Of Note and for Comment
Jill Alexander Essbaum is the Featured Poet at Anti-.
Every Sunday Bruce Covey is featuring a Coconut poet at the Best American Poetry blog. This past Sunday was Anne Boyer.
And in case you haven't seen this book contest nightmare yet.
Now this is an extreme example, but there are plenty of unhappy book contest winners out there -- for lots of reasons. In the above case, clearly the press mentioned was unprofessional, to say the least. But even in cases (most of them) where the press is totally on the up-and-up and comes through on all its promises, contests often still are disappointing -- for the winner, nevermind the hundreds or thousands of losers.
In most cases this is because the winners don't have any prior relationship with the press.
Huh, you say? Aren't contests winners supposed to be completely connection and relationship free to ensure fairness? Isn't that supposed to be a priority in the contest system?
Sure, for a contest system.
But why do contest systems usurp publishing systems?
This is why book contests are bad for poetry publishing.
Every year, there are thousands upon thousands of poets contributing money into contests. In many cases each poet is spending hundreds and sometimes over a thousand dollars a year doing this. If we do a very conservative estimate that there are 4000 poets a year spending $250 (that would be roughly 5-6 contests and doesn't include postage) a year -- that's a million dollars into this contest system.
In most cases, these poets know nothing about the presses or organizations running the contests. They may have heard of the contest, perhaps know the work of the guest judge, maybe even know the work of the past winners, but they don't know the publishers and editors -- the people responsible for making their book a "reality." They had zero interaction with one another beforehand. They don't know if these editors and publishers are responsible, if the press is stable or about to fall into the abyss. These poets have no idea how much say they're going to have into issues like cover design, layout, editing -- or other important things like how much promotion will the press do, will they send out review copies, if so, how many? Will the press help find readings? Will they arrange any readings? How long will the book stay in the print? Will they do a second run if the first run sells out? What is the distribution? Will the book even have distribution? And about a million other things.
The same goes for these editors and publishers -- they don't know the "winning" poets they're publishing. Is it going to be a compatible working match? Will the winner be making all kinds of outrageous demands and throwing fits because he has no idea how publishing works? There are a lot of difficult and unreasonable people out there.
I know a lot of book contest winners. A few are completely and perfectly happy with their experience. But most have serious gripes from little input over cover design to editing decisions they didn't agree with and some have bigger problems like contractual breaches. Almost all of them are in the same exact boat with their second book -- they're back to searching for a publisher -- and now there are even fewer contests they can send those manuscripts to because many contests are *first book* only.
With the exception of contests like Yale and Whitman that exist solely to bestow the honor of the award, presses and magazines hold contests to raise money. They need to raise money because these books and magazines don't sell very well -- even the books by well-known, well-published authors don't sell very well, rarely enough for the press to break even, even if the press is fiscally responsible and smart. These presses don't need to discover new talent, every editor with one eye halfway open knows tens, maybe hundreds of manuscripts they'd love to publish if time and money were no object. Really.
So what's a poet to do? Feel helpless and a victim to a cruel and unfair system? Well, you could. Most poets do. You'd have plenty of company. For people who profess to be creative, they sure lack creative ideas on how to bring their art to an audience. For people who profess to be outsiders to "the system" they sure seem beholden to one -- and voluntarily so. I mean it's not like non-participation in the contest system will mean you'll lose your house and your kids will go hungry. Only a handful of these contests mean diddly squat to academic hiring committees -- and even then, there's zero guarantees. There's past Yale, Whitman, Bakeless winners still looking for teaching jobs.
If that million dollars (which I'm confident is actually a much higher number) went into book sales, most presses would have sufficient funds to operate and focus solely on publishing -- that would mean more time for books and everyone would benefit from that. More books could be published, more attention could be given to them, more promotion, etc.
If you used that $250 (which in many cases is a much higher number) towards a creative project, either publishing your own work or another poet you admire, you'd be much much better off. If you spent over $500 on contests, know you could have published your own or someone else's book for that amount -- and that includes distribution and a short run of copies. You could have started your own press. You could have gotten with three other poets and created a publishing collective. You could each contribute $250-500 each per year (what you're spending already on contests that frustrate and anger you) and take turns publishing one another books -- or if you're so concerned about the self-publishing stigma, you could find another 4 poets who create their own publishing collective and they can agree to publish your collective's books and you there's. If that's not "legitimate" -- well write off the Beats, the NY School, Black Mountain poets, cause they published one another, a lot.
Oh, but what about all that nepotism -- doesn't that mean more crappy books?!?! The floodgates!! The horror!! I have a bright idea, pretend like, you're an editor, and only accept poets whose work your admire into your collective. Only agree to publish work by other poets that you think is worthy. Everyone has the power and "cultural capital" to make smart editorial choices.
Ah, but what if you only see yourself as a poet. You just write poems. It's not your job to think about editing, publishing or generating ways of getting your work out there. It's not your job to contribute anything the same poetry community/economy that you want to benefit from. You're not gonna start no stinkin' press, you're not gonna edit no stinkin' magazine, you're not gonna start a reading series, you're not gonna buy anyone else's books, you're not gonna ask your local library to buy any contemporary poetry books, you're not gonna write any book reviews, you're not gonna exert any of your precious time or energy into any of that crap. No, you're the type of poet who expects other poets to do all the work for you, you think other poets should take away time from their own poems (and jobs and families) and spend all their time publishing and promoting your work. What you need a servant poet, a poet to dedicate her energy to making things happen for you.
If you are that type of poet, there is a path, it's called the contest system. You have to pay a lot of money for that -- and remember, good help is hard to find.