Really Wrong: David Alpaugh on Poetry Book Contests

The fall e-Issue just went up last night, featuring selections of poetry from a pair of great books by Carol V. Davis and David James, artwork by Lois Gold, Andrew Kozma’s review of a suite of chapbooks, and a preview of the Winter 2008 issue. You can download it for free at the e-Issue page, or directly by clicking here (1.2 MB PDF).

The highlight, though, is clearly David Alpaugh’s essay: “What’s Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests?”

Alpaugh is an journeyman poet, with stops all over the literary map.  As both winner of a book contest (The Nicholas Roerich Prize from Story Line Press) and organizer of one, he speaks with authority on the subject.  Rattle published a pair of his visual poems in issue #30, but he might be best known for his influential essay “The Professionalization of Poetry,” first printed as a two part series in Poets & Writers in 2003.  That essay detailed the sacrifices poetry has made to become a viable profession within academia–the diluting of talent, the rise of esotericism, the praise of the banal.  In Rattle e.5, Alpaugh turns his attention from the university to the free market, exploring the opportunity cost of so much good intention–the founding of (yet another) poetry book contest.

I say “good intention” intentially, because, beyond the numbers, that’s the important truth that Alpaugh articulates so clearly.  It’s easy to paint those who run book contests as dishonest or greedy or self-important–maybe thanks to Poetry.com and Foetry.com–but in reality, every contest is a labor of love.  Every editor and judge thinks their contest is special, that they’re adding something unique meaningful to literature.  If it wasn’t a labor of love, they’d be looking for another job, one that pays more (or often just pays at all).

The problem is that book contests are convenient–that’s why there are so many of them.  No need for fundraising, or sales strategies, or PR.  By the time you’ve chosen the manuscript, it’s already paid for itself.  And since there’s no shortage of poets hoping to be published, and willing to pay the price of admission, the environment is primed for exponential growth.

When I first read the essay several months ago, I had a few counter-arguments.  Alpaugh argues that presses don’t take the marketing of their winners seriously, because they don’t have to–but I’d counter that no small presses take the marketing of their books seriously, because they don’t have the means to.  You know that when you’re working with a small press, the onus of finding an audience is on you.  You have to arrange your own readings, mailing lists, press kits…  I’ve only experienced this once, but everyone I know who’s published a book describes the same thing.  No poet is Stephen King with a PR rep.  Maybe the contest winners feel content to rest on their laurels instead of doing the legwork (they are, after all, Prize Winners!), but whose fault is that really?  And what contest-awarding press is going to tell their winner, “Don’t go out and market yourself, we don’t want to sell more books”?

But that was June.  In the time since, I’ve had a great experience with Red Hen Press–they’ve done a lot to help with the publicity of American Fractal.  What’s more, I’ve spoken about this with more former contest winners, and for several, all their press gave them, to quote one, was “a box of books with a letter inside wishing me good luck.”  I hadn’t realized this was so prevalent.  Presses have less of an investment in their contest winners, and it seems to show.

The only counterpoint I can still make is that, while I agree that the proliferation of contests do muddy the quantitative waters, I think they might be a boon to quality overall.  A small press, even a non-profit, has to always worry about just breaking even with a book.  And so they’re forced to look for books that will sell, rather than books that are actually good.  There are, of course, the perfect storms where each go hand in hand, but given the choice of a decent book by a writer with a ready-made audience, or a great book by an unknown, they’ll pick the merely decent book every time.  By subsidizing the winning book, poetry contests allow the presses running them to ignore any fiscal yardsticks–they already have broken even, so they’re free to just pick what’s best.

I think this might be a bigger problem than the problem with contests.  Whether you want to point to horrible poetry books by Jewel or Billy Corgan or Leonard Nemoy, or similarly dull books by already-established poetry stars, there’s a lot of bland poetry being published simply because of marketability.  Is that really what’s best for poetry, that a knack for publicity should be a trump card?  These days its Whitman every time–Dickinson’s only shot would be to enter a contest.

But even this argument hinges on the numbers game.  Out of 500 entries, is a contest guaranteed to receive a better book than that aforementioned bland poetry by a fading star?  I’m not so sure.  Having never run a book contest myself, I really have no idea–does the judge find dozens of books worthy of publication, or none?  If you ask, the judge will surely say dozens, but is that the truth, or kindness?

As difficult as it is to find fault wth Alpaugh’s central argument, it’s even harder to think of solutions to the problem.  As long as poetry remains on the margins of American life, poetry books need to be subsidized to exist.  The contest “losers” can subsidize the winner, or members of a poetry collective can subsidize each other.  Small presses can avoid this only with individual donations and grants, and that’s no easy task.

Evolution isn’t a complicated process, and neither good nor bad–it’s just what happens when stuff sits around in an environment for a long time.  A rock evolves smooth in the same way a bird evolves into wings.  The current state of poetry publishing is just what happens as poetry lovers tumble down the paths of least resistence.  It’s neither good nor bad, and won’t be changing any time soon, but it’s important to pause every so often and examine what you’ve become.

In any event, this isn’t the first time David Alpaugh’s held a mirror up to the poetry industry and asked a lot of provocative questions, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  It’s a good read, and a subject well-worth pausing on a Monday afternoon to think about.  So go read it.

Behind the Scenes: Rattle Poetry Prize Final Math

Entries to the contest have finally all been logged. Here are the totals:

683 hardcopy entries
477 email entries
1,160 Total Entries in 2008

My target goal was 1,200 entries, so we fell a bit short, but with the economy in the tank, I can’t help but be pleased. Last year we received 991 entries, so this total represents a 17% increase. 2007 saw a 23% increase over 2006, and I assume we’ll keep seeing this law of diminishing returns play itself out in the future, so next year I’ll be hoping for 1,350 or so.

Since we’re only allowing 4 poems per entry, instead of 5, the total number of poems we have to read has contracted a bit from the 4,460 last year:

1,160 entries x 3.8 ppe* = 4408 estimated total poems

This means that the prize money will be divided between the top 0.25% of poems. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? But in the regular section of Rattle, we publish about 1 out of every 500 poems we receive, or 0.20%. So, believe it or not, your odds of earning an honorable mention or winning the Rattle Poetry Prize are actually better than they are of having a regular submission published. Assuming that the collective quality of these poems are equal — and I think they are.

That’s a very surprising fact — I wouldn’t have guess that, until I thought to do the math. So there’s really no reason not to enter, especially if you were planning on submitting or subscribing at any point in the year.

While we’re talking math, it’s interesting to break down the amount of money we’re making on the contest. The perception seems to exist in some places that poetry contest rake in the dough. It might be the poetry.com vanity scam that fuels the rumor, and probably does make a lot of money in the process. But the numbers are plain for anyone to see:

$16 x 1,160 entries = $18,560

Not a bad payday! But let’s see where that money goes.

First of all, every entry comes with a one year subscription (2 issues). Each 200-page issue costs 2 dollars and change to print (depending on a few variables). At bulk rate, each issue costs 80 cents to ship. So rounding everything prettily, $6 from each entry immediately goes toward the subscription. So this is really what we have to work with:

$10 x 1,160 entries = $11,600

Then, of course, with a $5k prize and ten $100 honorable mentions, $6,000 goes straight to the winners:

$11,600 – $6,000 = $5,600

Still enough to buy a nice Rattle-red moped or maybe a new HDTV for the office.

Ah, but what about advertising? We placed print ads for the contest in Poets & Writers and APR. We put a banner up at Poetry Daily for two months, and we always run a small Google Adwords campaign. We sent postcards to thousands of individuals, and flyers to hundreds of institutions. I’m not going to break it all down, but you can see what a half-page full-color ad in Poets & Writers costs.

When we’re done adding up the costs, we might be left with a shade more than $1,000 in profits. And that’s before we pay the rent. Let’s say between Megan and myself, we work on the contest 40 hours per week for the months of July and August. That’s 320 total man-hours. The Federal Minimum Wage just increased to $6.55/hr., so even at that sub-living-wage, we’re supposed to make $2,096.00. Shucks.

The moral of the story is, if you want to make it big, don’t bother starting up a poetry contest. This truly is a labor of love, and we couldn’t do it without our charitable support.

Of course our goal with the Rattle Poetry Prize isn’t to make money. Our goal is to spread the love of poetry. The kind of poetry that’s meaningful and accessible, without sacrificing complexity. The kind that anyone can enjoy, but no one should live without.

About 20% of the entries were from familiar faces — old subscribers or poets we’ve already published. But the rest are people we’ve never heard from before, and that means we’re exposing about 1,000 new eyes to Rattle. And that’s the math that really matters.

___________

* Poems Per Entry (ppe): To estimate the number of poems per entry, I collected a random sample of 20 entries, and took the average.

Behind the Scenes: Rattle Poetry Prize Selection

Judging is a lonely job in which a man is, as near as may be, an island entire.
–Abe Fortas, Supreme Court Justice (resigned in disrepute in 1969)

I assume everyone’s heard the urban legend about the college admissions coordinator, who, maybe drunk or stoned or just sick of his life, decides that it’s too difficult to choose which applicants should fill the last few spots. Honors societies and alumni grants and GPAs to the nearest ten-thousandth decimal place swirl senseless in his head. So, late at night, he crosses the half-empty quad, climbs the library most austere stairwell in that illustrious hall, and dumps his bucket of applications over the railing. Paper packets flutter out of sight like so many hopes and dreams. He takes the elevator down to the first floor — those lucky bastards who floated farthest down get to attend the University of Wherever-You-Didn’t-Make-the-Cut.

That’s just an urban legend — we assume. But sometimes it seems like poetry contests must be judged in this way. Surely the winner’s poem couldn’t have been better than yours! Surely the editors couldn’t have read every word of the 10,000 poems that were submitted in the space of 4 weeks. Surely there was a balcony, or at least a few ignorant interns involved.

Well, I don’t want to fuel any urban legends, so here’s the whole truth about what we’re doing with your poems, now that the deadline has passed:

The first task is to log all of the entries. This means entering everyone’s name, address, and subscription information into the database, along with a unique number. We write that number on your coversheet, and on the upper corner of the first poem, stapling all the poems together, so that they can only be identified by their number. We’ve got everyone’s information in the database, and two separate piles: coversheets, and poems. Email entries are printed out and sorted in the same way, so we can’t even tell how the entries came in.

(Our old printer used a rare kind of ink — colored waxen blocks that had a unique feel — so we used to be able tell which entries we’d printed out ourselves. But that printer died last fall, and our new beast of a machine is a more standard laserjet, which ends up camouflaging the source.)

This first step is a bigger task than you might think. We’ve been logging entries continuously, since they started coming in this spring, but 50% or more procrastinators wait until the last week. Megan and I spent 8 hours today just on email entries from Thursday and Friday — Megan handling the subscriptions in the database, and myself replying with acknowledgments and printing the packets. We didn’t touch this week’s hardcopy entries, which stack about 3 feet high, and will keep rolling in for the next few days.

Once we do get everything organized and randomized, we take the five-foot stack of poems home. Megan reads first, rating every poem on a scale of 1-10, and then writing the highest score for each entry on the first page. A score of 10 here means “Prufrock” or “Howl” or “Song” — among the best handful of poems ever written. I don’t think we’ve ever been submitted a 10, contest or otherwise…it’s hard to think of more than a dozen poems in the world I’d score that high.

The first two RPP winners, and a handful of honorable mentions, have been 9’s — what we consider truly great poems, that we wouldn’t want to live without knowing. 8’s are still very good, among the best couple dozen we’ll publish in a year. 7 we’d want to publish. 6 we might consider. 5 doesn’t make us cringe. 4 does. 3 and 2 you can imagine. 1 is so bad that it’s almost good — but only almost.

As you might guess, the vast majority entries are in the 4-6 range.

By the way, I’m never going to reveal how we scored you, so don’t ask. It’s not that I don’t think you deserve to know; I don’t think it can do any good — it’s just a number, nothing constructive about it. But more, the natural inclination is to take our opinion too seriously. We’re not any kind of authority, we’re just fans of poetry who read a lot. I don’t think there is an authority on poetry, but even if there were, we’d have no claim to it. Honestly, I think that’s most of Rattle’s charm, and why our issues are so damn readable.

So Megan scores everything, and then I sort them out. Starting with the highest ranking packet, I work my way down, until it no longer seems to make any sense to keep reading. Usually that’s meant reading down through the 5’s. It’d be nice to say I read everything, but that would be stupid — we only have 6 weeks to read thousands of poems and choose a winner. The best poems deserve several close readings, and the truth is, that time would be wasted elsewhere. A good analogy is the standard optical microscope — Megan’s reading is the coarse adjustment, which first makes sense of what we’re looking at. Then I come in with the fine adjustment and try to make the image as clear as possible.

So after I’ve read the better half once or twice, I give the poems my own score, and average the two. The packets are then re-sorted according to their new scores, and we take the best 50 or so to Alan, for the finest of adjustments, so to speak. We’ll spend a weekend reading all of them out loud, talking about them, trying to figure out which we think is the best.

There’s a big difference between winning the first prize of $5,000 and receiving a $100 honorable mention, so in a lot of ways, this last step is the most nerve-wracking and difficult. There’s no way to get around taking it very seriously.

I think the three different minds, three different opinions coming from different quantitative contexts (Megan having read every poem, myself having read half, and Alan having read a comparative handful) is the ideal situation. If you haven’t edited a big project, you might not understand, but reading so many samples, it’s easy to feel muddled and indecisive — they all start to look too similar. On the other hand, reading too few, you have nothing to compare you opinion against. Good is good, but how good is it?

Once we do decide who wins, I start making phone calls — the only calls to strangers that are ever fun for me.

Anyway, this has become a long post, but I’ve entered contests before, and I’ve always been curious as to what’s really going on. Now you know. I think we’ve got a system that’s as fine-tuned and precise as possible. If we didn’t, I don’t think we’d be able to announce the winners just 6 weeks from yesterday.

No Revising Once You Submit

This always seemed like an obvious courtesy to me, but maybe I’ve been sitting behind the editor’s desk too long.  I had to add a note to the submission guidelines today.  Far too many people have been submitting poems by email, then sending another note the next day asking if we can delete a line or fix a typo, or swap in a new version of the poem altogether.  I think what happens is that they notice errors in their poems in my receipt reply.

It might not seem like a big deal to make a change to a poem, but when you’re trying to log and read thousands of poems a week, these little inconveniences add up.  And with email submissions, we can’t directly edit a sheet of paper — emails are pretty much concrete.  So we have to edit the poem, forward it back to ourselves, and then log it in all over again.  It’s very annoying, and with one-and-a-half employees, we don’t have time to be annoyed.

That submitters should be proofreading their work before they send it to us goes without saying.  Similarly, if you’re still working on a revising a poem it’s not ready to submit.  Give it a week or a month or a year.

What’s more, we don’t care about little typos at all.  We’re not going to toss a poem in the trash because it’s should be its, or you spelled verisimilitude wrong.  Mistakes happen.  We’re too picky about the poems we like to be picky about line edits.

AdSense Literary Experiment

BACKGROUND

For just over a year, we’ve been using a secret Gmail account to read and track submissions. It’s pretty simple: People email me submissions, I forward them to Gmail, and all the editors have the infinite storage and ultimate searchability at their fingertips. We can then use the labels to keep track of submissions as they move along the editorial food chain.

Google makes $4.2 billion a year, and a lot of that revenue comes through AdSense. If you ever Google anything — and I’m sure you do — you’ll notice the small classified-like ads in a column to the right. Those ads are targeted to the words you search for, so in theory, the ads are relevant to something you’re interested in. Advertisers get to pick their own target words, and pay a few cents per click. Rattle is actually one of those advertisers, though I’m still in the trial stage of deciding whether or not it makes “sense” for us.

These little ads appear next to all messages read in Gmail, and so every single submission we read at Rattle comes with its own set of targeted advertising (though I seriously doubt either of us have ever clicked). Furthermore, since most of the text in a poetry submission is the poems themselves, you might say the ads are targeted to the poetry.

HYPOTHESIS

I’ve always wondered if we could save some time and read the 20-word Google ads instead of the much longer poems. (Hypothetically, of course — we’re always going to read every word of every submission we get!.) But as an editor, I can’t help but wonder if the Google ad bots might be decent poetry editors themselves. Glancing at the ads every once in awhile, I actually think they can.

EXPERIMENT

The largest Rattle Gmail label is “Rejected.” I like to say the submissions are “returned”, which sounds a lot better in the spin room, but whatever you call it, that’s the label you don’t want. I won’t say how many submissions have landed there, but it’s thousands. The best you can hope for as a submitter is “Printed”, which means that after Megan and I have each read the submission, we both felt like it was worth printing out in hardcopy and talking about amongst ourselves and with Alan. It’s less than 5% of email submissions that wind up with the “Printed” label.

I’m going to collect a random sample of 5 submissions from each of these groups, and record the top Google Ad that appears next to it. If we can see a pattern emerge to distinguish between the two groups, we’ll know AdSense is on to something. The test is whether or not you can place a randomly selected submission, based solely on the ad.

At first I’ll make this a double-blind experiment for those following at home, and keep the labels a secret.

DATA

GROUP A:

Handcrafted Garage Doors / Custom finishes and accessories / Free quote. Guaranteed quality.

Eco Structural Technology / Green PreFab Steel Systems LEED / Cert- Commercial Residential

M+B Gallery / Contemporary Art Gallery / Specialized in Photography

Cheap Cowboy Boots / Cowboy Boots Sale Top Brands / Up to 50% off Justin Ropers

Teach Children thru Books / Children’s books that teach life lessons / Teasing,Peer Pressure,etc.

GROUP B:

Publish your book / at a price you can afford from $335, / + editing & marketing

John Wayne Ringtones / Ringtones, Screensavers, Wallpapers / in 30 Seconds to Your Cell Phone.

Book Printing in Asia / Self-publish high-quality fine art, / photography and large format books.

Publish Your Poetry Free / Get Your Poetry Published Online. / Join Helium’s Poetry Community Now!

Publish Your Poetry Free / Get Your Poetry Published Online. / Join Helium’s Poetry Community Now!

[Not a misprint, the last two of the randomly selected ads really were the same.]

ISOLATED X:

Reading Worksheets / Get Printable Daily Lesson Plans. / Find Free Worksheets & Resources.

ANALYSIS

Do you have a reasonable guess as to which group ad X belongs in? If you do, the hypothesis is confirmed.

It might be obvious already that Group A was submissions from the “Printed” label. Group B was “Rejected.” Ad X is another “Rejected.”

“Printed” ads seem to be more specific and unique, from prefab steel to cowboy boots. The only ad that might be considered bland and mass-marketed is the one for teaching books, but even that includes the specificity of children.

“Rejected” ads seem much more generic, and even lean a bit toward scams and spam. The only interesting subject in the group is “John Wayne”, but even that is a pop-icon, trying to sell a ringtone. It’s also the only one of the five that doesn’t contain the word “publish.”

CONCLUSION

Why do the ads for the better poems look so much more worth looking at? Why do the lesser poems generate bland ads? Even though this experiment confirms my assumption going in, I’m still surprised at the clarity of the results — five plot-points is such a small sample to be discerning a recognizable trend. Could the Google ad bots really have developed AI and an ear for poetry?

I don’t think so. The truth is, good poems have something to say — they’re about something interesting. The better poems contain a more unusual and precise vocabulary, and so they trigger the targets of advertisers who are more unique. The lesser poems tend to speak in generalities, and so there’s no linguistic content unusual enough to overcome the vocabulary of their standardized cover letters. Almost everyone mentions where they’ve been “published” or thanks us for considering their poems for “publication” — but with the weaker submissions, that’s all the little robots have to pick up on.

It’s going to be a long time before a robot takes my job — and you could always just Google Bomb your submission like a true spammer — but this little experiment should be an important lesson in one of the basic components of memorable poetry. Substance is key.