Zero says hello ...
[& - contrary to popular belief - our cat is named Zero because of the big white circular markings on her sides, not because we want to belittle her or give her an inferiority complex. Looks pretty hard done-by, doesn't she?]
I received an email the other day:
Im trying to get a hardbook copy of my poetry. As i dont know the process involved in creating a book and marketing it im wondering if you could help
Sent from the NZ Society of Authors - the New Zealand writers' website
It was a bit hard to know where to begin with the reply. And yet I can't even claim it's that unusual a question. Nobody ever seems to ask me "Where do you get your ideas from?" (I suspect that if they've read any of my books, they're a bit afraid of the answer). What they do ask me is: "How do I go about getting my book of poems published?"
I've just been reading a very interesting book called Reinventing Comics (2000), by that great pundit and prophet of the graphic novel form, Scott McCloud, and I must confess I was very struck by his answer to a similar question:
Go out and photocopy your comic a few times on a double-sided xerox machine, then sell it to a friend for a buck ...
Sounds a bit frivolous, doesn't it? But there's something in it, all the same.
The traditional hierarchy of poetry publishing runs more or less as follows:
- self-publishing: the "my-basement" press (or whatever name you choose to call it)
- vanity publishing: that plausible sounding gentleman in the High Street who offers to put out your book for you, handle all the editing, proofing etc. for a (substantial) fee
- small press publishing: that group of close friends / enthusiasts who've set out to reform the world of letters single-handed
- scholarly or specialist press publishing: nice-looking books, often, but priced quite high and not very widely available
- commercial publishing: generally only accessible to the stars in the genre: Simon Armitage, Billy Collins, Derek Walcott, etc.
This hierarchy is, it should be said straight away, completely out-of-date in the digital age, but it still governs a lot of the audience reaction to particular poetry books. Readers are a conservative bunch, and poetry-readers are even more conservative than most. It takes quite a lot to jolt them out of reliance on this particular paradigm.
Now, at this point, if you're really serious about wanting to produce a book of poems, you should ask yourself a series of questions (the answers are for you, not for public consumption, so there's no point in being anything but rigorously honest):
- Have you ever had any of your poetry published?
- If so, where?
- How many poems?
- Have you done any live readings or performances of your work?
- Do you have any fans or people who've expressed an interest in your work?
- Do you have any friends or family members interested in your poetry (or prepared to pretend to be for the sake of peace)?
- Do you have any money, or access to any through friends, fans, family etc.?
- How much of it do you feel like spending on this project?
- Or is it rather that you want to make money out of it?
If you've never published any poems anywhere (except in the school magazine), you don't have any following based on live performance, you don't have any money or any sympathetic rich friends or relatives, my own advice would be to hold off on publishing a book until you've addressed a few of those preliminary steps. Don't give up on the idea - simply postpone it a little.
If, however, you're already some way down the poetry highway, and are beginning to feel that there's enough interest in your work to justify a book (or you'd simply like to get it all in order by gathering and selecting the best pieces for a volume), then a different set of possibilities begins to appear.
The facts of life
- A printer will charge you far less to produce a book than any of the publishers-on-demand traditionally referred to as vanity presses. If you already have the editing and layout skills needed to produce a long document, it makes a lot of economic sense to eliminate the middleman.
- If, however, you're doubtful about the quality of your work, and would like a second opinion from a professional, be warned that editors and manuscript-assessors make their living from the job, and accordingly tend to charge high rates. Don't go down this route unless you're very clear on:
- exactly how it will benefit you
- just how much it's likely to cost
- Do you need an agent? In some countries, yes. In New Zealand, certainly not - that is, if your only aspiration is to succeed as a poet. Agents here are largely a waste of time unless you expect to attract substantial overseas sales. Even then, how much does your particular agent really know about (say) the Frankfurt book fair or copyright law in Venezuela?
Let form fit function.
If all you want is a sumptuous giftbook edition of your poems to hand out to friends and family at Christmas, then talk to a specialised printer such as John Denny of Puriri Press. Ask him to show you samples of his work - collaborate with him on the design.
If, on the other hand, your main objective is to break into the poetry world, remember that it's one thing to make a book, quite another to distribute it. It's very difficult to get a book into shops unless you go from door to door yourself. Even then you'll get a lot more "no's" than you will "yes's." And very few shops are prepared to deal with individual operators on anything but a sale-or-return basis.
Once your book's in the shop, chances are you'll never see any profit from it. Either it'll be returned to you shopsoiled in eighteen months time, or you'll end up forgetting just how many shops you left it in (one prominent bookshop in Christchurch which will remain nameless simply chose to ignore all my requests for the - extremely trifling - money due me from sales. They knew I didn't live there, so they just threw my letters in the garbage. Way to support local culture, guys! You know who you are ...)
Print no more copies than you need.
You do not want to prop up your basement with unsold boxes of your book for the next twenty years. Be warned. Very few books of poetry in New Zealand sell more than a hundred copies - and that includes titles from the alleged high-end publishers.
Unit cost goes down as you produce more copies, but what use is that if you can't sell or distribute them? Some printers will try to persuade you to produce thousands of copies of your book. They will never sell. Modern digital printing makes it easy to produce runs of 20-50 copies at a time at no great cost. Better to stick to 50-100 copies initially and build up by increments than take a punt on the possibilities.
Be realistic. How many friends, family, fans do you really have? Will they be supportive, or just treat it as a joke / aberration on your part? People can be surprisingly cruel at the expense of their friend's artistic ambitions - generally (one suspects) as a result of jealousy / embarrassment / tall-poppy syndrome or a combination of the above.
The world, as we all know, rests on the back of a giant elephant (as Zero the cat is so elegantly demonstrating for us in the picture above). Works of literature rest similarly on the back of a huge amount of calculation and forethought, both artistic and commercial. It's no accident when they arrive in your local bookshop just in time for you to buy them.
Traditional commercial publishers sell books through various types of advertising, which creates (hopefully) popular demand, which is met by their network of national and international distribution.
This is difficult for smaller operators (you or your friends' or your publisher-on-demand's recently founded imprint) to match. So far as I'm aware, there are no NZ firms which currently distribute small-press titles nationwide. The last one that did charged well over fifty percent of the unit price for the privilege, and even then it went out of business!
There's a new player in the game, though, which should embolden us all. The internet. If you have your own website or access to someone else's, you can advertise and sell your book over the net to anyone who wants it, worldwide. Access to all this is just one mail-order package away!
There are even, now, sites such as Lulu.com which will advertise and sell your book on a print-on-demand basis if you supply them with print-ready files.
Always remember, when people scoff at "self-published books" or "vanity publications," that both George Bernard Shaw and Fyodor Dostoyevsky published their own books from mid-career onwards. Neither of them started off that way, but, in both cases, that's how they became rich - by taking all the profit from booksales themselves and not divvying it up with publishers. Robert Browning, too, spent the first twenty years of his career publishing his own books (with his father's money). No publisher was interested in work that was just so downright odd.
How many authors drive expensive cars? Precious few. No NZ poets that I know of. How many publishers drive nice cars? All of them except the small press ones, so far as I can see. That should tell you that the ten percent royalty they'll offer you isn't quite such a good bargain as it might seem at the time.
Who is it who goes on loudest and longest about the "stigma" of self-publishing? Funnily enough, it tends mostly to be publishers or their lackeys. (What class of people are the first and loudest in denouncing "escapism"? Jailers, as C. S. Lewis once observed).
Poetry is not really a mass medium (though it may have been one once, in the days of Homer or Shakespeare). Rather than lamenting the fact, let's acknowledge it, and even see it as a strength.
If even the heavyweights in the field of local poetry (especially the page-bound Academic variety) are lucky to exceed more than a couple of hundred sales, then you don't have to be that much of an entrepreneur to match them through your own efforts. You can give readings, set up your own website, go on the radio ... If people like what you're doing, they'll respond just as readily to work you're spreading through your own efforts as work that's been "officially" sanctioned by a university press.
If they don't like it (and it took readers a long time to crank around to liking Robert Browning or Ezra Pound - another inveterate self-publisher), well, then, having the name of a fancy publisher on the back of your bookspine won't help all that much.
And having your publisher gobble up all the profit gets to be less and less amusing as the years go by. Try reading that contract you signed with such eager glee long ago when someone offered to publish your first book and you may be quite surprised to see how much you signed away. What do you actually own of your own work?
The main thing, I think, is to be bold. Make wild experiments. Please yourself with the way you format your text. Nobody ever went to see a movie because they heard it came in under budget, as Billy Wilder once remarked. Sir Walter Scott said it a different way: "There's only one unforgiveable crime in an author: to be dull."
So, to recap:
- If you self-publish, do it with pride - but be very careful to limit the number of copies and make sure that it's a good-looking, well-edited and carefully-proofread book.
- If you're a mad revolutionary in the field of poetry, try and find some likeminded souls: there may already be a small press out there dedicated to the same principles (this happened to me when I sent a copy of my first novel Nights with Giordano Bruno to the late lamented Alan Brunton's Bumper Books).
- If you want the assured distribution and prestige of a traditional publisher, make sure you read the contract carefully before you sign it. Different publishers make very different demands. If your poetry book becomes a blockbuster movie, it won't be much fun to see that you've already ceded all the rights.
- Above all, don't listen to nay-sayers and professional wet blankets. By the same token, though, a book can have a very long shelf-life - so a few months or even years spent editing and perfecting it will not be wasted. You don't want to pick it up in ten years time and blush with shame and chagrin. None of us is on the clock. Spend some time to get it right.