is based a a whole lot of assumption.
One of my old professors, a dear friend of mine, who used to publish his books through Copper Canyon gave one of his strongest warnings against self publishing while ignoring one very telling contradictory statement. He basically admitted that if Sam Hamill himself hadn't taken a liking to him, he doubts any of his books would have been picked up elsewhere. Now that Copper Canyon turned down his latest ms. as 'un-readable,' he's in a position where other presses have had a chance to see what his poetry is, and actually ask him to submit. But without that break where would he be?
Most new poets find themselves in the same boat, and look to contests to break in to the world of publishing. They want to feel legitimate or legitimized, and a prize has that connotation. It isn't the money if you are in serious contention for a book, and it isn't prestige. Well, not in this world anyways.
Publishing poetry today is like navigating the perfect storm. Too many elements controlling the issue which spill over into to many other realms, which cannot all be solved at once, except for brief calms or cloud breaks, where the occasional poet is lucky enough to slip through.
As you can see I have said a few things about the subject, but I really do feel as if I am leaving a lot out, and that is why I am here to say even more. What I am about to say is based not on my intellectualizing about the publishing industry, or assumptions about what other poets think about the issue. It really is my personal side of things---that conflict I feel between my position as a Poet and poet.
I am not one of those people who can claim to have never submitted my poetry to a contest. My first chapbook made it to about a dozen contests in various forms, about half of them for pay at $10-12 each. It finally was a contest which sent it to publication, but I honestly cannot remember if I paid a reading fee or not. I honestly cannot remember. I know there was no cash prize, only books. My second and third chapbooks were submitted to only one press each---Foothills Publishing. What an honor it was to have found an editor who liked my poetry, especially poetry of such divergent voice and subject matter, enough to give me the green light almost instantly.
I know that's not every one's experience, but I have had my woes, too. I have explained in various formats and versions the 18 month communications blackout one editor imposed who was supposedly very interested in publishing my first chapbook all the way back in 2001. That first book made it out in 2005, almost 9 months late from its scheduled release. But I digress.
I am not so sure that I resent the contest system. Above I mention how presses need money for attracting quality judges who are respected by their peers. But there is more. Presses feel a need to offer money to the winner of the contest, which in all reality will be the only royalties a poet will receive from his or her book. Money in itself is not so much a draw for the poet, because $1000 here or $1500 there is certainly not going to provide a living for any poet. But I can tell you that if I received notice that my full length book was going to be published in the coming year and I told all of my friends, about half of my non-writing friends would be asking me how much I was going to be paid. You see, while poets try to think of themselves as being better than placing a monetary value on their art, the rest of the world isn't so stuck up. What matters to them, to most people, is getting paid for your work. If I am honest with you and myself, I have to admit that I feel some pressure to feel as if I am being compensated for my writing. I don't want just satisfaction for a job well done, either. I want to show people that I can prove that I have beaten the odds and established myself to be higher on the food chain than what is popularly perceived to be a poet's place in contemporary society---that of little more than pond scum. Let me be plain about this: There is nothing bad about feeling as if you have been justly paid for your effort.
While there are certainly mis-management issues all over the publishing world, and large, commercial presses continue to ignore 99% of the best poetry being written and published in journals in favor of those three or four names they know will sell, it does not mean they are responsible for everything that is wrong in the attitudes which prevail in the publishing world. As Collin and others have pointed out, the proliferation of MFA programs has a share of the blame. Where they once were the solution to the sometimes snobbish image of The top programs in the nation, they are just as likely to be nothing more than a cash cow for the university which sponsors them and a quiet, anonymous haven for the mediocre faculty who populate them.
Poets have a portion of the blame to share themselves. Both Poets and poets have a share they must own. On one level we are an amazingly supportive group of people. We rally around each other's successes, and of course we are outraged by injustice in it's many forms against poets. However, there is an ugly side to each ones of us. I myself have many times been quite critical of others as well as being the outsider. Many times this is my own doing, but I can no longer count how many times I have been snubbed as a poet by other poets because I was on the wrong side of the state, or because I don't have a full length collection behind me, or because I haven't been a featured instructor at a high profile workshop.
The Old Guard has its slice of crow pie to eat, too. Though I feel there is currently a shift in attention happening, too many people are still identifying each other by who they learned from or who they like to read. Let's face it. The Old Guard likes that, and who wouldn't? They get all the great gigs, a lot of the judging fees go to them for reading a dozen manuscripts, people come to hear them read and tell amusing stories about the dead, and their books bring real revenues to publishers which guarantee the next book. They no longer have to play the game because editors fall all over themselves and each other trying to get them to send their next manuscript their way. The Old Guard simply doesn't speak out enough against the kind of crap going on. And why not? They had to face down the big names when they were young and they see it as a rite of passage. To be honest, some of that is a good thing.
So now we are to the editors. Some editors, as you know, are the most wonderful people on earth---better than the Elks. They champion the people they can rather than those who will be a shoe-in for sales. Unfortunately there are a lot more editors who see a dollar sign or are too consumed by what they think others will think of them if they publish 'you-know-who.' Editors need to be more brave in choosing the right poet for the day rather than trying to guess who will sell. Let me say that again. They need to be brave enough to choose the poet who is right for the day. Poetry is transitory. Poetry is meant to reflect the spirit of the day, be an immediate impression brought to the world's attention.
So now we are back to the contest system. Like I said, I am not so sure I hate the system. My full length book is out to four to six presses. I think two are pay contests. However, every one of the places I submitted to were presses I felt an immediate connection with. One press isn't even offering cash---just copies. The other press is $500, which if I win, will be gladly traded for author copies. You see, I am not entirely naive. The contests worth winning are those contest we would buy from even if we weren't poets, but merely readers of poetry. This is connected to the poets, because we have the real power in this. If we don't submit to questionable presses, they don't do business. Now I know there are far too many naive poets out there who think the first forty-five poems they ever wrote are ready for book publication, so they send it out to press after press, paying $20-35 a pop. That brings us back to the poet community and awareness education, which is, I suppose, what everyone is doing by bringing attention to this latest scandal.
My overall point, if you have decided to skip all of what I just wrote, is that there is not any one thing which can account for the problems that contests create, nor can we simply dismiss the system as flawed beyond any chance to redeem itself. Ask any contest winner and see if winning the prize and publication was the worst thing that could have happened. Most will say that their experience was just fine. We need to take Stacey Brown's experience for what it was---an example of a press who obviously has their priorities way out of whack.