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.

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