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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Several years ago I posted a blog entry about the economics of poetry publishing. This article focused mainly on bringing the costs of publishing in line with the expected audience of poetry (and expected sales of poetry books) through such means as print-on-demand, online marketing, and so on.
I'd like to talk about this subject again, but this time from the standpoint of revenue. Starting with the books that we're accepting from our current reading period, we will be requiring an author order of 125 copies of the title before going to press.
To explain why we've decided to implement this policy, I'd like to first discuss a bit about our practices over the past several years in terms of raising revenue, and I hope this will show why a change in policy is needed at this time.
When we first started the press in 2000, our goal was to run an annual contest, publish a book or two without outside grant support, and that was all. One book or two led to a dozen, which led to still more. We noticed that many of our authors wanted to buy large numbers of books using their author discount--50, 75, 100, and even more. They had a large number of readings lined up and couldn't wait to get started promoting the book. It was the enthusiasm of these authors, and the rapid growth in our book sales, that led us to discontinue running poetry contests altogether in 2004 and focus on publishing and selling books.
In large part to bring some predictability to our publishing business, in 2005 we added formal sales goals to new author contracts: a book needed to sell approximately 250 copies in its first year of publication, and a dozen copies per year thereafter, or we would reserve the right to remove the book from print. Again, these numbers were not pulled out of thin air but were based on the track records of many of our authors. Our best-selling authors exceeded these goals, and many more came close. We felt that the goals were practical and reasonable, and we had few if any complaints about them from authors.
For the next few years, things proceeded smoothly with the business; we continued to grow, sales were brisk, and things were moving in the right direction. Book sales provided the basis of our living--all without external subsidies from granting agencies and wealthy donors. Perhaps not surprisingly, this smooth path was upended in 2008, when the economy imploded. Book sales through the retail channel dropped quite a bit, many of our authors had fewer readings and ordered fewer copies, and revenue was down somewhat. We continued to stay solvent, but it was harder for us, as it was for nearly everyone.
Unfortunately, even after the Great Recession, some book sales did not come back. Borders went out of business, and our regular sales through Amazon, etc. have settled down at a lower level. As a result, to remain solvent, we have had to focus more on author orders. We began monitoring ongoing sales of our titles much more closely, and contacting authors if their sales fell significantly below the levels that they agreed to in their contracts. Many authors continued to be active promoters of their books, but others, for whatever reason, did not; sales of their books dropped off significantly, or never got off the ground.
These developments have left us in the uncomfortable position of having to contact many of our authors multiple times, reminding them of the goals they agreed to in their contracts, and ask for small--or in some cases large--orders to keep their sales from dwindling to zero. These developments have also put us in the uncomfortable position of having to ask many authors to place an order for their book when we go to press, as fewer authors are stepping up proactively to do so. Finally, these developments have also put us in the uncomfortable position of having to take books out of print if the author is unable, or unwilling, to place an order or otherwise promote the book.
As distasteful as such communications are for both our authors and us, they are necessary to ensure the press's continued solvency. Our print-on-demand approach eliminates many of the direct costs associated with publishing a book, but not all of them. Indeed, the printer charges an annual fee to keep our books listed in their "in-print" database, which makes the books available for sale; those fees add up to thousands of dollars each year. There are also the other costs associated with running a business, such as office overhead, health insurance, and yes, personnel costs; we earn our living from the press.
Ensuring the press's solvency is not a matter of greed. There are far more lucrative ways to make one's living than as a poetry publisher. Rather, staying in business allows us to do work that we love while earning our living. It also allows us to fulfill the commitment we make to each author that we will do everything we can to ensure their book is a success, that their book will remain available, that publishing with us will reflect well on them, and that publishing with us will repay dividends over years with future books down the road.
While the measures we've been taking in recent years have allowed us to remain solvent, however, we would like to take a different approach. Haggling with authors whose books are not selling and are not doing much to promote their books--in short, authors who are not living up to the contractual commitments they made to the press--is wearying. And removing a book from print is absolutely demoralizing, for both us and the author. While such a step is a necessary last resort to keep our own costs from spiraling upward, it represents a tremendous waste. The author's work of years is gone, and the many hours we have spent publishing the book are for naught.
All this discussion brings me to our new policy: we are requesting an author order of 125 copies before we go to press as a contractual obligation, which represents 50% of the book's expected first-year sales.
This policy is intended to achieve several objectives:
We don't believe that this new policy should be a burden for most authors. Our expectation is that if they are doing the number of readings required to come close to the 250 sales goal, then they will need more than 125 copies over the course of the year anyway. Essentially, the idea here is to "front-load" some orders that would otherwise be placed later in the year. For the past few years, we've been requesting that an author order 50 copies when we go to press, which most agree to; unfortunately, we've found this level isn't quite sufficient to meet the ongoing and increasing expenses of operating the press. After looking at those costs, we concluded that the 125-copy level would provide the ongoing stability that we are looking for.
I realize that not everyone may embrace or endorse this new policy. But it's my hope that if you look at our history of publishing excellence, the high editorial standards that we maintain, and our record in bringing a large number of outstanding poetry titles into the world, that you'll understand that this policy is about continuing that mission. And, if you simply can't agree with it, then you're free to submit to many other presses and poetry contests, and you have my best wishes for success.
Comments are closed for this story.Sat, 03 Nov 2012
Now reading, and with extended deadline
We're now doing our annual reading period, and have extended our deadline to December 15, 2012 in light of Hurricane Sandy. Please check out our guidelines and send us your poetry submissions if you feel it's a good fit.
Comments are closed for this story.Wed, 23 Jun 2010
I'm sad to report the passing of WordTech author Allen Hoey this week. We published books by Allen in 2008 and 2005. Allen was a poet whose work melded traditional Western forms with influences from a variety of other traditions, including Eastern thought, country music and the blues, and more. His work could both swing and contemplate, and the same cannot be said of many poets. He will be missed.
I neglected to report this last year, but WordTech author Richard Moore also passed away last year. We also published a couple of titles by Richard, one in 2007 and one in 2008. Richard was a master of formal verse: in his hands rhyme and meter were tools that he wielded effortlessly, and the result could break your heart with its piercing of insight and emotion. While his work was less well-known than some others of his generation, it is no exaggeration to say that he was a peer of X.J. Kennedy and Richard Wilbur in his command of technique. The world has lost a great craftsman.
Comments are closed for this story.Mon, 07 Jun 2010
Rane was the author of The Sky's Weight, which we published in 2009, and several other collections. He was a graceful poet who never shied away from the difficult parts of the world even as he celebrated the world's persisting beauty.
He will be missed.
Comments are closed for this story.Fri, 04 Dec 2009
We're about halfway through the annual submission period for the WordTech Communications poetry series. I haven't started reading in earnest yet, but perusing the large number of entries so far, I've seen a few trends worth commenting on.
One thing that I'm observing is a distressingly large number of submissions that show no evidence of having read our guidelines closely.
If you read our guidelines thoroughly, you're aware that the press places significant emphasis on the poet's ability to help promote his or her book through readings and similar events. A strong submission takes this fact into consideration, and the author makes some effort to tell us how they can assist in the promotion of their book. Such statements don't guarantee publication, of course, but a strong manuscript coupled with a strong record of doing readings--or good ideas on how to help promote the book--makes a very compelling case for publication. There are some of these submissions in the pool, but not as many as I'd like to see.
A larger proportion of our manuscripts include a standard cover letter with a biography and credits, a bit of discussion of the manuscript, and perhaps a line or two about which imprint the manuscript should be considered for--our guidelines ask poets to address this. These manuscripts are a bit harder to evaluate in terms of their sales potential, because the poet give little indication of how he or she might help promote the book. In such cases, when we have a strong manuscript, we have to make an educated guess about the book's sales potential, based in part on the poet's background.
The most disappointing submissions are those that come with only a brief cover letter and biography, or worse, no cover letter at all. Such submissions are usually set aside quickly unless the poetry is absolutely stunning. It's difficult to believe that a poet will be on board with our approach to publishing if they don't even make a cursory effort to show they understand it.
I make no apology for this approach to selecting our manuscripts. Excellence is the first criterion, but as a private press operating without subsidy from public agencies or private foundations, we survive solely on book sales. This absolutely requires the poets we publish to assist in the promotion of their books. There are plenty of presses out there that take a different approach, and if you're not comfortable taking a hands-on role in bringing your work to an audience, then we're not the press for you.
Comments are closed for this story.Fri, 24 Oct 2008
I've created a new mailing list for folks to get updates on the books we publish. If you want to stay in touch and find out about the latest titles, as well as other press news, visit http://www.wordtechcommunications.com/mailinglist.html to sign up.
Comments are closed for this story.Tue, 26 Aug 2008
We here at WordTech Communications do take pride in offering an alternative to the mainstream contest system in publishing poetry: one that relies on alternative distribution methods and an alternative business model. Since we rely on book sales, we don't have to charge reading fees to poets when we consider their work.
However, we won't be reading this year. We're taking a one-year break to get the titles we currently have under contract into production. We're fully committed through the end of 2010, and it seems a good time to take a breather.
We plan to begin reading again in the fall of 2009. Any interested poet can check our website at that time for guidelines.
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Are poets getting more and more fed up with poetry contests as the means to publish their books?
It would seem so. There's a lot of chatter this week on poetry blogs about various poetry contests.
I won't comment on the specifics of any one contest--the facts in these cases aren't always clear, or complete--but Reb Livingston's blog has an excellent take on the flaws of the poetry contest system. Her suggestions about what steps poets can take to improve the situations are well-taken. (Not so well taken are Bill Knott's comments calling for poets to "rise up in rebellion and demand their due" from commerical publishers, "willing to risk arrest martyrdom in the name of upheaval and disturbance...")
Comments are closed for this story.Tue, 18 Dec 2007
There's just a couple of weeks left in WordTech Communications' 2007 reading period. If you want to send us a manuscript to consider, with no reading fee, please see the guidelines.
While we haven't made any final decisions yet, this year's group so far is shaping up to be a strong one. That's very gratifying.
Comments are closed for this story.Tue, 19 Dec 2006
We're currently knee-deep in manuscripts; it's been quite a fruitful submission period, and it will continue until the end of this month (and most likely later, if a lot of people wait until the last minute to send).
One thing I've noticed about the submissions is that there seem to be some authors who pay special attention to guidelines, and some do not. Our guidelines are very specific about how we're different from other poetry publishers--particularly our emphasis on book sales and author involvement in that process--and we ask authors to demonstrate they have some understanding of our approach.
The authors who, in their cover letters, show they understand our approach tend to do a lot better in the submission process than authors who simply fire off a generic cover letter--or don't include a cover at all. Authors who submit to lots of contests are used to not providing a lot of information with their manuscript, because that information tends to get removed by screening panels. But we want this information. No sense in wasting our, and the author's, time, if he or she is uncomfortable taking an active role in doing readings and other activities to help promote that author's book book, should we decide to publish it.
Of course, it goes without saying that if the writer's work isn't good enough, no amount of promotional enthusiasm will persuade us to publish it. But that additional information can, and often does, make the difference when we are evaluating two equally good manuscripts.
Comments are closed for this story.