May 17, 2024

Economics of Poetry

Fear the literary! That's my unofficial motto here. I cringe whenever something vaguely creative comes across my desk; it's usually unsolicited schlock. We just don't publish fiction or poetry; it's not our strength, and most people know this. But I write fiction and poetry in my spare time (after five at my desk, as a matter of fact, as the lights go out around me), and I consider poetry and other literary publishers the champions of the book industry -- publishing slim volumes with slimmer margins requires zealotry, alchemy, and dedication. And hopefully they'll still be around when it comes time to pimp my own collection.

I'm proud of the Twin Cities because it is a literary town -- though it has no strong MFA program, it does have a strong publishing presence. Graywolf Press, Coffee House, Milkweed, Spout, The Loft Literary Center. It's great to know that institutions here are doing their part (modestly, in true Minnesota fashion) to drive the national poetry scene.

A couple of months ago I was intrigued to read a review of three new New York poets in the Boston Review by Macalaster (St. Paul) prof Stephen Burt. Interesting to find out that two of the these three poets, who rely on the lived experience of New York City to drive their poetics, were published by houses here in the Twin Cities. The copyright page of Mark Bibbin's Sky Lounge lists a string of Minnesota grant programs that help ensure Bibbins can continue gazing at Brooklyn's navel. I say that sarcastically only to emphasize the irony of the situation -- really, I'm proud that Minnesota can play the role of patron.

But still I wonder: how do they do it? A mix of personal passion and extremely savvy publishing expertise, according to a recent Publisher's Weekly article, "What Does It Cost to Do Poetry?" PW took a look at 16 publishers of poetry to find out how exactly they manage. From trades like FSG to single-person nonprofits like Edge and Tender Buttons, a personal passion for poetry drives editors to acquire a few titles a year. As well, editors like Deborah Garrison at Knopf and Jonathan Glassi at FSG are published poets themselves. I'm sure some of them publish poetry, working very hard for little pay, because they cannot conceive of their jobs in any other way.

Another factor appears to be a savvy approach to poetry publishing that flirts with an extremely thin margin of error. In order to manage an average $1,000 advance and royalties between 7% and 10%, publishers rely on tried and true publishing formulas that emphasize small print runs, usually only in paperback. Increasingly, grants and prize competitions are necessary to remain in the black. The four employees at Sarabande books in Louisville spend almost 50% of their time fund-raising. First printings, interestingly, match the runs we do here for trade and scholarly titles -- between 1,000 and 3,000 copies. Not bad for a poet! I would have guessed the print runs would be much, much lower -- then again, volumes of poetry stike me as slow burners...poets build reputations, and higher printruns mean lower unit cost.

Of course, poets can't live off $1,000 advances. Most of them try to scratch out a living in academia, where 1,500 new grads each year fight for 50-100 spots on faculties. Ah, academy chews 'em up, like it does every other bright young thing. The more I study the SOS anecdotes leaking out from between the bars of higher education, the more grateful I am for not choosing that route right away. As Steve Evans puts it, "one book can mean a completely middle class existence and a mortage," but what would that mean for the poet? Surely, that's not the impulse behind poetry?

Posted by Jason at May 17, 2024 03:45 PM
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