Public Poetry, Kevin Walzer's meditations on poetry, publishing, business, and other creative pursuits
Kevin Walzer, a poet, poetry publisher, husband, and father.
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I'm pleased to announce version 1.0 of WTPoem, which is a poem-of-the-day app for the iPhone that features work published by WordTech Poetry. To my knowledge, it's the only mobile app that features a poetry publisher.
The WTPoem app is free, and is intended to develop interest in the books the press has published by featuring a poem each day from one of our poets. As a branding app, its goal is to increase awareness of the press and our poets in the mobile space. It includes a new poem every day, links to information about the poem, and links to order the book in which it appeared.
While the press has provided the primary living for my wife and myself for the past decade, software development started as a fun hobby for me about a decade ago, and has since evolved to provide both some additional income through commercial app sales and also provides critical support for our business's infrastructure, such as website development and hosting, server administration, and so on. It's a real pleasure to be able to bring some of those skills to bear in an effort to promote the press and our authors in a new medium.
Thu, 17 Jan 2013
In response to customer feedback, I've implemented a search engine for all of the sites I maintain, including http://www.wordtechcommunications.com and http://www.codebykevin.com based on some clever code documented at Build a Search Engine in PERL. My own code was heavily modified, but this example was exceptionally helpful in helping me get started.
I've also implemented a similar feature at my blogs using the find plugin for Blosxom by Fletcher Penney. This plugin, unlike the other search engine I developed, is a drop-in module that required no configuration on my part. It works beautifully.
Both search tools enhance the usability of my sites, and both are written in a programming language I'm having fun learning: Perl. Perl is well-suited for website programming, and I look forward to doing more with it.
Comments are closed for this story.Thu, 11 Oct 2012
Today I've posted permissions and reprinting guidelines at the press's main website. Over the past several years we've handled requests to reprint poems that we've published on an informal, case-by-case basis, but since we've had an increasing number of such requests recently, and because there has been some confusion among both our authors and editors of outside projects, I wanted to post more formal, standardized guidelines.
To summarize briefly, if you're an editor seeking to reprint our poems, there are numerous instances under which you can reprint poems from our books for free, and there are some instances that will require a permissions fee. The guiding principle is, if you're making money, so should we, and so should our authors. Non-commercial use of poems we've published won't require formal permission or a fee, but commercial use--an anthology for sale, a spoken-word CD, a textbook, a gallery exhibit of artwork that charges admission--will require a fee, to be determined by the scope of the project.
This is pretty much standard business practice in the publishing world, and is a practice followed by such major poetry publishers as Copper Canyon Press, but I've encountered many editors recently who don't agree with such an approach. Multiple times in recent months we've been approached by editors who want to reprint poems we've published, in an anthology project intended for sale, and yet they don't want to pay permissions fees. They ask that fees be waived because they can't afford them, point out that no other press or poet, including Very Prestigious Ones, are requesting fees, say that surely the reprint will increase exposure of our poets' work, and such exposure, and a contributors' copy, should be sufficient compensation.
These assumptions have led to long discussions, sometimes tendentious, with the relevant parties, and while each case has been resolved, I am weary of such conversations. Let me clarify our reasons for charging fees.
The argument some editors make about "increasing exposure to the work" through free anthology reprints is a common one, and I realize that anthology reprints can enhance an author's reputation, but in almost every case such reprints do not result in the increased sales promised by the anthology editor. In any event, the reprint would have to generate a considerable number of sales to equal the net revenue provided by even a modest reprint fee. As a independent literary publisher surviving without any outside subsidy, grants, or fees from contests and or/reading, we depend on the revenue provided by both books sales and reprints, and the authors benefit financially from reprint revenue as well.
As to the argument of limited means, or inability to pay permissions fees, I'm not terribly sympathetic to this line of reasoning: "we're selling this anthology for $25, but we can't afford to pay anything, so give the poem to us anyway." Some years ago I co-edited a critical anthology on the poet John Haines, while still an impoverished graduate student, and my co-editor and I absorbed close to $2,000 in reprint fees--paid to outlets like Poetry, The Nation, Harpers, and other publications, which presumably sent a cut to the original author. Some authors graciously allowed us to reprint things at no cost, and other outlets reduced their fees in recognition of my limited means; a few did not reduce their fees at all, which meant that if I really wanted to reprint the work, I'd have to pay up. So that's what I did. If I can incur such costs as a normal part of the publication process, as a poor graduate student, then I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that others do so as well. In such cases we are glad to negotiate a reduced fee, but we are not willing to waive it altogether.
In fact, the entire question of permissions fees is why we don't publish anthologies anymore--the headaches of managing permissions and the potential costs make them unattractive projects. It never occurred to me to publish one anyway, and refuse to offer contributors or previous rights holders anything beyond a copy of the book, and pressure publishers who request a reprint fee to bend on their policies with the statement that "no one else is charging a fee, including poets and presses who are much more prestigious than you, so why are you requesting a fee?" Some editors pose this question with a reasonable tone, but others wield it with an attitude of arrogance that borders on entitlement: How dare you try to make money off of poetry?
We don't charge royalties because we're greedy. We charge them because we do depend on the revenue such fees generate, the fees are appropriately shared with the authors who created the poems, and we are willing to reduce the fees for projects of limited means. I'm baffled by the attitude of some editors that doesn't consider such fees worth paying. If such is your attitude, then going forward, my suggestion is: Contact another press for permission.
Comments are closed for this story.Tue, 13 Mar 2012
Since joining ranks of smartphone owners by buying an iPhone 3GS, I've noticed that a lot of the websites I visit are optimized for mobile display--and the various websites I host are not.
Not any more.
Over the past couple of days I've tweaked the layout of my sites to make them display equally well in a desktop browser or a mobile browser. If you are looking at one of the poetry books I've published, a "purchase link" in a mobile phone will take you to a mobile version of the book's Amazon page. If you are looking at the same page in a desktop browser, the link will take you to Amazon's standard website for purchase. Seeing that effect is pretty neat.
This improvement was ultimately achieved by adding a slightly modified layout Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) for iPhone, and by adding a few lines to my sites' HTML to determine which type of browser was accessing the page. I got things working with my current HTML setup, some Googling, and a lot of trial and error of different design tweaks. Seems simple, right?
In one sense, yes, it's simple--a few dozen lines of text. But don't be mistaken: it's not a small project. The two business I run, poetry publishing and software development, host a dozen separate websites under various domain names on a Mac OS X server in my office. My sites have hundreds of static HTML pages, as well as three separate blogs running under a dynamic server setup, Blosxom.
Fortunately, my setup is designed so that large-scale changes are relatively easy to implement. When I started doing web sites for my business a decade ago, I used a popular HTML tool, Dreamweaver, to generate much of the HTML for my sites, although I used other tools as well, such as exporting HTML from Microsoft Word. Like many people using such tools, I had little understanding of HTML, but just wanted to get my web pages on display. Dreamweaver also has useful features for managing website structures, uploading pages, and more.
After a few years of this approach, which over time had generated several dozen web pages, I found it to be unwieldy. Because of the mishmash of tools I used to create web pages, I found that making any significant changes to the design of my websites was difficult: I often had to make changes to each individual page, which was time-consuming. Worse, some of the HTML was incredibly hard to change because under the hood it had vast amounts of unnecessary markup (especially the HTML generated by Word).
Finally, desiring to do a significant redesign of my sites and to make their long-term maintenance simpler, I bit the bullet and spent weeks diving into the HTML of my websites, ripping out all unnecessary HTML markup and formatting, leaving just basic HTML for each page's text, a simple page layout template applied by Dreamweaver, and a new styling tool I had recently discovered, CSS, which puts all formatting commands into a single file which are then applied by the browser when the web page is displayed. Instead of changing the formatting of dozens of individual pages, I can make changes to a single CSS file and then have those changes reflected in the site.
That's the structure I use to this day, and on this project to convert my sites to a mobile layout, it saved my bacon. Rather than develop a separate mobile version of my sites, I simply did some modifications to the core Dreamweaver template (to add some commands to detect the type of browser), and added a second mobile-specific stylesheet.
I'm not sure if my setup for websites of this scale--hundreds of static HTML pages with a similar design--is optimal, but it continues to work for me; I don't use Dreamweaver's design functionality much anymore, but I continue to rely on its site management features, which are robust. Migrating to a different kind of site setup, for instance using some kind of dynamic content management system (CMS), seems like a formidable and complex task of uncertain reward. So I'll most likely continue with this present setup, as I am far from outgrowing it.
Comments are closed for this story.Thu, 06 Oct 2011
Steve Jobs passed away yesterday at the too-young age of 56. Though I never met the man, I'm taking his death personally. His work has made many things possible for myself and my family that otherwise wouldn't have been.
By now the outlines of Jobs' life are well-known. After founding Apple Computer with his friend Steve Wozniak, essentially creating the personal computer indudstry, and then making the computer a tool for creativity with the Macintosh, he was forced out of the company by the new CEO he helped to recruit. Jobs then wandered in the business wilderness for a decade, founding an innovative-but-unsuccessful computer company (NeXT) and buying an innovative-but-unsuccessful computer animation studio (Pixar).
Then, starting in 1996, he had one of the greatest second acts in American business history. Pixar's animation technology finally matured to the point where it was feasible to make an entire movie using the techology, and the result was the landmark movie Toy Story. Pixar went public, made Jobs a very rich man again, had a long run of hit movies in partnership with Disney, and then was acquired by Disney. And Apple, nearing bankrupty, acquired Jobs' other company, NeXT, to provide the basis of its new operating system--and brought Jobs back to Apple. Apple then began its unprecedented run of hit products, from the iMac to the iPod to the iPhone and beyond, which have continued to revolutionize technology, and is now one of the most valuable companies in the world.
Jobs' work made many things possible for me. The technology he helped to create, particularly the Macintosh, allowed me, then a poet, to learn design and typesetting, which enabled me to take the written word (poetry) and render it on the page, and later on the World Wide Web. I learned to appreciate a beautifully designed book and web page. That gave me a passion for the publishing field, which is how I support my family to this day, taking the written word of poets, creating beautiful books out of them, and bringing that poetry to an audience. Later on, Jobs' creations also inspired me to learn computer and software programming, so that I could take the computer I was using and expand its capabilities. Now, software development also helps to support my family.
The most important way that Jobs has inspired me, however, has little to do with the products he created, but rather his example--and not the example most people cite, of the driven, perfectionist, take-no-prisoners visionary. That example, which has passed into legend and even stereotype, is one of a brilliant but impossibly demanding leader who would alternatively inspire and bully his subordinates into realizing his vision. (One archetypal example is Jobs telling a subordinate: "You've baked a lovely cake, but then you've used dog shit for frosting.") I'm no genius, and I recognize that often compromise is necessary to get something done.
No, what inspires me about Jobs is more basic--it's his grit, his persistence, his tenacity. When he was banished from Apple in 1985, he was not even 30, wealthy enough to never work again--but he still felt he had something to prove. So he founded a new company, purchased another, and nurtured both companies through a periods of slow or no growth, far outside of the limelight. When one stategy didn't work, he would try another. Eventually he found a mix of approaches that slowly brought the companies to modest profitability, and poised them for their spectacular impact later in the 1990s.
That decade out of the public eye was surely humbling for Jobs. He didn't have to work. He poured tens of millions of dollars into his companies as they lost money, and watched his own net worth drop. But even as that experienced humbled him, it also matured him. And it also nurtured an inner strength and determination: he didn't give up. And the world would benefit from the fruits of those efforts, with the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and more.
Jobs' techology and creativity have inspired and enabled much of my work. But as the proprietor of a publishing business (books and software) with my wife, it's Jobs' tenacity that I take the greatest instruction from. It goes without saying that since the U.S. economy's collapse in 2008, running any kind of business has been challenging. The book business is going through tremendous change with the emergence of e-books, the bankruptcy of Borders, and more; the pace of change is breathtaking. The software business has huge opportunity with the resurgence of Apple and the growth of smartphones (driven largely by Apple's iPhone), but it is also extremely competitive and challenging to reach a large customer base.
It takes tenacity and persistence to meet these challenges: changing your approach when the situation demands it, pursuing new opportunities in a way that makes sense, managing costs, and more. Most importantly, it requires not giving up. If you keep persisting, then your chances of surviving and even succeeding are good. My wife and I are still in business amid all the economic turmoil--that's no small accomplishment.
There are other important inspirations in my life. The poet John Haines, with whom I studied, was, like Jobs, a model of uncompromising artistic integrity. His years as a homesteader in the Alaska wilderness also provided an example of the kind of life a poet could live and where poetry could thrive, outside the context of university teaching, where many poets earn their living. Similarly, the poet Dana Gioia, with whom I corresponded, provided a model of how earn one's living. Decades before he became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia worked in corporate life and then as a self-employed writer/editor as he established himself as a poet and critic, writing both books of poetry and criticism that challenged poetry's marginalized place in American culture in the university. As an English Ph.D. seeking employment in a depressed academic job market in the late 1990s, it eventually became necessary for me to find another career path, and the examples of Haines and Gioia were especially helpful for me: my path took me through several years in corporate life before finally leading me to self-employment as a publisher.
Still, today, as a business owner in a terrible economy, I am looking in a different direction for my inspiration: Steve Jobs. During his years in the wilderness, Steve Jobs persisted. And he wound up changing the world. I don't know if I'll change the world, but I'm going to persist regardless. That's how Steve Jobs has changed my world.
Comments are closed for this story.Tue, 02 Jun 2009
I've updated the tool that we use to connect new postings at this blog--the news feed for WordTech Communications--to the sites for each of our imprints. The previous tool worked OK, but it was slow, and the server to update the tool was often offline. We've since moved to rss2html, which is fast, lightweight and easy to use. I'm very pleased with it.
Comments are closed for this story.Sun, 21 Sep 2008
If you've tried to visit this blog, or any of the related sites I host on this server (see the "home" link on the side of the blog page), you have undoubtedly noticed that the site's been down intermittently.
Put the blame on Hurricane Ike. Even though the storm made landfall in Texas, it retained a surprising amount of strength as it moved inland, northwards. My city, Cincinnati, was hit hard by winds. As a result, nearly a million households in the region lost power, some for several days.
Hurricane in Ohio? Yup.
Generous neighbors allowed my family to tap into their generator for a few hours each day, enough to cool off the food in our refrigerator, and also to power up my server long enough to answer e-mail, and get the dozen or so websites I host up for a while.
The worst, thankfully, is over, and the lights are back on. And we're back in business.
Sidenote: This situation--a power outage knocking out my Internet access--is the usual argument made against hosting your own websites on your own machine. Point taken. I'll never achieve the 99.9% uptime that commercial ISP's offer, and as a result, I have no desire to host anything but my company's sites. On the other hand, a hosting presence on the scale that my company uses would cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month. That's a lot of overhead, and the argument doesn't change even when the sites are down for a few days. I am going to be getting a generator, however.
Comments are closed for this story.Mon, 14 Apr 2008
Changes at Amazon
Amazon is currently the largest online retailer for books, and we have made Amazon the major component of our strategy for selling individual copies of our books online: every book we publish has a link to Amazon.
Amazon has recently made some distressing moves against print-on-demand (POD) publishers, which is the kind of printing my organization uses. Here's a brief summary:
Over the past few weeks, Amazon has been contacting some print-on-demand publishers and demanding that they begin using Booksurge for POD books sold through Amazon.
If the publisher does not sign up with Booksurge, Amazon has threatened to remove that publisher's books from direct sale on Amazon. The books would still be listed on Amazon, but could only be purchased from third-party booksellers who have listings in Amazon's Marketplace network.
Amazon has justified this move on the basis of improved customer service and faster shipping of titles.
We're concerned with this development. Based on these facts, here is how we will be responding to the situation:
We have used Booksurge in the past, but were not happy with the quality of their printed products or their customer service. That is why we switched to Lightning Source. We plan to stay with Lightning Source and have no plans to add Booksurge as a printer. We do not want to compromise on the quality of the printed books we sell.
Our books will continue to be available through Amazon, either for direct sale or from third-parties (if they enforce their ultimatum about using Booksurge or else).
We think it's important to offer our readers multiple outlets to purchase our titles, so that the decisions of a single vendor don't affect customer choice.
For more information on Amazon's actions, this site offers a useful overview of information and the industry's response.
Comments are closed for this story.Thu, 27 Sep 2007
I took a little break from blogging because the task of updating the WordTech Communications sites--all nine of them--proved to be a herculean task. I pretty worked on nothing but the websites for more than two weeks; this is a once-every-few-years project because of its scope.
The sites don't look much different--they still have the same content, the same font, and a similar layout to before--but, "under the hood," their foundation has been substantially rebuilt. Fortunately, this will make future updates much easier, because they are now much cleaner and more streamlined.
With that done, I'll be getting back to poetry, including blogging about poetry, over the next few days. We have a lot of new books out, and I'm looking forward to discussing them.
Comments are closed for this story.Fri, 31 Aug 2007
I'm in the process of updating the WordTech Communications websites, all seven of them, with a new look and a new structure "under-the-hood," which will make future updates easier.
It's a huge undertaking, because there are several hundred pages there, and also because there's a lot of bad, crufty HTML there that dates back to my earliest days doing web pages, when I knew a lot less than I do now. Before I can even begin to implement the new design, I have to remove vast quantities of junk from the HTML--font settings, extraneous tags that come from exporting HTML from another program such as Microsoft Word--and this is time-consuming.
Many editors wouldn't do this kind of work themselves, but I'm technically inclined--I'm comfortable with writing HTML by hand if necessary. Still, it's time-consuming, and I'm trying to reduce it to as few steps as possible so that it can be done in a couple of weeks instead of several months.
I can't think of a better indicator of how much WordTech has grown than by the size of this project. The number of web pages we have is directly related to the number of books we have in print: each book we publish gets a minimum of two pages, one promoting the book, one featuring sample poetry. (For the past year or so I've also been blogging about each book we publish, trying to offer a personal take on the book rather than PR/jacket copy, so that's an additional writing task.)
What's amazing is that it's still just the two of us, Lori Jareo and myself, plus our large family of authors. Lori handles nearly all of our marketing, production and sales tasks, and I handle the editorial and technical side. And our authors are also partners in our work, by writing outstanding poetry, and helping to organize readings in their communities.
To all of our authors, thank you for your wonderful work. And to their readers, thank you for supporting poetry. We're looking forward to many more years of publishing, and even bigger websites!
Comments are closed for this story.Wed, 16 May 2007
A recent article at the Poetry Foundation website notes, with alarm, the trend toward corporate-style consolidation in literary book distribution. A large distributor, Perseus, has been buying up smaller distributors that specialize in literary publishing, including poetry; its largest acquisition is Consortium, the Cadillac of poetry distributors, which includes such venerable publishers as Copper Canyon Press and Tupelo Press among its clients. Another acquisition was Publishers Group West, which was in bankruptcy.
This kind of corporate acquisition, while not unusual in other industries, is unprecedented in the smaller-scale, frequently non-profit world of poetry publishing. The Poetry Foundation article sums up the concerns of many poetry publishers this way:
Perseus's acquisitions---startlingly aggressive, corporate moves in the mom-and-pop world of poetry presses---have changed the small press landscape, undoing an infrastructure that might have had its weak spots, but was familiar and established. It means the transformation of companies that small presses have worked with for years. Now the small press publisher is asking: who am I sending my books to, and can they be trusted?...When Perseus bought Consortium, the move came as a shock to Consortium's clients, and it had many of them wondering whether or not their hard-earned positions within the distributor's roster might be undermined by the new management.
Apparently Perseus sees commercial potential in small-press distribution, so, despite the uncertainty, it is hard to see how their investments are a bad thing. These purchases mean that distributors such as Consortium are on firmer financial footing; they may be able to grow in ways that they could not under independent ownership. This, in turn, may mean more distribution opportunities and channels for their clients. These distributors haven't exactly been driving huge annual increases in poetry readership, as noted by the Poetry Foundation article: "it's a truism in poetry publishing that most books simply aren't getting out there." Some publishers fear that the consolidation represented by Perseus would lead to fewer, rather than greater, sales: "How can we maintain our visibility when we are becoming an ever-smaller piece of a larger puzzle?" asked Michael Wiegers, the editor of Copper Canyon Press. (For what it's worth, I doubt Copper Canyon has much reason to worry: their 2006 financials, which you can access at their website, show gross revenue of nearly $1.2 million, and a surplus of more than $98,000.)
Of course, the flip side of Wiegers' question is this: Would poetry be better served by distributors such as Publishers Group West going bankrupt, and having their poetry clients just tossed on the street? I doubt it.
The move to bring a more business-like structure to the world of poetry publishing may be unsettling to those publishers who operate as much out of a love of literature as a desire to earn a living. Corporate values--to maximize profit--are not much loved in the world of poetry publishing, where most organizations are incorporated under a not-for-profit basis. Revenue from sales are only a small portion of the budgets of most such organizations; fund-raising, in the form of grants, donations, and so on, are as much a part of the organization's daily work as editorial tasks such as reading manuscripts, proofing page layouts, and designing covers, and as marketing tasks such as sending out news releases and placing advertisements.
Obviously, it remains to be seen whether Perseus' consolidation of small-press distribution will have a beneficial, benign, or harmful effect on literary book sales and readership. I'm hoping that it will be beneficial. However, the issue of bringing poetry to a readership is a vexing one. As the Poetry Foundation article asks:
if the American public will read poetry when they can find it, and if all over the United States warehouses are stacked with books, how, exactly, can we get these books to move? How can we get the poems within them to be seen? Perseus? Anyone?
It's a good question, one without easy answers. Paradoxically, bookstores are a lousy place to sell books--at least, poetry books. When we started WordTech several years ago, we looked at the hurdles we'd have to leap to become a publisher of any size. Under a traditional publishing and distribution model--large press run, warehousing books, and trying to push books into bookstores--it seemed an impossible task. Fortunately, print-on-demand was maturing as an alternative publishing model, and this approach seemed ideally suited for a field such as poetry. (I've discussed the economics of traditional vs. print-on-demand approaches to publishing poetry in a previous blog entry.)
Our approach is one way--one that works for us. I hope that Perseus is able to do a good job for its clients, as well.
Comments are closed for this story.Wed, 05 Jul 2006
A recent article in Poets and Writers magazine about the economics of literary publishing provided some useful food for thought. The author, Joseph Bednarik, is a respected figure in literary publishing, having served for nearly a decade as marketing director of Copper Canyon Press and, before that, in a similar capacity at Story Line Press. (Full disclosure: I knew Bednarik when he worked at Story Line and handled the marketing of two of my books.)
Bednarik's thesis is grim: finding manuscripts to publish is easy, but finding readers for those published books is hard. The proliferation of Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs in creative writing has greatly increased the number of literary/creative writers, but there hasn't necessarily been a corresponding increase in the readership for creative writing.
As a result, Bednarik notes, an increasing number of publishers must turn to outside subsidies--whether from grants, donations, or contests--to publish, because book sales alone are insufficient to repay production costs.
To those of us who work in literary publishing, there's no news here. But some of the details that Bednarik uses to support his thesis are illuminating, even startling:
Bednarik says that, in the fifteen years he has worked in literary publishing, the publishers that employed him read more than 10,000 manuscripts submitted to contests they sponsored.
Out of those 10,000+ manuscripts, 15 were published in book form.
Those 15 books had sales ranging from 400 to 2,500 copies.
In Bednarik's estimation, 2,500 sales are the minimum required for a press to break even on a book's publication (assuming it's a paperback that retails for $15). Sales of 5,000 copies would be necessary to actually turn a profit.
Assuming an average reading fee of $20, Bednarik's figures show that more than $200,000 was spent on the publication of those 15 books. Though Bednarik doesn't say, one may presume that his employers did not earn back that $200,000.
Bednarik goes on to suggest that creative writers have an obligation to support the presses that publish literary work. His main recommendation to increase the readership for literary writing is for creative writers to buy more books. In his words: "One solution is simple enough: If you write, read. A lot. If you want a book published and sold in the marketplace, then buy and read and recommend enough books to nourish the system you want to enter. Advocate on behalf of literature."
At one level, it's hard to argue with what Bednarik is calling for. Of course creative writers should buy work from literary presses; given a choice between reading fees for contests or buying a couple of books from the press that sponsors a contest, I can't imagine a writer who would opt for the former.
Still, I suspect, many writers already do buy as much work from literary presses as they can afford. I'm not at all certain that creative writers represent the future of literary audiences. More importantly, I think that asking how to increase the audience for literary publications is looking at the question from the wrong angle.
A more realistic approach to the question of literary audience is to recognize that the audience for nearly any literary writing in America is likely to be small or tiny. Rather than trying to increase the audience size--and therefore sales--to an impossibly high number to meet the overhead associated with publishing, it's more sensible to align the overhead with the expected demand.
In other words: Don't focus so much on growing sales. Instead, focus on driving out costs.
Based on Bednarik's figures, I'm estimating that the 15 books published cost an average of $13,000 to produce. Even if one counts the cost of administering a contest among these expenses, $13,000 sounds absurdly high to me. How is this money being spent?
I don't have access to the financials of Bednarik's employers, but I can reasonably guess that printing costs, design costs, and marketing/advertising costs form the bulk of the $13,000. At least, that's a typical breakdown for any kind of book publishing. Here's an overview in more depth:
Printing. Traditional offset printing, which is the norm at both the publishers where Bednarik has worked, is expensive. Almost all the costs come in preproduction setup--the processing of the book pages and cover for the press. A press run of 2,000 costs only slightly more than a press run of 1,000 because the only additional cost is paper.
Design. Many small presses contract out for book design, which can be expensive even for a small book of poems. Bednarik's current employer is well-known for the beauty of its book designs, and in fact has helped set the standard for poetry book design in the U.S. High-level design services are not inexpensive.
Advertising. Advertising a book can be quite expensive, especially if the press is using half- or full-page ads in multiple publications.
It's not hard to imagine the production costs on a title approaching $10,000 if the press does a large offset print run, uses a graphic designer or design studio, and has an aggressive advertising program to promote the book.
If a press does in fact spend $10,000 or more on a single book, what do they get in return? Plenty of copies for distribution. A beautiful book. And lots of audience awareness of the book.
But what they may not get--at least in sufficient volume to earn back that $10,000--are sales. Sad to say, but it's true in the vast majority of cases. It's actually quite respectable for a small-press book of poetry to sell 500 copies; 1,000 sales is excellent. Statistically, few titles even approach Bednarik's "break-even" point of 2,500, let alone 5,000.
I simply can't see any justification for publishing books of poetry, or other literary writing, in this manner. A system in which expenses so greatly outpace revenue is simply unfeasible from an economic standpoint. The only way for a press to survive in such an environment is to receive massive infusions of cash from external sources--agencies, wealthy individuals, or contest entries. And this makes the press especially vulnerable, because government budget cuts or a decline in donations starve the press of revenue it needs to operate. A literary press could easily go out of business if cuts to its external funding are severe. How does this serve literature?
I believe a saner, less-risky approach to literary publishing means that the press must reduce the cost of publishing a book to the point where the book has a fighting chance to earn back its investment. Our press has taken these steps in accordance with this viewpoint:
Print-on-demand instead of offset printing. Print-on-demand publishing, in which books are printed one-at-a-time on digital presses instead of in large batches on a offset press, has the potential to revolutionize literary publishing because it is so much less expensive. Instead of even a small press run costing several thousand dollars, books can be printed as they are ordered. The per-unit printing cost is similar, but the setup costs for print-on-demand are much lower, and the overall printing costs can be spread out over the sales life of the book instead of being absorbed up front. Additionally, print-on-demand means that there are not hundreds of unsold copies gathering dust in a warehouse. After using traditional offset printing on our first few titles--and losing money on them even though they sold well--we switched to print-on-demand, which has made a huge difference financially.
Design in-house instead of using outside contractors. We do nearly all our own book design in-house; we are informed enough about design and printing to do a competent job with typesetting and cover layout. The cost savings are tremendous.
Methods of marketing other than advertising. A couple of years ago, we undertook a modest advertising program for our books. We could find no measurable increase in sales that could be tied to advertising--for instance, we never saw a jump in sales for a title in the months following its advertisement. By contrast, when we started other marketing programs--such as direct mail to addresses provided by our authors, trying to get our books placed in review outlets, and so on--we did see a measurable, and almost immediate, increase in sales. And, as our authors helped to organize readings in their communities to help promote their books, a similar jump in sales followed. (We ask our authors to take an active role in helping to promote their books, particularly by doing poetry readings--the single biggest contributor to book sales.) After our advertising contract expired, it was an easy decision to discontinue advertising--a high expense with no measurable return on that investment.
This approach means that our books don't have to sell 2,500 copies to break even. We've been able to align the publication of our books with the demand that actually exists for them, rather than hoping to increase the size of that demand exponentially.
For better or worse, my press remains a bit unusual in its approach to literary publishing. Most presses still work according to the model promulgated by Bednarik. That's fine, especially if they are able to stay afloat financially to continue publishing. But with literary presses going out of business every year, it's puzzling to me why more presses do not embrace a business model that gives them a better chance to survive and even prosper. Literature certainly isn't well served by presses going out of business.
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