Tuesday, January 09, 2007

My "Practical" Reasons for Why No Tell Books Doesn't Run Books Contests

I'm not a fan of charging poets a fee to consider work for publication. But I'm not interested in attacking contests, people who runs them, enter them . . . some of my best friends run, enter, win contests. Years ago I entered over 50 and spent over $1000 on fees and probably hundreds on postage for a manuscript that never saw the light of day and I still think is pretty good although I haven't sent it out in years. Many of the poems were published in journals, reprinted in anthologies, including BAP. Some of the poems are included in Pterodactyls Soar Again. At this point I'm not interested in pursing publication for that manuscript. Most of the poems have homes, what's the point? I have a new manuscript called Your Ten Favorite Words that Coconut Books will publish this fall and I'm very happy about that.

Between the article in the lastest Poets & Writers and an unrelated discussion on a private mailing list, a few people have asked/challenged my position on book contests. If I want to make money, why shouldn't I run a contest? The market isn't selling poetry -- nobody wants to read poetry, let alone pay for it. No, the market is making money on those people who wish to be published, often those same people spend very little time reading contemporary poetry and little money purchasing it. They purchase publisher directories, how-to-get published guides and subscribe to magazines that offer articles and contest listings. I believe that's true to an extent. I receive far more submissions to No Tell Motel than I sell books. If I each submission equaled a book sale, I'd be rich, bitch.

Personally I'm not interested in making money off of the hopes of others. I'm choosing not to participate in that market. And I'm not Judith fucking Reagan. I'm not interested in publishing the next If This Didn't Suck, no matter how potentially profitable it might be. Part of that is my personal opinion of right and wrong, but another reason is purely for my own sake. I'd rather spend my time promoting work, keeping costs down and creating a viable way to break even. It's not such a outlandish goal with POD. It's still a lot of work and energy and yeah, if I accounted for the hours I put into it, at minimum wage -- I'd be in hole, big time.

But I already was spending a lot unpaid time on my own writing, No Tell Motel, raising my son, cleaning my house and numerous other priorities. Let's just say I'm used to it. I signed up for it. I'm OK with it if it's something I deem important, worth it. Controlling my time is high priority of mine. I value it above many things.

So putting aside the holier than thou publishing philosphy -- it would not be in the best interest of my press or my own personal interest to run a contest. This is specific to my (one woman) press and clearly wouldn't apply to all presses, especially university presses that have student readers or staffs do to the incredible amount of administrative work.

If No Tell Books ran a book contest, it would have to be on a budget. This would mean no paid-advertising (only announcements on mailing lists, blogs and print publications that posted such information for free). No money for a big name guest judge.

The highest I could charge per entry without raising hackles would be $20 and I'd have to offer at least $1000 and 20 author copies in addition to publication for the prize. It would also behoove the contest to send a copy of the winning book to every entrant (who includes a postage-paid envelop).

So a little known contest/press, with no recognizable judge and limited advertising offer publication and $1000 would probably garner a couple hundred entries.

$4000 -- big money for my press -- woo-hoo.

Hmm, ok, wait, no.

-$1000 for the cash prize

-$750 to create the book, short run for review copies, author copies, designer costs, postage, etc.

- $700 - $1000 for entrant complimentary copies

So that's somewhere between $1500 - $1250 -- that could pay for another full length book and chapbook. If I had any time to do 2 additional titles.

Probably not -- how much time would I have to spend on 200 entries?

Reading the manuscripts: Let's say half are obviously terrible, no way in hell I'd ever publish them. But these people paid and I have to give them some level of consideration. How much consideration is that? 5 minutes per manuscript? Ok, that's only a little over 8 hours -- just one torturous day at work.

But the other 100 manuscripts will have varying degrees of goodness and I'll have to read a significant portion if not the entire manuscript, at least once.

Then there will be 2 - 20 manuscripts that will be very good and I'll have to reread those a number of times. Last year it took me months to make a decision on just 2 or 3 manuscripts, by poets whose work I already had a significant level of familiarity.

That's months and months of my reading and consideration. A lot of time I'm not using on the books I already know I want to publish. I publish 52 poets a year at No Tell Motel -- if time/money/energy were no concept, I'd probably love to publish 1/2 to 2/3 of their manuscripts. I don't need to run a contest for my "talent search" -- No Tell Motel fills that requirement very well.

Working with poets for No Tell Motel is kind of like dating -- you get to know a little about somebody, gives you an idea if you want to work with them again. If somebody is difficult, it's only bad for a brief time and you can easily move on. But let me tell you, doing a book is like getting married. Two years minimum of regular contact and collaboration. A brilliant, talented asshole is still an asshole. There's no way of telling anything about what it would be like to work with someone from a contest.

And yeah, that's important to me.

There's also the arduous tasks of logging the manuscripts, responding the flurry of "did you make decision yet?" e-mails and letters, contacting everyone with the results and then of course having to deal with the fallout of an angry non-winner who goes around telling people it was all rigged, how his co-worker's mother told him how I bedded the winner's cousin at Yaddo years ago. Then I'll have to make a bunch of public announcements defending my decision, setting the record straight, how it was only a 2nd cousin and everybody knows 2nd cousins don't count.

That's a lot of aggravation and I could probably make more money using that time promoting the books.

At the very least I'd be saner.

Another priority of mine.


At 10:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems awfully sane to me.

At 2:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do people care how/why you decide to publish books? If they have concerns, they should start their own press, don't you think?

I like your philosophy of using No Tell as a free (for everyone) screening service. Like you said, it doesn't guarantee that you won't still have to give each manuscript concerted consideration, but I bet it separates a lot of wheat from a shitload of chaff.

If you're publishing books and authors you know in believe in, aren't you exercising a more significant commitment to the poetry community than the contest supervisor who churns out something that may not even resonate with the spirit of the press?

I don't know. I think publishing's changing, philosophies are changing, and personally, I get tired of "having" to enter contests. It's expensive, time-consuming, and redundant. But it's my choice to enter them and it's your choice not to run one.

Can we all just, like, respect each other? ;)

At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm trying to compile a list of maybe 5 to 10 contests to enter the new manuscript once it's fully cooked. Do I want to enter these contests? To quote Whitney...hell to the no. And I'm not gonna waste a lot of time or money either. I'll give a few of them a shot, then it's back to submissions to small and micro presses. There are too many fine small presses out there who will give manuscripts more attention and help you attract more readers. Sure, winning a contest is a good ego stroke, but it has nothing to do with the writing and reading of poetry. Keep on rockin' in the no contest world, Reb. ;-)

At 4:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your no-nonsense article about these issues.

Second cousins, like many things, always make me think of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan:

TW: The telephone is ringing, it's your second cousin.

BD: I'm in love with my second cousin,
I think I could be happy the rest of my life with her.

At 5:58 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Hearty amens to what Charles and Collin say. Most of what I was going to post would just be a ripoff of them now.

Dose of weirdness: I got the same word verification here as on another blog I just posted on.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

Reb, I'm enjoying reading your posts about publishing. As a reader & buyer of books (& a writer) I don't think it's unnatural of me to be curious about the process of a book's making. There's plenty of writing on how to write and there are publishing manuals but there aren't many people who testify to what they're doing when they get to work being publishers. I've had some small publishing experience with literary magazines and have pushed a chapbook or two. And I know people who run small presses. So I like it when you talk about publishing.


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