Everyone knows the stereotypes: poetry is kryptonite for a house's list, a money loser, something that must be force-fed—like unwanted broccoli to Bush père—if it is to be consumed at all. While such truisms have been invoked ad nauseam in public debates about (and cheerleading for) poetry, no one talks much about what it actually costs to publish it, what the expectations are when different houses do so and what role poetry plays on different houses' lists.
For this year's National Poetry Month feature, PW set out to determine exactly what it costs to publish a book of poems—including labor, printing, freight and paying the poet (or not)—and what the thinking is behind a house's decisions to do so. We also wanted to know what it "costs" poets; if they're not living on book sales (and they're not) what are they living on? The answer turned out to be a major motivating force in the publication of books of poems.
The Results Are In
Rather than try to render the results of our poetry costs survey in prose, PW has compiled a table with data from 16 poetry publishers, a small sample that attempts to represent the spectrum of the way books of poems are funded in the U.S.
A glance at the chart reveals that first runs, whether in hardcover or paperback, start out at about 2,000 for the trades, nonprofits (Copper Canyon, Coffee House, Graywolf, Sarabande) and UPs, with smaller houses (Edge, Fence, Kelsey Street, Tender Buttons) doing 1,000 books. The scale of the first runs for poetry is thus about half that for lower-end-of-trade-list fiction and nonfiction authors, which reportedly come in at about 3,500—5,000 and 5,000—7,500, respectively, in hardcover, at many houses. The average cost of printing a paperback run of 1,000 is $3,000, while average royalty rates are 7%—8% across the board on paperbacks. Advances of $1,000 are not uncommon.
Format, not on the chart, is what separates the houses most in terms of production; trade houses do hardcover first runs almost exclusively, while the nonprofits have shifted primarily to paperbacks and some dual editions, as have university presses. The small presses we spoke with uniformly do paperbacks.
Almost everyone said that they can make back the production costs for a typical 80-page book of poems through sales. What that leaves out of the mix (besides profits) is cost-of-business allocations, marketing and publicity costs.
Many small press publishers, like the one-person-shows Tender Buttons and Edge, simply do without any of the above, running the presses out of their homes, relying on volunteer labor and Small Press Distribution (SPD) for the rest. For trade houses, allocations—the accounting term for the percentage of a book that goes to overhead and other fixed costs—are a tiny percentage, for books of poems, of what bigger-selling books on the list carry. The trades can thus build allocations into the cost of a poetry book, with it reportedly still coming out in the black.
University press salaries and spaces sometimes come out of endowments and campus buildings, but often do not. And workers at university presses and literary nonprofits expect to draw salaries and have health insurance, not to mention marketing and publicity for their books. For presses in these two categories, allocations, marketing and publicity can be more of a problem.
Running on Empty?
But before one considers how nontrade publishers compete with the trades, one might wonder why, in a business that demands as much as 10%—15% in margins, commercial houses continue to publish poetry at all.
Asked if poetry makes money for the list, Dan Halpern, senior v-p and editorial director of HarperCollins/Ecco, pauses, and answers, "It doesn't lose money. The books that we've been publishing are not going to make anybody a lot of money, but it's something that I wouldn't be in publishing if I couldn't do."
But if poetry isn't making money, why do the trades bother? "Anytime you're employing editors who are literary (in any way you want to define that), you have to allow them to publish books of poetry when they feel passionate about them," says Halpern. "And if you cut that off... most people are not making enough money as it is. The people who do believe in poetry, and care about it, won't be stopped from publishing it. One way or another, they'll find a way."
Deborah Garrison, who is Knopf's poetry editor and also senior editor at Pantheon, concurs. "It's not a very big audience, and yet it still feels essential. Even if we are a major trade publisher and we're all supposed to make money, contemplating ending it feels wrong—it's like cutting off a limb, an essential limb."
Halpern notes that Ecco does turn a profit on books by poets like Poet Laureate Louise Glück and Nobel Prize—winner Czeslaw Milosz, as well as former Poet Laureate Robert Hass. That kind of backlist, which Knopf also has with poets like Anne Carson and Mark Strand, is part of what allows Halpern to go into a board meeting and present poetry as part of his list without any questions being asked. "The CEO [of HarperCollins] is Jane Friedman and that's why she bought Ecco [in 1999], to have that kind of literary profile." Taken as a whole, with the lesser-selling books alongside the stars, the list holds its own: "I don't want to lose money ever. But poetry, our poetry, if you broke it all down, would be in the black."
And as Garrison notes, publishing poetry at a trade house is a reasonable risk: "To the extent that I might lose a little bit or earn a little bit, it's in very small amounts, so by cutting it out, what would you really gain?," particularly since, without exception, the poetry editors at the trades we spoke to have duties beyond poetry, crossing over into fiction as well as management.
When asked about paying for poetry at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, president and publisher Jonathan Galassi jokingly offers one of Wallace Stevens's famous "Adagia": "Money is a kind of poetry." FSG's poetry breaks even or better, he says, even with allocations, "but you can't just publish poetry; for a trade house, it has to be part of a mix of all sorts of different kinds of books." The large-scale Robert Lowell and Neruda collections that the press did last season each sold over 10,000 copies "at a high price, and that's a regular midlist book of any kind."
Jill Bialosky, v-p and executive editor at Norton, agrees, and has found the right mix of formats and timing for keeping Norton's poetry in the black. "We find that if we do the books in hardcover first and then 12 months to 18 months later bring out a paperback, we are making the numbers work, at a modest level—unless something fantastic happens, like a poet wins a major prize or a book gets into the zeitgeist. Then we can be really happily surprised."
Bialosky, Garrison and Halpern say that they would be happy to sell in the 2,500—5,000-copy range for a nonstar's book of poems. Galassi says that FSG ordinarily sells between 1,000 and 4,000 hardcovers of most books of poems. As for justifying such numbers to the muck-a-mucks at Holtzbrinck, "They don't ask us about individual books; they're talking to us about our whole thing, so we're free in that way." For Galassi, poetry "happens to be my own passion" (he is a poet and acclaimed translator of the Italian modernist Eugenio Montale), but he believes the same enthusiasm has to drive anyone who publishes books of poems: "That's the only reason to do it—if you don't have a passion for it, you shouldn't do it."
Bialosky and Garrison are published poets, too; all three, along with Halpern, sound strikingly like poet Rod Smith, who is the manager of Bridge Street bookstore in Georgetown and the person behind small press publisher Edge books. For Smith, publishing poetry "is participation in a community, it's putting out things you value. When you want to do it, you find a way to do it." After 15 years of publishing, most Edge books (such as Anselm Berrigan's Zero Star Hotel and Kevin Davies's Comp.) make back what he puts into them, but Smith pays for the initial runs out of pocket, with sales coming through the store (and its mail-order component), through SPD, and through the events Smith holds for each book in multiple cities.
So while the passion is genuine across the board, Halpern's phrase "literary profile" captures something further about the power of poetry for trade houses. It may not be quantifiable, but as Garrison says, "There's still this mystery about poetry, and it finally just isn't about selling—and people know that." As publishing's margins have gone up, and the image of the passionate, engaged publisher has become harder to maintain, poetry may look less like kryptonite than an essential incorruptible element for large houses with a literary bent. It gives them a little Edge.
$30,000 for a Book of Poems?
Even without margin demands, nontrade houses often can't rely on "bigger" books to cover cost-of-business expenses and publicity and marketing costs, as the trades do.
One solution is keeping things as close to production-only as possible. San Francisco's Kelsey Street Press began 30 years ago, according to poet and founding member Rena Rosenwasser, when a group of women poets pooled some money, bought a Vandercook letterpress, set it up at the Kelsey Street house of founding member Patricia Dienstfrey "and started learning how to print letterpress by making books for some of the poets in whom we were interested. And then it just evolved."
Kelsey Street still relies on volunteer labor, four to six people at any one time. Rosenwasser has been the only completely continuous member, and she doesn't hesitate to say why it has worked out that way: "I didn't have to earn any money; the person I live with basically subsidized me before she retired," and gave the press a free office. Co-founder Dienstfrey still lives on Kelsey Street, though the press has moved and now publishes a new generation of women writers including Renee Gladman and Carol Mirakove. It pays about 50% of its expenses through sales, making up the rest through an endowment, fundraising and grants. And, says Rosenwasser, "we wouldn't have survived without SPD."
Poet Lee Ann Brown began tiny nonprofit Tender Buttons in 1989 after meeting writers from New York who had run their own presses: "I didn't realize you could make your own books. I just asked everyone how to do it, like Kenward Elmslie and Bernadette Mayer." Brown got her friends to help and paid for that first Mayer book with money given to her to live on that summer by her grandmother. She then did about one book a year, including Jennifer Moxley's Imagination Verses and Harryette Mullen's Trimmings, piecing together the money, and receiving occasional grants from the Fund for Poetry and the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts. Distribution was, and often is, by hand, but Brown has had five distributors: "They all went under except SPD."
Copper Canyon Press was begun 30 years ago by poet Sam Hamill, who remains its editor; Tree Swenson (now executive director of the Academy of American Poets); and translator William O'Daly. The press is now a five—10-person outfit, where everyone gets paid, and an 80-page book of poems can have a budget that exceeds $30,000. Michael Wiegers, executive editor at Copper Canyon, says that is what it costs "to do a book really well." With genuine admiration for bedroom-based efforts, he notes, "A lot of presses start out, and they're really smart editorially, and they have all sorts of passion. They may have great design or they may not, but someone can jump into this and say, 'Oh, wow, it only costs $3,000 to print this book.' But then you start realizing how much time you're investing in it: you bring in a friend who gives you free copyediting, and you start bringing in various folks who are doing design, and all these things start adding up"—into unsustainable time and labor commitments.
Thus the $30,000 book of poems: keeping five to 10 people on staff at a reasonable wage is at least $150,000 a year. What that buys a literary press is continuity, and marketing power.
Brown at Tender Buttons and Smith at Edge have been able to keep going over the years without formalizing their operations, but they are the exceptions to the rule. As Laura Moriarty, acquisition & marketing director at Small Press Distribution, notes, for most presses, it is funding in the form of grants or individual contributions "that determines whether a press is going to last beyond the first three to five books. After the first burst of enthusiasm, you have your own life to take care of."
For Copper Canyon, Wiegers says that the staff, in its down moments, jokes that the house "would make more money by not publishing at all." The press pays 40% of its bills through sales, with the rest coming through fundraising (and a book contest, of a sort discussed below).
Allan Kornblum, founder of Coffee House, transplanted a New York School sensibility to Minneapolis 20 years ago. Reaching him at his office, PW caught Kornblum "putting the finishing touches on five grant proposals, ranging from $1,500 to $50,000." Coffee House also funds about 40% of its operations through sales.
Sarah Gorham, who with her husband, Jeffrey Skinner, founded Sarabande books in Louisville, Ky., in 1994, says that "40%—50% of my time, and of my [three full-time—member] staff's time, is spent doing fund-raising." That leaves less time for other activities, though the press manages to maintain an educational component (a feature of many nonprofits). While seeking an umbrella group might mean more stable sources of funding, Gorham is keeping things the way they are. The press recently had the opportunity to join a local university, but it soon became clear that joining would lead to "an administrative nightmare. I just wouldn't want to have that extra layer of activity" beyond what the press already does. Sarabande makes back 30%—35% of its expenses through sales.
St. Paul's Graywolf press, which gets 40% of its budget from sales and is celebrating its 30th anniversary, has received grants from the Jerome Foundation, the Greenwall fund from the Academy of American Poets, and specific funding from the National Endowment for the Arts for poetry and poetry-related titles, among other sources. Part of that money goes toward advertising all of Graywolf's titles. As is true for Copper Canyon, publicity is definitely a big part of the budget for Graywolf's own $30,000 books. "I think that distinguishes us from the UPs and the trade houses, too," says Graywolf poetry editor Jeff Shotts. "From what I understand, a lot of the university presses are not as strong on publicity, at least where it comes to poetry. They won't set up a tour, do advertising, those sorts of things. We try to commit to that," which takes time and resources. A number of poets PW spoke to who recently published books with university presses said that their experiences bore this out.
With marketing taking further chunks of time and resources, perhaps the nonprofits could save on advances? After all, as Kornblum notes, "$1,000 as a percentage of Coffee House's budget is very different than $1,000 as a percentage of Random House's budget. But we think it reflects a different level of faith in poetry."
And besides, says Wiegers, "Say, you've got someone's new and selected that is going to sell 5,000 copies at $30 a crack. Say it has a 10% royalty rate—10% of $30 is $3, and $3 times 5,000 is $15,000. So to an extent, your advances are for budgeting purposes, so that at the end of the year you don't find out you owe $10,000 in royalties. You try to pay that money up front if you're pretty confident that a book is going to sell."
Lives of the Poets
Poets are obviously not living on $1,000 advances or on 8% net over two years of 1,500 copies of their latest collection. Often, what poets who are publishing books are living on are teaching jobs. And as David Fenza, executive director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, notes, "Academe has become one of the most fiercely competitive, and exploitative, job markets."
In any given year, the AWP lists 50—100 tenure-track jobs, "but we probably have 1,500 new graduates." Oversupply means that most of the teaching work for poets is not tenure track, but part-time adjunct positions, often at multiple institutions for about $2,500 a course (before taxes) and no benefits. So what separates the tenure-track sheep from the adjuncting goats? "It once was, back in the 1960s, you could get a tenure-track job with a few poems published in the best magazines," says Fenza, but "now the standard is pretty much a book with a nationally recognized press."
Steve Evans, an essayist, critic and assistant professor of English at the University of Maine at Orono, studies (as a piece of his puts it) "The Dynamics of Literary Change" and articulates the situation succinctly: "One book can mean a completely middle-class existence and a mortgage if it's converted right."
But not just any book. When asked to elaborate on what "nationally recognized" means to the academy, Fenza notes that "universities tend to favor other university affiliations." UPs and trade houses, Fenza says, trump nonprofits in the eyes of hiring committees, and the likes of Edge and Tender Buttons are often not even on the scale.
Stephen Burt, a poet and critic who is an assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, does see a relationship between the 1,500 or so poetry books that get published in any given year and the need for poets to keep their jobs. "Generally, people are in a rush to publish what they write, which means that there are more first books and more second books per year, and they are on average worse (whatever that means) than they would be in the absence of academic market pressure."
But as Steve Evans notes, in many cases, whether the work is good or bad may be beside the point, as far as the job market is concerned. "What schools want is for someone to have vouched for the value of your work. A dean, precisely, does not want to read your book of poetry before hiring you. A successfully valued book doesn't need to be read by anybody. It's a situation that leads to highly predictable results," as 1,500 new poets a year internalize what is expected of them.
Prestigious Prize or Ponzi Scheme?
The market pressure on the publication of first or second books has produced a further result: the proliferation of contests, whereby poets pay anywhere from $10 to $50 to have their manuscripts read and evaluated for possible publication.
Ed Ochester, who is the poetry editor for the University of Pittsburgh, is unapologetic about his Press's contest. "The major poetry houses in New York are now closed," Ochester says. "You cannot send a manuscript over the transom."
The fact that Deborah Garrison's voicemail message explicitly notes that "we do accept submissions and queries" does point to a few chinks of light under the transom, but many of those interviewed for this article generally agree with Ochester. Burt even notes that "the contests can be more fair than the old method, whereby someone would slip your book to Atheneum to see if they liked it," since that method required the kind of inside connections that the contests, when they work properly, are designed to negate. The contests are also much more fair, Burt finds, in terms of geography. "When everyone wanted to be on a trade press, and all the trade presses were in New York, you had a real disadvantage if you never left the Pacific time zone."
Pitt gets anywhere from 800 to 1,200 entrants a year to its one contest, yielding an average of $20,000, which supports not only the publication of the first book but the list in general. But Ochester says that despite production costs of about $4,000 a title, the contest is not what sustains the list of eight titles per year. "Sales [of poetry, including backlist] are between a third and a half of the total sales of the university press. It's the largest of the series that the press runs in scholarly areas. It also makes a profit. For that reason, everyone in university administration who looks at such things is very happy with us. The chancellor and the provost have extremely good words to say about the poetry series. They like the fact that we don't cost them money. And they like the fact that we get a lot of good reviews. It's a way of connecting with the outside world."
And it's not only UPs who run contests. Copper Canyon runs one (with a $25 entry fee), as does Sarabande ($20). Rebecca Wolff, at Fence Books, calls contests "controversial," but notes that Fence's two contests (both $20) offer cash prizes of $5,000 (in an endowed prize) and $1,000, respectively, and that "the contest entry fees help us pay not only for the contest-winning books but the other books that we publish, as well as the magazine. Basically, the press funds the magazine at this point." Fence has been publishing books for four years, including many first books.
Jennifer Joseph, who after 20 years still is the sole paid employee of Manic D books ("my whole life is a tax deduction"), says, "We read every single manuscript that comes over the transom," and notes, "Justin Chin's poetry had been rejected by 14 presses before we published Bite Hard [in 1997]. There are just not that many nationally and internationally distributed publishers who without charging a reading fee or a contest fee are willing to look at unagented people who haven't done anything yet."
The University of Wisconsin and University of Iowa run contests ($25 and $20, respectively), and neither pays advances. What Iowa does do, says director Holly Carver, "is keep the books in print. For a poet's long-term career, that's huge." Carver sees that as a major advantage her UP can offer over trade houses. "You may not get rich with us, but at least you'll stay in print—and your heirs might get rich."
Other presses interviewed for this piece also make keeping books in print a priority, but one does not imagine that Wallace Stevens's grandchildren are getting rich off of the royalties from the 10,000 copies of his Collected Poems that Knopf reportedly sells every year.
However it is being funded, poetry today is being published by people who feel passionately about it, and who work very hard, for low pay, within its small market. If money is a kind of poetry, poetry, for them, is not always a kind of money. Knopf's Garrison articulates this clearly: "Poetry's power, its secret, lies in the fact that it feels outside of that world in which you can sell something to the movies. If it's good, it's just not about that other thing. The very thing that makes it hard to sell and makes us say that nobody cares and makes us wonder if we'll all still be doing this is in another few years is the thing that makes it special and essential."
|NEW TITLES PER YEAR||1st PRINTING||COST PER RUN||ADVANCE||ROYALTIES|
|Coffee House||4-6||1,000 and up||$3,000—$4,000||$1,000 and up||8% list|
|Copper Canyon||16||2,000 and up||$7,000—$10,000||$1,500 and up||10% hc 7.5% pb|
|FSG||8-10||2,500 and up||n/a||$2,500 and up||Yes|
|Graywolf||8-9||2,000 and up||$6,000||$1,000 and up||10% hc 7.5% pb|
|Univ. of Iowa||8||1,500—2,500||$3,000—$4,500||No||10% hc 7% pb²|
|Knopf||10-12||2,500 and up||n/a||Yes||Yes|
|Manic D||3-4||2,000||$2,500||$100||8%; 25 copies|
|U. of Pittsburgh||7-8||1,500—2,500||$3,500—$4,500||No||Yes|
|Sarabande||6||2,000 and up||$7,500||$500 and up||10% net|
|Tender Buttons||1-2||1,000||$2,000—$2,500||No||100 copies|
|U. of Wisconsin||4||300 hc & 1,500 pb||$4,000—$5,000||No||Yes|
|¹Two contests awarding $5,000 and $1,000 respectively|
|² After 500 copies sold|
|³ When possible|
|Figures are for an imagined 80-page perfect-bound book with color cover by a single author, and are not exact. Figures on first printings and on cost-per-run are for production only.|
|The latter includes freight, but not including cost-of-business (i.e., facilities, salary, royalties), maketing or publicity expenses. The specifics of production differ for every house, even in similar formats.|
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