Things we need:
Someone wrote the above text on a whiteboard in the Fort Des Moines Museum earlier this year. I’ve returned to it often, ever since a friend retweeted a photo of it, as a reminder of the inherent difficulty in critiquing small presses and literary magazines’ funding practices, especially in light of renewed interest in eliminating the government allocations for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (whose FY2018 allocations are still under congressional consideration).
Each time I revisit this tweet, I imagine being in the conference room for this theoretical planning meeting in Iowa, and I think of the similar scarcity-driven discussions I’ve participated in both as poet and editor, largely—in either role—as unpaid labor.
Things we need: money.
Whatever the reason we each write or publish poetry, it’s safe to say none of us make this art for its promise of riches—and nor should we. Despite this essay’s abundant economic wonk (you’ve been warned), I refuse to make a capitalist argument for poetry on behalf of poet, press, or journal. None of us should turn to profit as the sole engine driving our artistic and professional decisions. I wish to distinguish, early on, this commodifying argument from the claims regarding fair compensation and best financial practices in poetry publishing that follow below. Somewhere in the vast space between profit and solvency, a fraught practice in poetry publishing comes to the fore: the submission fee. Charging a fee in order to have one’s work read by a journal has become increasingly commonplace in our industry, and charging for book-length poetry contests and open reading periods has long been the norm for small independent and university presses. Today, a standard literary journal submission fee hovers around $3 to submit (usually) 3-6 poems, and a book-length submission costs a writer roughly around $25.
Considering the historical data on writing contests, it’s hard to imagine this changing anytime soon. According to a 2015 Poets & Writers article, the overall number of writing contests (across all genres) increased from 471 to 597 from 2004 to 2014; meanwhile, the number of fee-free writing contests decreased from 157 to 115 during that same time period. A similar trend emerges when looking at the cost and prize value of these contests: the average entry fee rose from $19.28 to $23.25 from 2004 to 2014, yet the total amount of prize money decreased from $5,736,104 to $5,366,618. (While the article doesn’t break down individual prize amounts, it’s worth noting that several very large prizes are likely included, making the overall pot available to fewer writers. For instance, there’s the Poetry Foundation’s career-recognizing $100,000 Ruth Lilly Prize, or the genre-spanning Pulitzer Prizes, each conferring $15,000.)
Who sponsors these prizes? The data (from the same article) notes that individual magazines represented 30.5 percent of the overall number of sponsoring organizations for contests in 2014, with presses close behind at 28 percent and government agencies at 3.5 percent. These percentages represent a shift towards more press and magazine contests and fewer government contests: the press and magazine share of the contest sponsorship pie has increased from 2004 to 2014 by 56 percent for magazines and 29 percent by presses, while 39 percent fewer government agencies sponsored contests over the same time period. This left us, in 2014, with 94 presses, 103 magazines, and 11 government agencies sponsoring writing contests. If government participation has lessened while fee-dependent contests have increased in number over the past decade, presses and magazines likely rely more heavily than they did 15 years ago on submission and contest fees to stay solvent; if we lose government funding for the arts, these same organizations may depend on fees even more.
In 2016, I began gathering data on submission fees in preparation for a 2017 AWP panel on “Money, Power, and Transparency in the Writing World.” Via survey, I collected anonymous responses regarding 105 full-length books—I encouraged poets to submit one survey response per book contract they’d signed. The survey included questions about submission fees, prize money, advances, royalties, and other publication-related questions. Respondents’ books were published as early as 2007 and are forthcoming as late as 2018, situating them generally in conversation with the above Poets & Writers data. I next collected responses from 15 poetry-publishing presses and 27 poetry-publishing literary magazines, also anonymously, regarding their use of submission fees in contests, open reading periods (presses), and slush-pile submissions (journals), as well as data about their funding sources and use of volunteer labor.
Here’s what I hoped to discover: How much are poets spending to get their full-length books published? How much do presses and journals depend on submission fees for funding, and what other sources of funding are primary for them? Is the submission-fee model equitable or sustainable for poets and for presses/journals—and if not, can we make it more equitable for either or both groups? What alternatives do we have to the submission fee, both as submitters and publishers?
I found that nearly all surveyed poets spent out-of-pocket money to publish their books, up to—in this survey—$3,000. Royalties and prize money recouped costs for some poets, but not all, and inconsistently. This means poets who financially depend on recovering their costs post-publication cannot dependably publish their books in this model (more on that below).
If the submission-fee model means only poets with a couple hundred (or thousand) discretionary dollars in their bank accounts can afford to publish their books, should presses and journals stop charging them? First, we must consider the degree to which—or whether—our presses and journals can operate without them. The data confirm the wide-ranging degree presses depend on fees to function: while book sales (good news!) still yielded the greatest funding share for surveyed presses, submission fees still comprised a sizable, integral portion—which means we need to consider what might replace them if we ban them as a practice.
In contrast, my findings for literary magazines found that journals have access to radically less institutional support and sales revenue, whether private or public, than do the surveyed presses, and many more editors pay out of pocket to run them. This troubles our ability to remove submission fees as a publishing practice for journals unless more people pay for magazines/subscriptions, or other funding sources emerge as sustainable.
(For a more detailed analysis of the data for all three groups, I’ve written up my findings here. It’s wonky, but important.)
If a sizable majority of poets must spend money to secure publication for their books (and, ever increasingly, to submit to journals), and it’s uncertain whether or not those costs will be recouped upon publication, is the submission-fee model equitable for poets? By equitable, I mean accessible across, here, class: can a poorer or working-class poet submit her manuscript as often as a wealthy or institutionally supported poet? The data is unequivocal: no. So long as we maintain poetry publishing’s status-quo reliance on the submission fee, this system will favor publishing poets with money—poets for whom it’s more of an inconvenience than an impossibility to lose money or break even on a book, or to recover fee costs slowly or unpredictably. And when considering a published collection’s role in accessing other markers of success, including financial success, in the poetry community—the ability for poets to apply for certain academic jobs, be eligible for certain prizes, or secure well-paying reading gigs—this inequality magnifies even further.
However, the data are equally decisive about the large-looming role of submission fees in keeping many journals and poetry presses solvent. As a result, it appears impossible to abolish the submission fee entirely without making other large-scale changes on poetry’s publishing side—especially for journals, which the data show truly represent poetry’s “labor of love” sector. This might be partially due to an overlap in labor roles: many of our poets are also editors, leaving small practical separation when denoting the out-of-pocket cost share of running a magazine. That said, we must also consider the power differential inherent between editors and poets. As editors retain, generally, full control over their publication’s submissions process while submitters retain nearly none, a definition of equity must also take into account that press and journal editors alike, even if paying out of pocket to run their organization, still hold more power than individual poets, including the power to rely to a potentially unreasonable degree on fees.
What might a responsible submission-fee practice look like? One approach could involve establishing an industry-wide fee ceiling for active members of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses: all member organizations might agree, for instance, not to exceed $15 for a book-length contest or open reading period. Perhaps this fee ceiling could incentivize an incremental shift between budget categories for a press, or encourage a move away from relying on contests and towards other book-procurement practices.
Another option for presses and journals: include a good or service with an assessed fee, like a book (presses) or giving editorial feedback, mailing a back issue, or allowing submitters to prorate their submission fee amount via a Tip Jar model (journals). This only somewhat mitigates the bigger problem of submission costs aggregating for a submitter who cannot afford them, but it does mean that “investment” in a press, for an emerging poet in particular, also comes with a crucial tool in their continued participation in the community if the press/journal cannot lower their fees—a poetry book, a magazine copy or subscription, notes from an editor—that may prove otherwise outside their reach.
For poets (or their non-poet friends, family, or even strangers) who can afford to sponsor others, the nomination model presents an outstanding option to assist poets in financial need and should be adopted more widely in poetry publishing to the benefit of both poets and presses. Exemplary practices like YesYes Books’s $12 nomination fee for their Pamet River Prize—a first or second-book prize for women or gender nonconforming writers for which a writer may nominate/pay for either themselves or another writer—and Sundress Publications’s $13 fee for their open reading period, which is waivable with a book purchase and/or coverable by a nominator—both demonstrate accessible, community-driven submissions practices. (Seriously, I see no downside here.)
The above suggestions tackle ways presses and journals can equitably approach submission fees while still charging them; another set of options arrives by decreasing a press or journal’s dependence on them altogether by increasing revenue elsewhere. The most obvious solution here is also, our community knows, the most challenging: give presses money by buying more books. Give journals money by subscribing or donating to them. Go to readings and pay authors cash for their books—give money, in other words, directly to poetry’s creators. We need more people to do this; attracting more people to do this is challenging. Here I praise the ongoing (and crucially, often unpaid) labor of poets who embrace the work of this connection-building: poets who recruit readers by reviewing books, running reading series, and beyond.
And of course, while it may often seem like only poets read poetry, buy books, or attend readings, that’s not true—and perhaps one of our responsibilities as poets is to nurture those future readers lying in wait for our work. To wit: I gave my poetry-lukewarm (but for her daughter, of course) mother a copy of Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler in 2014 as a present, and now—after conversations with me about how the book transformed her ideas about what poetry was and could do—her 12-person book club reads (and buys) at least one poetry book a year. Gifting poetry books, or recommending them when a poetry-wary friend asks what they should read next, might feel like small acts, but practicing them regularly will grow our audiences and—hopefully—loosen our industry’s grip on the submission fee an inch or two.
Lastly, we must continue to fight loudly and consistently for public funding on behalf of poet, journal, and press alike (Things we need: money). I have been rightfully exhorted to “call your senator!” about four hundred thousand times this year, and so have you—and here I am, your four-hundred-thousand-and-first requestor. Government funding at both the state and federal levels continues to dwindle both for the arts and for public universities. If we lose NEA funding—or university funding, or state arts funding—the financial state of American poetry becomes ever more precarious. And, especially in the Donald Trump era, this remains an evergreen risk: if we don’t lose these funding sources in 2018, we might in 2019, or 2020.
Why is public funding ideal for poetry? The NEA helps the artistic output of small and underfunded arts organizations, like our poetry presses and journals, to reach all corners of the United States, especially rural and/or high-poverty areas often bypassed or overlooked by private donors. It also funds individual poets directly, allowing them to reduce their labor in other fields to focus on their writing—that rarest of gifts—or to donate more of their time to poetry organizations without losing needed income elsewhere. It also means, inherently, a greater citizens’ investment in the arts, which, with the right advocacy (work done shiningly already by groups like POETS.org and Americans for the Arts), could help grow our audience even further. Were the NEA to receive continual increases in its allocation, as it did in its 2016 allocation, think of the ongoing, equitable stability this could grant our poets and poetry organizations. Think of how many more of the above-analyzed presses could expand their catalogues while simultaneously reducing their dependence on fees.
We must not get used to our public funding, however: we must request it often, and loudly. Here is a motivating exercise—especially for those of you, like me, who loathe making phone calls or writing letters or @-ing government officials directly. Pull a beloved poetry book from your shelf and check the front or back matter for an acknowledgment to either the NEA or a state/local-level arts organization. It may come from the press itself, or from the author in their acknowledgments page.
Found it? That means this book you love may not have existed without public funding. Read your most beloved poem in the collection first, and then pick up the phone, or a pen, and stand up for the arts that save us.
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