Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why contests (and poetry publishers in general) are a sham

I thought I had blogged about this but was mistaken. Perhaps I just can't find it. At any rate, it needs restating.

Here goes:

We have a small-press contest. Its entry fee is $20. Its prize is a press-run of 500 copies of your book and $1,000. Let's say it's a fairly well-known prize and 2,000 poets enter. Our small-press has just brought in $40,000.

If we subtract, say, $2,000 for the printing (what I would pay right now for 500 books through an on-demand printer -- I'm sure an established press could do it for this much or less) and $1,000 for the prize. Heck, let's pretend that the small-press actually gets a "real" judge and pays him or her an honorarium. Let's pretend it's a real sum of money: $5,000. Let's pretend even more that our small-press actually spends $2,000 promoting our book. So we have $10,000 in expenses.

Our small-press has just made $30,000. Now, lets say our small-press is run at home while we have other jobs (or even better, it's funded by the university). What do we do with this boodle? Easy! We publish and promote 5-10 other books. Or maybe just publish 15 of them without promotion. Now we are really contributing to the poetic landscape. Hooray for us.

What's the problem here? Oh yeah, we haven't actually spent any of our own money! There's no profit/risk incentive for us to do ANYTHING. In fact, wouldn't it be awesome if we just published our friends and then talked about what great poets we all were? Yes, that would rock truly. In fact, we might not want to publish something that would sell because then we'd have to do more work (okay, that's just me being cynical but you get the point).

What we really need is someone willing to invest a sincere chunk of money in discovering and promoting poetry that people will actually buy and read. As the current market for poetry is less than .1% of all book sales in America, I'm pretty sure we have room for growth.


Jennifer said...

Thanks for this--really puts the po-biz in perspective.

Lloyd Mintern said...

Despite the fact that you have convinced Jennifer with this scenario, there isn't anyone who really fits it. These poetry contests don't get to first base, and your statistics are just meaningless. Who cares about percentages?

G. M. Palmer said...

What do you mean "don't get to first base"?

I'm not advocating starting a small press, I am referring to all poetry contests that charge an entry fee. Can you tell me how else the money is spent if my critique isn't correct?

Poetry houses (except for the big ones) subsidize their publications through reading fees. Therefore they have no incentive to actually sell their books. This is why:

1) they can sell crap and
2) they can get away with not promoting what they publish


Lloyd Mintern said...

My point is: These contests never happen, and hardly any even produce a book, unless some deluded benefactor is behind it all along. The money they collect doesn't cover their rent; it is relatively about as much as bands get on a gig in a local bar. What do you think, that this is a terrible scam? It doesn't rise to that level, because the players are just very naive. So your apparent outrage seems. . . rather pathetic.

And poets who pay reading fees to publishers must be simpletons to begin with. How could you possibly be jealous of such insignificant outcroppings?

G. M. Palmer said...


I think you're reading me quite incorrectly. First, the contests happen all the time -- just about every small and university press that publishes poetry holds one of these. Just check the contests section of Poets' Market. The reason they draw my ire is twofold -- one, we're wasting money on them and two, they're generally publishing, as you say, "insignificant outcroppings" (this is greatly due to the judging process, which usually involves unpaid grad students plowing through a slush pile -- the students are more likely than not to go with the current academic fashion).

And they do pull in a fair bucket of money -- entrants range from 1,000 to over 4,000, bringin in revenue of $20,000 to nearly $100,000. What small-press pays rent that approaches that?

Lloyd Mintern said...

I just find these statistics hard to believe--but apparently you know more about than I do. If you have personal knowledge of such scams I would suggest you reprimand them personally.

As a general issue of concern to poets and readers of poetry, though, I feel this remains a minor irritant, and a predictable situation, even if you are right as to the extent of it. So I remain miffed as to why you are so worked up about it.

G. M. Palmer said...

Because winning a contest is the "easiest" way to get your book published by a "reputable" publisher. For fiction writers, it is far easier to get a good and marketable book published because profit motive exists.

Most of the stats I have are from contest rules, comments, and rejection letters (this year we had XXXX people apply, the decision was a tough one. . .).

Lloyd Mintern said...

Well maybe in your new Editors job you can do your own part to redress these grievances. I am an eternal optimist, and to me it's all a circus. Good luck.

Kirby Olson said...

Some smaller contests have fewer than a hundred applicants, and they have to pay the contest judge and usually about three or four readers, too. So it CAN be a losing proposition, but I know what you mean.

I can't remember the name of Tom Hunley's poetry outfit, but I think it's called Blue Steel. He got 68 applications the year I entered. They did cash my check, but Tom later told me I wasn't seriously considered because we are both Lutherans, and he didn't want Foetry to get him.

My book at the time wasn't very good just the same, so I'm glad they didn't take it.

I don't know how much the average judge takes.

It costs what -- about three grand to publish a book? You have to pay the cover artist, the typesetter, the printer, and then there's advertising, and so on. And as you say, almost all books of poetry flop commercially (Billy Collins being one of the very few with legs).

I've thought about the money flow before, and it might be a good revenue stream if you can get over a thousand applications at 20 dollars a pop.

But should Zimbabwe should get into the act to get some revenue going. I'm not sure if anything could prop up Mugabe at this point.

Not even poetry contests.

G. M. Palmer said...

I think Mugabe's guns are doing quite a fine job. I can't imagine Western military involvment there (and would be fairly disgusted by it -- as I am with most, if not all military adventurism) but back to poetry ;) Billy Collins doesn't even really have legs as he's sold fewer than 500,000 units in his lifetime. For a counter-example, according to TOR Publishing, Ender's Game (first published in 1985) still sells 100,000 copies a year. The biggest selling book of poetry in the nation seems to be a book called Out of the Dust by Hesse -- a "kids book" of free verse poems that tell a story. Of course, it's marketed as a "verse novel" so as not to arouse suspicion. . . at any rate, it's sold like 3 times Collins entire Opus.

Kirby Olson said...

I haven't heard of this book you mention by Hesse. Is it any good?