2009 Rattle Poetry Prize Math

There are two reasons I’m announcing the Rattle Poetry Prize numbers a full week later than I did last year.  First, our editorial priorities had to be adjusted to fit with Alan’s travel schedule, as he’s going to be gone for much of September.  But the bigger issue was the volume of submissions we received.  You might be surprised by how long it takes just to log them all in.  Here are the totals:

812 hardcopy entries
781 email entries
1,593 total entries

As you can see from last year’s post, this is 433 more entries than we received last year, and we blew past my goal of 1,350 with ease.  This is more than just a record total, it’s also an incredible and unexpected spike in growth rate:

Year / #entries / %change
2006 / 805 / —
2007 / 991 / +23%
2008 / 1160 / +17%
2009 / 1593 / +37%

What was the secret to this year’s success?  It’s impossible to disentangle the variables.  What’s clear is that the growth was digital.  Email submissions increased by 63%, while hardcopy submissions only rose a modest (and expected) 18%.   So I think it’s safe to assume that we don’t have our new print ads in Poetry magazine to thank, as happy to place them as I was.

A better explanation would be the positive change in our internet profile.  Just 14 months ago, Rattle.com introduced its blog-style format, and began posting a new poem or review every day.  In the time since, traffic has swelled — unique visitors per day have doubled to over 1,000, and page views per day have nearly tripled to 10,000.  As more consumers read Rattle online, our demographic shifts toward a more tech-savvy profile, and email submissions for the first time are nearly matching the hardcopy numbers.

But that’s not the whole story.  I also better-utilized email marketing this year.  In the past, we’ve sent flyers to college English departments, announcing the contest, but this year I sent emails as well, asking administrators to forward the information to their students.  I’ve also learned, from trying to publicize events, that people are natural procrastinators — rather than sending our deadline reminder out with a month to go, I waited until five days before the deadline.  As a result, half of the entries came in the last two days.

So the lesson to be inferred this year is that successfully utilizing technology is far more important than traditional means of advertising (not to mention a fraction of the cost) — which is the gospel I’ve been preaching on this blog for years.

I broke down the revenue situation last year, and you can still do the math for yourself.  The honest truth is, production costs haven’t increased much in the last 12 months, beyond the postage rate hike, which was covered by our slightly higher entry fee.  We made an extra $10,000 and get to use all of it to help offset our annual budget.  My long-term, pipedream goal is to make Rattle a fiscally solvant magazine, something unheard of in the literary world.  We’re not close to that goal, at this point, but we’re closer than we were last year. If we keep growing at this rate, a full year out of the red might actually be plausible at some point before print media disappears altogether.

That’s the good news for Rattle, and I’m not too shy to pat myself on the back.  But the bad news for you, if you entered the contest, is that the competition has gotten even tougher:

1,593 entries x 3.8 poems/entry = 6,053 estimated total poems

Obviously that’s 37% more poems than last year, and your odds of placing in the top 11 in a random draw have fallen to 0.18% (from 0.25% in 2008).  As bad as that sounds, it’s still roughly equal to the 1 in 500 odds of any given poem from a regular submission making it onto the pages of Rattle.

So when you read the winners in December, if the honorable mentions seem no stronger than the rest of the poems in the magazine, and there are a few in the open section that seem even better than the $5,000 prize winner, don’t worry — that’s exactly what should happen, statistically (if we assume the quality of a contest entry is the same as that of a regular submission, which is probably the case).  It depends on the slope of the bell curve, but the odds that the Rattle Poetry Prize winner actually is the best poem in the magazine are something like 1 in 5 (pretending we could find an objective measure).

If that sounds counter-intuitive to you, you’re not alone — it sounds weird to me, too, every time I crunch the numbers.  The contest winners won’t necessarily be the best poems in an issue — they’re simply typical of what we always publish.  So if you happen to have a poem already forthcoming in Rattle you should be kicking yourself for not entering the contest — you really might have won!

5 thoughts on “2009 Rattle Poetry Prize Math

  1. I’ve been thinking and thinking about this…those numbers are fascinating, I’ve never seen anyone reveal a contest like that…it’s hard to say if this will encourage or discourage people from entering, but I have to say that’s about as above board as you can get…thanks.

  2. Yes, I know you read Slone’s blog…I didn’t completely read last year’s letter, I was too busy tearing it into a hundred pieces…

    I was referring mainly to the revelation that a poet has the same chance of making it into the top 11 of the contest as making it into the magazine proper with a regular submission. That is something I never would have put together, or even imagined. It makes the losers feel less like losers and brings the winner down to earth a little.

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  4. Pingback: 2010 Rattle Poetry Prize Math » Timothy Green

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