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 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.

6 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: Rattle Poetry Prize Final Math

  1. Tim,

    Thanks for being so open and honest about your costs and profits for the Rattle contest. The more venues that do this, the better. I’ve written a bit about the money-making potential of contests — but those are generally contests with smaller prizes than yours (and no runner-up prizes) and a press run of only 500-1000 books (instead of 2,200). So while your contest might not be a lucrative venture for Rattle (though it obviously increases both the subscription figures and the advertising budgets), contests in general are still money-making ventures.

    I think the biggest failing with contests, however, is not publish-a-poem contests (like yours) but publish-a-book contests — because if the costs of the book are more than covered by the contest, the publisher has no incentive to push sales of the book.


  2. Hi G.M.–

    You’re very right, of course — there are lot of ways we could manipulate this to turn it into a more profitable situation, if that was our goal. Most contests have a higher entry fee or less prize money. But thankfully we’re secure enough in our funding that all we really care about are the readers and the poetry, and so don’t have to worry about things like that.

    As for book contests, wait till you read the essay we’re publishing in our Fall e-issue at the end of this September. David Alpaugh is going to be talking about just that thing — the problem with book contests, not only diluting the poetry waters, but failing to support what they publish. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.


  3. Hi Tim, thanks for sharing this behind-the-scenes look into how the Rattle contest works. I think it’s helpful for all of us who send out work to understand what goes on — all the hard work editors do, all the costs, and how little (if any) money is left over when all is said and done — on the other side of the process.

    I have never run a contest, but did co-edit a journal for several years, so I can empathize with the workload (though we never received that many poems) as well as understand the excitement of discovering exciting new (to you) poets to publish.

    And I’m looking forward to that article on book contests. Sounds like it will be interesting, to say the least!

    take care,

  4. Pingback: 2009 Rattle Poetry Prize Math | Timothy Green

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