Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Poetry Publishing Degree Zero

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:

Hi Jack,

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This hierarchy is, it should be said straight away, completely out-of-date in the digital age, but it still governs a lot of the audience reaction to particular poetry books.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):

  1. Have you ever had any of your poetry published?

  2. If so, where?

  3. How many poems?

  4. Have you done any live readings or performances of your work?

  5. Do you have any fans or people who've expressed an interest in your work?

  6. Do you have any friends or family members interested in your poetry (or prepared to pretend to be for the sake of peace)?

  7. Do you have any money, or access to any through friends, fans, family etc.?

  8. How much of it do you feel like spending on this project?

  9. 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
    Have you actually seen any work that's been edited by the professional you're proposing to employ? Was it published as a result of this work? Does their recommendation really hold any weight with publishers?

  • 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 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.

Comments, anyone?


Giovanni Tiso said...

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.

This offends my sense of justice. Should it ever happen to you in Wellington, let me know and I'll drop by. I do a plausible Italian accent and can crack my knuckles very loudly and menacingly.

Richard said...

See! The cat doesn't even care - he or she just lives! On top of an Elephant!

I love cats.

Publishing - I personally don't really care (perhaps I should a bit more) - but I used to get questions like that all the time - particularly people who believed they could make money out of poetry !! Or even literature...and the haven't even ever submitted to magazine!!

It does happen - but is it worth the bother? It may be - but it has to be an act one loves doing...not done for money or "glory" (wonderful as those things are to dream of - the dream never quite fits reality - but we all dream - I mainly have day dreams of winning the lotto ... the fantasy is always better than its realisation (I cant comment on the lotto winning experience however!) - with some wonderful serendipitous exceptions!) (Hope springs eternal...

Browning - great poet - Virginia Woolf, Pound, W C Williams, Jack Ross, Leicester Kyle, me, many others, self published.

During his life, Shakespeare was only published and known (and rather derided for them by the young Oxford wits - but his plays were known in London), with some sonnets and other minor works, in a pretty second rate long poem written to Royalty etc Dickinson never really published... Joyce and Stein made sure they evaded that predicament...

Martin Edmonds is widely published but still drives a a taxi [this shouldn't be for someone of his great talents] in the sad grimy and dark Ross-world of the sordid Carterian labyrinths of Sydney or is it Melbourne...?

Murray is also - but he works at the Uni... Smithyman - years teaching etc

Billy Collins... I have just read some of his work...dubious...seems a nice fellow... some quality...readable...but ...well...rather ho hum... so many second rate poets sell so well!! But Collins works at a University...

And some good ones sell well - just reading some poems by May Swenson - now she was good - and HD (knew Pound of course) ... of Helen in Egypt.

The net has great potential indeed...

The other reason for a family for backing (or not) you (one) is that - often stupidly - a lot of family blindly encourage their sons or whoever. They feel a "duty". Most of my family are either not interested in the fact or are not very interested! That I write or scrawl things ... thank goodness! They have their own lives!

My mother heard me read on the radio once and was impressed: but all in all didn't like poetry ... much (but she did like as do I the great Ed Lear's stuff!) ... my brother - with some justification thinks poets and artists (and me in particular!) are/am mad and so on... doesn't know I have written any books I think ( and he wouldn't be very interested... it's not his game)

Fans I have had but a number of them are going mad or have faded away like old soldiers or are dying or have died!!

The greatest way for me to publish was to read to a live audience.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Giovanni -- so pleased you picked up on that detail. It did rather shock me at the time. I'd do the "name and shame" thing if I thought it worth the trouble -- funnily enough, the shop in question has been sending me breezy updates on their life & wares ever since as I seem to have inadvertently got on their group email list ... They appear to host regular poetry readings, among other things.

I'm similarly willing to put on my best Glasgow accent and do my wee hard man impression in Auckland if you should ever require it.

Dr Jack Ross said...

& Richard:

Deep inside Jack's apparently flinty heart and head and his near-Imperious and haughty and sometimes seemingly supercilious mannerisms and muttering manners (a front for his deep shyness and sensitivity and sense of ambiguity and profundity and indeed tragedy); nay, & yea, e'en his sense aesthetic and ethical "rightness"; there lurks a trembling tenderness that surfaces despite this deep sensibility and "wrestling conscience" being at war with his vast and sometimes too cold and almost android or neo-Spockian intellect...

What's all this about my "almost android and neo-Spockian intellect"? I hope it's not the Baby and Child Care man you mean, Dr Spock. I think I'd rather be Leonard Nimoy, on balance (though his poetry books came as a bit of a shock) ...

Yeah, I take your point about the wisdom of putting out poetry books in the first place. It does seem a fairly innocuous activity, though, & I have been asked these questions quite a lot (as have you, it seems). I had to see people skinned by unscrupulous publish-on-demanders, though. What I resent most of all though is seeing good poets contort their work to go through the hoops of some boneheaded publisher's reader's arbitrary set of taste criteria. The dream of reading what Elizabeth Caffin considers poetry forever ...

by kd said...

What's this squeamishness? Name and shame! Name and shame!

Dr Jack Ross said...

This is the email which I never received a reply to, despite repeated attempts by letter etc.

It can't have been anything to do with coinciding with the end of the financial year, either, as the reading was at Easter ...

-----Original Message-----
From: Jack Ross
Sent: Saturday, 14 June 2003 3:59 p.m.
To: madrascafebooks emails
Subject: Sugu Pillay Invoice

Dear David,

Immense apologies for having delayed so long sending this invoice for the books I left with you at Easter, after the poetry reading. I think this is what we agreed on at that time:


Sugu Pillay, The Chandrasekhar Limit and other stories
ISBN 0-473-08731-6
quantity: 2 @ trade discount: $24 [RRP $29]
= $48

· cheques should be made payable to
The Writers Group (non-profit organisation: not GST registered)


Jack Ross, Chantal's Book
ISBN 0473-08744-8
quantity: 3 @ trade discount: $15 [RRP $19.95]
= $45

· cheques should be made payable to
Jack Ross

Thanks again, jack

Is that "named and shamed" enough?

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'll bring the pitchforks and the torches. Somebody bring a mob.

Dr Jack Ross said...

The normal arrangement there was that one left books with the bookshop owner to be sold before, during and after each poetry reading.

I could see that he thought I was asking for too much of a mark-up on the copies of my book, but each one had already cost me $12. I thought getting $15 each for them would be okay, given that he was selling them for $19.95, and given all he had to do was stand there and hand them over.

The same went for the Sugu Pillay books, though there the profit went directly to brief magazine, which had paid a good deal to print them in the first place (the text-design by Janet Hunt in itself was far from cheap ...)

In subsequent letters I asked him - if that was how he felt - simply to refund a more normal 2/3 of the retail price, which would have left me with no profit at all on the sales, but since there was never any reply of any kind, I couldn't tell just what aspect of the deal had got on his tits ... In any case, if you agree to a deal you're kind of bound to go through with it, however unreasonable you feel it to be subsequently, aren't you?

If he didn't want to sell the books on that basis, he shouldn't have pocketed the $60 people paid for Chantal and the $60 they planked down for Sugu's book.

The whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth and an abiding distrust for "sale or return" deals ...

Giovanni Tiso said...

You paint a bleak picture, I must say. Except, especially since we've established that there is no money to be made in the business, you could take the Scott McLoud quote and look at the problem a different way: what are the ways of getting your poetry out there, of making it popular? And surely that would suggest that the hierarchy that puts the hardcopy at the top must be turned on its head, for even if that's the medium best suited to reach the conservative, small audience you describe, that's a pretty low and hard ceiling.

It wasn't always so, we know that. If I try to come up with the most renown literary figures of Italy between, say, 1850 and 1950, the overwhelming majority of them are poets. And while I'm not positive that it was the case across the board, they were popular and widely read and highly relevant in their lifetimes. It was a culture where poetry circulated more easily, for whatever reason. Now I think maybe we're heading that way again, chiefly in that the Web has the potential of being a great tool for poets. While a screen is not the best medium where to read a novel, or even an essay of some substance, it's brilliant for poetry - even the critics who lament how it reduces our attention spans would agree with that. So I'd be interested in what you think might be the best mix at this moment in time, between electronic self-publishing, performance, inclusion in journals/magazines, collaboration with other poets/artists, and yes, traditional printed collections to be sold in shops at a probable loss. And also, if you're as optimistic about a rise in the popular fortunes of poetry and poets as the subetxt of your bloglife makes me suspect.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, absolutely, Giovanni - the admitted dearth of opportunities through traditional publishing is not meant to signal any pessimism on my part about poetry's potentiality to reach a new audience - online journals are constantly increasing in quality, individual artist sites are now virtually a requirement for anyone serious about getting across to a wider audience, and collaborations with electronic media artists also an intriguing possibility still in its infancy.

Even in the age of so-called Academic, anti-populist poetry in English, writers such as Auden,
Eliot, Pound - even that sad drunk Dylan Thomas (or, moving forward a bit, John Ashbery and Seamus Heaney - have had a massive influence on our culture. With lowered attention spans and a point-&-click attitude, poetry does seem uniquely qualified to be the art of the new millennium.

"It's poetry, Jim, but not as we know it" - just as popular music evolved from printed sheetmusic to recorded performances, I suspect the accustomed forms of poetry may have to morph and change to keep up with these new digital media, though.

by kd said...

This is a very useful post by the way.

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 .

We have four such boxes in our wardrobe. I idiotically bought 50 copies of my NZ published book in the fond hope that I would be able to distribute them in Canada. Ha ha ha ha!

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yep, I too have had such rushes of blood to the head, and have a well-stocked cupboard at home.

They can make rather nice Xmas presents at times, though, when you have a lot of relatives coming & you can't afford to go round the shops. They end up sounding like the villains when they loudly and vociferously complain, too! After all, "a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit" and this one just happens to be a relative of yours!

Alan Brunton once told me, "They all go in the end" - it's just that that end can be quite a few years away. So I wouldn't worry too much about it.

Martin Edmond said...

Jack, Alan also once said, in an interview, that all publishing in NZ is vanity publishing. Hmmnnn ...

Dr Jack Ross said...

That's a leetle cynical, Martin ... After all, if your vanity prompts you to go directly to the printer yourself, you sometimes get something that vaguely approximates to what you had in mind. That's pretty much guaranteed not to happen through more conventional publishing channels ...

Skyler said...

Interesting post and comments. Thanks for this - it's witty and useful. It's a frustrating industry - many worthwhile books to publish and some good writers/poets BUT no appreciation and/or money!

Zero AKA Nui looks very debonnaire - if such a thing can be said about a cat (and a female (?) one at that!).

Tim Jones said...

You inflicted brain damage on the nail, Jack: distribution is the key. My advice, from the modest vantage point of four conventionally published books, is to get to know public librarians, school librarians, and English teachers - not only are they almost invariably pleasant and interesting people, but between them, they influence the destinies of a lot of books.

My fantasy novel is only available as an e-book or by print-on-demand (POD). The POD production quality is superb, but distribution is a problem here too. the big advantage is that you never got stuck with boxes full of books if you use POD.

Helen Rickerby said...

Thanks for your really interesting post about something very dear to my heart. It's good for wannabe poets to know that their chances of making more than small change out out poetry are infinitesimal, but that the chances of getting a lot out of being a poet are enormous.

From my forays from both side of the fence (small-press publisher and author), I've decided that once you have a book, whatever means you got it (self-publishing, small press, university press), as the writer you're the best person to get it out there, and get it known. (Though as a publisher, I'll still give publicity a good bash.)

Being involved in a poetry community (or communities) - real/online/both - helps immensely, having friends and family who are sympathetic to your strange hobby/vocation helps. But one other thing I've learned lately is that the more books I give away, the more books I sell. I used to think it was kind of wrong to give away copies of my books, but when Trans-Tasman poet Jennifer Compton was in NZ she said her new book would be out soon after she got back, and she would just give them away to lots of people, because no one much buys poetry and she just wanted people to read it. I thought about that a lot, and realised I just want people to read and enjoy the poetry I write, and the poetry I publish, and if I can build community with someone by giving them a book, I'll do it.

BTW - cute cat.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Good point, I think, Helen. Yes, we tend to feel instinctively that giving a book away somehow diminishes its value, but in this context, and as a way of netting the insightful readers one really wants, I'm not sure it actually does ... It's an investment on another level.

I'll pass on your compliment to Zero, who's snoozing on the bed right now ...

sacha said...

I didn't realise you were so published! I feel out of my depth and presumptuous to have asked to read your best work. Anything will do. I'm not much of a blogger. Does it show? I love cats too. though I never knew it till we got a family cat.