Learning What It Takes
When I decided to put together my third poetry collection, I winced, but I sent it out to a publisher that required a contest/reading fee. This was years ago, and reading fees were not all that common, though they were beginning to pop up. My first two books had come out in the small presses and had been submitted without requirement for contest or reading fees. For this third collection, I was hesitant, but decided the $10.00 fee might be worth it.
These were the early days of what we would see as the small presses. The Internet was a theoretical concept to most people, we were still publishing underground journals with mimeograph and staples, some were producing letter-press limited volumes, and the lucky had offset printing. There were only a handful of MFA programs in the country, bookstores were still where you purchased your books, the small presses were summarized in print guides put out by Dustbooks. A simpler, more straightforward world.
I sent in my submission, waited a few months, and got my rejection.
A few weeks later I was serendipitously invited to give a reading in a city about two hundred miles away. A magazine associated with a university was featuring a spread of my poems in their school-sponsored literary magazine, and wanted to sponsor me to do a reading. One other poet would also be reading.
Surprisingly, that poet was the one whose manuscript had been selected for publication by the press that had rejected my collection.
The wife and I drove up to do the reading, where the university put us up overnight and took us out to a late dinner after the reading, along with the other writer. Well into the drinking, at the point between alcoholic truth and stupor, I asked that writer what he thought it was about his work that pleased the contest editor enough for him to win the prize. He noted that there never was a contest, that the publisher had decided to publish his manuscript long before the contest idea was drummed up, and that the submitted manuscripts were never read - the money was collected just to have the funds to publish his pre-selected work.
I think I drank more that night than I am wont to do, but we only had to walk back to where the university was housing us. I could get up late for the drive back.
Over the years I revised my manuscript, and watched reading fees become more and more common. I also noted the rise of MFA programs, and the increasing dominance of academics--MFA graduates in particular--in publishing.
I was talking with Allen Ginsberg one night and noted to him that my local university, Old Dominion University, was setting up a new MFA program. He noted that MFA programs were great for providing employment for authors, but were likely to be the death of American literature.
I agreed with him then. More than a quarter century later, I still agree.
For twenty years I sent that third collection of poetry to various potential publishers. At times I had difficulty finding presses that did not charge reading fees, and other times I reluctantly paid them.
Having a background in the sciences, not literature, I tend to function on data driven outcomes. I did the math on one contest. They charged $35.00 contest/reading fee. They paid the winner $1500.00. When they published a list of the finalists (which I did not make), they made the mistake of noting how many entries they received: 637. That is $22,295.00 coming in and $1500.00 being paid out, which left $20,795 to produce the book. I do not know how many copies, if any, they gave the author free, nor how they did the printing nor how many books they printed--but I doubt either the process or the quantity consumed $20,795.00. It looks like someone had a good vacation fund left over.
Even worse, recently a prestigious poetry series which charges a reading fee and holds a submission period in order to extend its offerings held its annual contest. A recent winner, who I've known for years, reported to me that he/she was selected for the Series--having never submitted a manuscript nor a fee: the editors called her/him and asked for a manuscript. So much for all those hopefuls who gathered a manuscript, paid the reading fee, and waited.
There are many takes on how to publish. There is another press that works through Kindle Direct. This press apparently does its own formatting work and cover. I lack those skills, and it cost me between $400 and $700 per book to have it done by a top-notch firm in Canada. I also buy my own ISBNs, which cost individually $99.00. This Kindle Direct press buys ISBNs in bulk at a cost of $5.75 each ($575 for a lot of 100). I'll give them the maximum of $800.00 per book, if we assume they do not do their own layouts. They pay the author 5 free copies of the book, then charge the author their cost, tax, shipping, and a 10% handling fee for more author copies, which must be bought in lots of 25. Given that the cost of a book at author's rate from Amazon would be around $3.40, that means this press is putting out around $850.00, including shipping. If the author buys just one lot of 25 copies, the press makes around $8.50 from just the author (I am assuming they are charging 10% of author cost, not cover price--but who knows). For any books sold elsewhere the profit goes unabridged to the press. Editions sold from the press site or Amazon site will pay about 30% of cover price, and from other sites it drops to about 15% of cover price. Who knows how many copies are sold. But there is more--the press is charging an $18.00 reading fee. I have no clue how many submissions they receive, but in this publishing-starved market, I'd suspect they get at least 1000 per year. That means that from reading fees alone, they would be taking in $18,000. They say they do up to 12 books a year. Cost for putting out the books--if they do not do their own layout--would be around $9600. If they are doing their own layout--not difficult, you just need to know how to use some decent wordsmithing software--the cost is essentially nothing but labor and the $5.75 per title for ISBN. And, after all that, they end up keeping all the profits from the book, both paperback and e-book. Not many books will sell, but from reading fees, author sales, web-site sales, it is probable that they are making pretty good vacation money. No, it is not a full time living, but it is not a full time endeavor either. I think any authors who did the math would be appalled.
I'm just guessing 1000 submission per year. In any case, if they do their own formatting--which their guide seems to indicate--they would be making money at less than 100 submissions and no book sales. If they get more than 1000 submissions, they have a money spitting machine.
Another contest charged no fee, and was restricted to authors in my area. Being as slow to learn that I sometimes can be, I sent in a manuscript and had it rejected. The winning author was an MFA student who before this manuscript had only published a total of twelve or so poems. When I suggested to the editors that perhaps they would get more sales if they selected a manuscript from a more well-known writer, they indignantly informed me that sales were wonderful and that the entire first printing of the winning manuscript had sold out.
The publisher/editors did not know that I knew the winning author, who said that the first printing was only 50 copies, and that he and his family had purchased 37 of them. I bought two. What happened with the remaining eleven I do not know.
There was a second printing of another 50 copies. Last I heard, they were in the editor's garage.
After this debacle, I noted to an instructor in the Old Dominion MFA program that I was a bit worried about the apparently incestuous nature of MFA programs and many small presses. He noted that the small presses only existed to provide a place for MFA students to get their first publishing credits. That way they could pad their resumes in pursuit of a teaching job post-graduation at some other MFA program. There was no wink, no scent of irony. He seemed to fully mean what he was saying.
The small presses never did take my manuscript. I founded Barking Moose Press and brought it out myself, along with yet another volume of poetry and four volumes of micro-fiction. I was able to control quality and cover. I learned what it costs to produce a book, and how best to go about it. All six are available at all the various bookselling sites and a handful of bookstores. They are actually selling better than the average small press book, based on the scant numbers I can find on small press sales.
These books pay me far more than small press editions would, and I did not have to pay any reading fees, wonder whether I was being taken as a sucker, or compete with largely unpublished authors whose claim to literary fame is having or pursuing an MFA.
My first two small press books are long out of print, and not available anywhere but a few second-hand book stores.
Yet, years ago when still trying to crack into the small presses, I was taken aback by what information one press required from any would-be author: where you were now teaching, and who awarded you your MFA. I don't think they are looking for someone like me.
There are surely many small presses that are striving against long odds to produce literary efforts that everyone can be proud of. But, before you pay that reading fee, do the math. And, if you decide to get your MFA, choose a school that is interested in helping you refine your writing, and not so interested in gatekeeping a select society. In some ways, we may have created a precious world for modern literature. As I once reminded myself in a mine field on the Golan Heights: walk cautiously, know what you are trying to accomplish, understand the cost and likely outcome of your actions. And think about alternatives before you are ten yards in.
Ken Poyner’s latest collections of speculative poetry, Stone the Monsters, or Dance and Lessons From Lingering Houses, emerged in mid-2021. He spent 33 years working in the information arts, and lives with his power lifting wife, several rescue cats, and multiple betta fish in the lower right-hand corner of Virginia.