What's Really Wrong with Poetry Book Prizes?

Last September, I chimed in on David Alpaugh’s provocative essay, “What’s Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests.” The problem is economic — book contests are an easy way to get poets to subsidize their own publication.  You can think of it as a publishing co-op, something like Cahuenga Press, only instead of a dozen people getting together and publishing one of their books every year, a thousand people are sharing the costs, and most of them won’t live long enough to see their year in the sun. The entry fees are what pay for printing, publicity, etc.

Alpaugh points out is that this publication system is too effective — it’s become the only viable way for a press to exist, so everyone is doing it, and there are hundreds of “prize-winning” collections published every year, with no incentive for the presses to stand behind the books beyond that initial claim.  There were some points I disagreed with, but overall it was an interesting critique of the poetry publishing industry.

With American Fractal, I stuck a toe in the water, and entered maybe a dozen first book contests, before deciding to go the direct route with Red Hen Press.  It was a tough decision at the time, throwing in the towel on the pipe dream of becoming a Yale Younger Poet, but I thought that once I made it, I was done forever with contests.


Red Hen must have added my address to some mailing list, because now that the book is out, I’m being bombarded with calls for submissions — not for book contests, but for book prizes.  The New York Book Festival, the San Francisco Book Festival, the 2009 Beach Book Festival, and on and on.  Each “festival” or “award” is open to applications in dozens of genres, from cookbooks to poetry.  All you have to do is send a copy (or three) of your book, and the $40 entry fee.  Winning authors receive a $1,500 prize, and a flight to New York to read at their center stage.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Apparently entry fees subsidize the entire world. Wanna be a Pulitzer Prize Nominee? Go for it — you can nominate your grocery list; just send a check for $50 to Columbia University (PDF).

I always thought the Pulitzer Prize was run by a charitable foundation, a committee who surveyed books and essays and photographs, and chose the best each year.  I always thought all these state book-of-the-year awards I keep seeing in bios actually chose the best book by an author of that state, not just the best author to pony up a $50 entry fee.  Wow, was I naive.

To be fair, some book prizes are run in the open-ended way I always imagined.  There’s no nomination process for the LA Times Book Prizes — they just have a panel who picks books.  But the more I Google, the more this genuine a setup seems rare.

There are a million book prizes you’ve never heard of, and god knows how many people submitting books to them. If book contests entrants are subsidizing publication — which you can easily argue is a good thing — then one must ask, what are book prize entrants subsidizing?  Publicity?  A small stipend?  Am I missing something?

What’s worse, now I have to start deciding all over again whether or not to enter any of these.  I know I’m not going to win a Pulitzer Prize, but I want to not-win because I’m not-famous, and my book’s not-all-that-special — not because I never entered.  And what about the smaller book prizes, where I might actually have a chance?  Subsidizing a bit of publicity and a small stipend is annoying, but getting some publicity and a small stipend isn’t all that bad.

Damn you.

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