Self-publishing has long been synonymous with vanity publishing of books that can’t pass commercial or literary muster. Most established authors recoil from going that route, though many will also have an unpublished, but cherished, manuscript on their hard drive or in a drawer. While it may never completely shake its historic stigma, self-publishing has become increasingly attractive, pervasive and successful in the present era. In 2008 more than 566,000 new books saw print; more than half, 285,000, were self-published, or available on demand. That year also saw declines in the numbers of poetry and fiction volumes published, as trade and university presses have become more reluctant to issue books whose sales prospects look marginal. Though it afflicts most genres, the reluctance poetry encounters is perhaps the most severe.
I tried in 2008 to get a new poetry manuscript published. Wesleyan University Press, Gehenna Press, Oxford University Press, Illinois University Press, Azul Editions, and University of Massachusetts Press had published my previous ten books. Given that history, and a respectable sales and recognition record, I hoped I would eventually find a publisher willing to take me on. But as I queried the traditionally poetry-friendly houses, it became clear that only a few, such as Chicago, Pittsburg, Farrar Strauss and Giroux, Norton, and Penguin, still supported significant numbers of established and emerging poets, and these have become extremely selective when adding newcomers.
Contests and boutique publishers have accordingly sprung up to fill an obvious need. But many “winners” launched from such contests and literary start-ups generate little enthusiasm, few reviews, and miniscule sales. I’ve come to wonder if there was a problem in the way contests were conducted and judged, especially after I blew several hundred dollars on entry fees and postage over this past year. A trip to the post office during those months reaped a succession of ominous envelopes addressed to me in my handwriting but with no return address.
Curiously, the consolation letters sent to unsuccessful entrants usually boast that the judges found dozens if not hundreds of splendid manuscripts that, alas, through no fault of their own, didn’t make it into print. There may be some self-congratulation (or delusion) involved here on the part of the contest organizers, but their rejection letters uniformly assure us losers how difficult it was to choose among so many stellar entries. If so, I thought, shouldn’t every winning book of poems be at least interesting, even if not outright terrific? Surely judges could find something entertaining or arresting or otherwise worthy in that glittering pile. But visits to bookstores made me doubt that contests were choosing and promoting the best manuscripts crossing their thresholds.
Virtually all publication contests are enabled by a compulsory subvention provided by the writers entering manuscripts. But the practice, for publishers, of securing subventions is more widespread than is generally known. Many university presses now ask their authors (many of whom are professors, or non-profit, or think-tank scholars) to arrange subventions from their home institutions to defray publishing costs of academic or literary works that otherwise wouldn’t be published. And most institutions are amenable, since refereed publication by an academic press is an expected part of their scholars’ job description. Books so published still must survive a rigorous refereed evaluation process. But authors’ subventions are now a fact of academic publishing. And even commercial publishers expect their authors to spend time and effort marketing their books on tour and by giving readings. Many publishers these days must ask authors to help assume financial risks they once could afford to assume alone.
Today's poetry book publication contests follow a standard protocol: The entrant pays a fee, usually about $25, and submits a manuscript restricted to a set number of pages, rarely more than eighty. Many contests are open only to poets yet to publish a first book. These contests kill many birds with a fusillade of modestly priced stones. Since all contests receive hundreds of entries, the fees they generate go a long way toward paying the publishing costs of the winners, prizes of one, two, or several thousand dollars, and the judges’ and screeners’ stipends. The latter are usually MFA faculty and degree candidates and judge the entries according to their own often surrealocentric lights. One judge’s standard of excellence and/or reasons for excluding an entry might seem to a critic from a different (or older) persuasion evidence of aesthetic prejudice or cronyism. Or simply ignorance of what poetry once was and can still be: musical, intelligible, moving, and exhilarating.
But suppose one thinks my suspicion of the national MFA esthetic is retrograde and that judges actually choose the best manuscripts available. If so, shouldn’t the efficiency of this fiercely competitive process be reflected by the poetry-buying public’s approval of its results? Isn’t the best poetry available launched by such contests? It’s not clear that this is actually the case. My own reaction to new books of poems (shared with the poetry buying public, to judge by anemic sales of contest winners) is that while it identifies many spectacular talents, way too much mediocre and downright awful poetry receives the imprimatur of the pay-to-play contests. If so, why should this be case?
The now defunct but highly effective website, Foetry.com, presented a few years ago appalling evidence that many judges awarded publication and cash within their gift to former students, current lovers, or close friends and colleagues. Not only were the chances of winning a contest highly dependent on the judges sharing an entrant’s aesthetic allegiance, but particular contests were fixed within a buddy system––which still remains up and running in many respects. At least the reaction to Foetry’s revelations has been the adoption by most respectable presses and contests of strong and uniform anti-nepotism guidelines.
Given these disclosures and the slim chance of winning a contest, why shouldn’t authors of all abilities and literary genres cut to the chase, avoid what is patently a scam, and put their own money behind their imaginative products?
Such were my musings after I realized that entering contests was no better than serial purchasing of long-odds lottery tickets. The solution came into focus: Stop buying tickets; save the money; award myself a publication prize. I checked out a few self-publishing companies (there are now quite a few, AuthorHouse, BookSurge, and Lulu, for instance) and eventually chose iUniverse to put into print and promote HORSEGOD: Collected Poems, my eleventh book. Frustration inspired my choice; enlightenment and (so far) satisfaction have rewarded it.
I chose iUniverse because it seemed to offer much the same services as traditional presses do these days, together with some unique advantages, such as close collaboration, consultation and ultimate control. I found that in important respects iUniverse was comparable or superior to houses that had published my earlier books. Its evaluation of my original manuscript was sophisticated, demanding, and at least as useful as any editorial feedback I'd received. This figures, because most of iUniverse’s editorial staff, like other self-publishing houses, has prior experience with commercial and university presses. The design team’s work has also been expert, and I've been allowed to make the final calls in every respect. Like conventional presses, iUniverse rejects some manuscripts, discriminates among those it accepts, and promotes those it judges especially interesting or commercially marketable. It seems likely that the thriving self-publishing industry will adopt business models akin to those iUniverse is using.
One sacrifice a self-publisher makes is to forgo having one's book reviewed. Some decades ago this would have been an even larger sacrifice. Throughout most of the 20th century the New York Times and other major newspapers and literary magazines reviewed likely books of poetry. Not anymore. Poetry is so rarely or grudgingly reviewed these days (the results often read like obituaries) that several recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize were never reviewed by the Times until after their victories. There is no longer a guild of senior critics (with the exception of the indefatigable William Pritchard) interested in and willing to scout out and even-handedly report back on new work. At the 2009 West Chester New Formalism Poetry Conference I met an editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review website. His BMW’s trunk was crammed full of books by poets for whom he forlornly hoped to find reviewers at the conference.
If I'm right in thinking that the current contest system often overlooks excellence uncongenial to its overseers, then it makes sense for poets, new or seasoned, to put money on themselves and opt out of the contest world by self-publishing. Their books’ quality and interest will then be judged by a more receptive bloc of readers than the same manuscripts would be evaluated by rivalrous MaFiA families. That audience would begin with a poet's own family, known admirers, and a Rolodex but may now be extended through a website––www.mybestshot.com––and other Internet-opened opportunities.
Self-published nonfiction and fiction writers have recently scored some impressive successes. iUniverse authors, as well as those from other self-publishing companies, have seen their books generate first word-of-mouth then bookseller acceptance, strong sales, and even six-figure advances when taken over by trade publishers; at least one has achieved single-digit rank on the New York Times bestseller list.
There’s no reason why self-published poets shouldn't earn analogous success. For the time being most annual recognizers of literary excellence––the National Book Awards, for instance––will not consider books their authors paid to publish (unless its author owns the self-publishing operation!). But the day is bound to come when on demand books, which otherwise would never see the light in any readers eyes, will be routinely judged by the destinations they achieve and not their provenance. Both the Pulitzers and the National Book Critics Circle awards now allow self-published books to compete. Like many other once-slanted playing fields in American life, here’s one more that will eventually be leveled: open-mindedness to an author backing his or her literary ambition once was routine in America. Think––and thank––Walt Whitman, whose first book, Song of Myself, was self-published as well as self-celebratory.