The cost of doing po-business

by Rebecca Lehmann on July 18, 2011

Schrooge McDuck has enough money to pay poetry contest reading fees, but many young poets do not.

Anyone in the United States who has tried to publish a first book of poetry has run into the bind of the contest reading system. One of the only ways to publish a first book (and increasingly, a second or even third book) is to enter it into one of a rapidly proliferating number of contests, all of which charge “reading fees.” These fees, which can range in cost from $10-$30, are in theory supposed to cover costs on the presses’ ends for paying readers, printing, sorting, filing, etc.

For a writer in the early stages of her career, they can really rack up. I had been sending my manuscript out to contests for three years before it won a prize (and publication), and was probably averaging five contests a month. I’ve never done the math to figure out how much I spent on reading fees in total, and I don’t want to now. It’s a figure I’d rather not spend too much time thinking about.

Many people complain about these fees. They’re expensive, and writers who don’t have books yet are often the least able to afford them. In my case, it took getting a book to get an academic job that will pay enough for me to spend upwards of a hundred dollars a month on “reading fees.” Now that the book is under contract, however, I don’t need to spend money on fees anymore.

On the other side of the reading fee business equation are the presses who charge them. However, the contests don’t necessarily seem to be a winning proposition for them either. I’ve heard several editors say that the fees they collect barely cover the costs of doing contest business. One editor I heard speak recently said that the process of running a contest was so  labor intensive that even with the money from reading fees his press decided to stop running them.

It seems to me that the world of poetry would be a better place if contests stopped existing and presses simply selected manuscripts that they thought were worthy of publication. I’d hazard to guess that many poets and editors out there agree with me. The cost of these contests keeps talented but broke poets from sending their work out, and the zero-sum, winner-take-all model of publication seems reductive, and puts in place a system that sometimes rewards the fashionable over the innovative. Having said that, I’m not sure how the business of poetry can escape the contest model now that it’s so firmly entrenched. How do you go back from a broken system if it functions just well enough to maintain forward momentum (in this case, just well enough to keep books coming out, and to keep would-be authors strung along on the hope that their book will get taken if they write just one more check)?

Tasha Cotter July 18, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Great post, Rebecca. This very topic has been on my mind since I ran across Anis Shivani’s post “Poetry Book Contests Should Be Abolished” in June in The Huffington Post. The contest model does seem to be really entrenched in our culture, and yeah, lots of poets can’t afford to be writing $25 or $30 checks each month when so many of these contests receive 5-600 entries. Because I don’t yet have my collection placed with a publisher, I’ve been looking more closely at first book competitions, which I think improve my odds. For me, that’s a step in the right direction. It’s worth mentioning that there are some small contests solely for second or third books of poetry, too. Also, if you check out that Anis Shivani article, the comments section gets pretty interesting–I found several lovely little presses that DON’T CHARGE reading fees–that simply ask to see a sample of your work and if they like what they read, request more, and then potentially publish. The good news is that I think these small presses are starting to get the recognition they deserve.

Rebecca Lehmann July 19, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Yes, it’s good to look into presses that don’t charge, or also into presses that run open reading periods as opposed to contests. Sometimes these open reading periods charge fees, but they are not judged by an outside guest, and often generate more than one publication. Tupelo, Graywolf, and other presses of note offer them each year.

I read the Anis Shivani article last month and, if I’m remembering correctly, he mostly focused on the unfairness of contests for the writers. I also think they are a losing proposition for most presses, in that I don’t think most presses are making a killing or even much more than enough to cover their costs on these, and it seems to me like they must generate an unholy amount of screening and sorting. I’d hate to be in charge of winnowing 600 entries down to the 10 or 20 that get passed on to many final judges.

Shaindel Beers July 18, 2011 at 9:08 pm

I understand how frustrating it is to be sending out to first book contests for years on end and not get published, but then, I see the other side, too. Having a fee sets some kind of bar in place that keeps everyone in the universe from sending in a manuscript. Many of these contests have hundreds of entries. Imagine if there were no reading fee. Would there then be too many manuscripts to wade through?

I used to set up a budget where I would spend $500 on contests each year and no more. This included contests for books and contests for individual poems. Most years I lost money, and a year or two, I broke even. I did have one month where I won two poetry contests and earned half a mortgage payment. ($450 back then.)

Occasionally, I get paid to judge poetry contests, and I’m sure the reading fee goes toward that. I recently judged a contest where I was paid a $300 honorarium to judge. I really enjoyed judging the contest, and got to take time to write detailed judge’s comments for the winners and honorable mentions since I was being paid. If I weren’t being paid, it might have become another “rush job” where I wondered why I volunteered for yet another task in the service of poetry–when I have a full-time job, a family, a literary magazine, and my own writing that I’m trying to pay attention to.

I do a lot for poetry for free, and a lot that I get charged for as well in reading and contest fees, so it’s nice when I’m paid for my services.

I think fees are almost a necessity to help with operating costs and to keep the field limited to people who are serious. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but I don’t have any idea of how to make a better one. (And I’m teaching a poetry class right now, and my students have been on break, so I have to go 🙂 I hope this post has made sense and been relatively typo-free.

Rebecca Lehmann July 19, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Shaindel, I completely agree that the people who help run these contests, administrators, screeners, editors, and judges, should get paid. I worry that often screeners and even judges are not getting paid a lot of money. In other words, I think that contests often barely cover their own costs, and are thus not the best proposition for writers or presses. I also wonder if calling something a “contest” generates more submissions than would be generated if a press just had a standard submission procedure which was open all year, like a query style submission process that would limit the amount of work sent in at one time to a ten page sampling which could be judged on its own merits. I think some presses are still doing that, and I’d be curious about whether they see more or less submissions than the big contests generate. I really have no idea about that though, and could be completely wrong.

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