Friday, January 17, 2014

Of Chapbooks and Cheapasses

I try to be careful regarding advice in the professional poetry world because I'm aware I can often sound a lot like Ian McKellan in Extras:

That being said: A fascinating but contentious topic popped up recently regarding publishers who won't print your chapbooks unless a certain pre-sale figure is met. The end result is that chapbook (typically under 40 pages, compared to a 'full-length' manuscript of 60 to 100+ pages) is foisted upon the reading public for almost $15 a copy. This isn't a deal I'd take, personally, but others clearly figured out a way to make it work for them.

I get to spout off on this matter with a great deal more liberty than most poets because I don't have to play nice-nice with any houses or departments, worrying about tenure, awards, teaching gigs or contracts. So, I'll call it like I see it.

I think it's an outrageous price compared to what the going rate for full-length books of poetry are. My current book DEMONSTRA at nearly 120 pages goes for $10 plus shipping and handling. I'm a poet, and I think anyone asking for $15 for their full-length collection of verse is pushing it, especially in this economy. Now, $15 for a chapbook?

Still, the operating rule for writers is always: "What works, works."

I personally like the process of making books in all forms. Chapbooks, full-lengths, broadsheets. Sometimes I like other people doing it, other times I love doing it myself. Sometimes I like doing it as an e-book, other times, I like the handwritten, hand-bound approach.

I think you're missing out on the full literary experience in life if you're really being dogmatic about it: "If it's not published because my agent sold it to a New York Press, I don't consider it a real book of mine..." Shoot. Now, If someone gives you a shot at getting published big time, go for it. If you get some copies into the hands of someone who loves it because you bumped into them on the street corner, remember: That's poetry too.

It's hard for me to imagine what it's like to be a poet who's never hand-assembled one of their own books to get it out there in the world. How could you not want that sense of satisfaction, knowing you've been involved in every step of the process for at least one of your books. If they love it or hate it, it's all on YOU.

But, back to the business of being "successful" as a poet.  Much like I counsel regarding politics and football games: Never confuse victory with effective strategy. And god knows, poetry publishing and 'success' is a lot more labyrinthine than most other forms of the literary arts. Seriously:

Certainly the publishing approach I described above for overpriced chapbooks is nowhere near as extreme as that incident where Dali said "If people want to pay good money for bad copies of my art, they deserve each other." But it raises some good questions.

I think we've lost sight of the fact that the whole point of using a publisher was that they believed in your book enough to take the financial risk on it. That gave them the incentive to make sure they worked with you so your book sold and made EVERYONE money. Nowadays, a lot of poetry publishing feels like "pity party charity." I say that's such a bullshit defeatist attitude.

"Nobody really reads poetry, so we're just doing it for the tax write-off, or because we're crazy, or both," seems to be the implicit mindset. I often wonder if the ancient Greeks had to deal with this kind of crisis. "Sorry, Homer, no one really wants to listen to your Odyssey, let alone pay for it, but we're going to let you prattle on because you're a cool guy."

But back on topic: This whole conversation came up because would-be writers for this publisher are expected to pre-sell close to 50 copies, or about 1 copy per state. It's such an underwhelming, borderline insulting requirement I wonder why you'd bother with it at all. "I don't think you even have 50 friends, dude. But if you can get them to buy it, I'll make some for them."

Thanks for the favor, pal. Granted, this must be hell on introverts, hermits and other forms of the reclusive, who DO write an inordinate amount of poetry they want read for not wanting to be around people a lot.

It IS quite the artistic gauntlet thrown down at you to find one person per state who will pay close to 50 cents a page for your words. That DOES sound incredibly validating. Especially when they could get a full-length book of yours for the same price.  If you're going to make me jump through a hoop as a precondition to you believing in my poetry enough to print some copies, let's make it a fun challenge, no? Let's make it 400, at least, which many say is the true minimum threshold for a 'real' book and not merely, I guess, some 'book-shaped object.'

My advice to the poet who was seriously considering taking the contract with the publisher was to ask if he'd feel comfortable suggesting this become the PREFERRED method of getting your work out there in the world to his young students.

In a crazy, mixed-up world, if you take part in that kind of a publishing model and validate it, can you explain why you'd prefer that over other methods of getting your book printed? If you can do that with a straight face, then hey, go for it. But to me, this is a big, big world with many, many routes. Some come along only once in a lifetime, others have endured for a reason. Just be conscientious about it. Or, barring that, at least interesting.

Across the board in the poetry field, the general consensus is no one wastes money on marketers, and barely editors to sell your book of poetry. It doesn't matter if you're at Random Penguins or Skanky Canyon Press being run out of Uncle Jebediah's garage. So here's my real talk: No one moves your book of poetry except YOU. You want your book to do well, be prepared to encourage people to buy it. You're your own best marketer.

But here: Sidle over to the awesome Barbara Jane Reyes for her take and thoughts for pin@y poets. I think there's a lot that applies for Lao and other poets as well.

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