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!

RPP Behind the Scenes: The Big Announcement

One minute ago I will have posted the winners of the 2008 Rattle Poetry Prize.  (I’m writing this before I go to bed on Sunday night, which should explain the unusual verb tense — what is that, pluperfect?)

As I type this, Megan is wading waist-deep in SASEs, which she’s filling with notifications to all of those who didn’t win.  It’s quite a sight.  Each letter is sealed with a bit of regret — I never win anything; I know what it feels like to get the thin envelope in the mail and not even bother reading it.

I don’t think it’s possible to judge a contest honestly without worrying that you’ve made the wrong choice — worrying that you may have missed an amazing poem because you were too tired, or your brain too numbed from the dull poems that happened to precede it.  There’s always the temptation to read through the large stack of poems left over at random, and see if you might come across something good you missed.  And I always give in.

But one thing is certain.  I read the 50-odd semi-finalist entries at least a dozen times each, and Joseph Fasano’s winning poem was the only one that became more enjoyable and moving each time.  That’s a rare thing.  And when we got down the the final three, Alan read each of them aloud in his raspy baritone (think Garrison Keillor, only Alan doesn’t mangle with melodrama), and immediately the decision became unanimous.

More assurance that there’s rhyme to our reason (or reason to our rhyme?):  Two of the honorable mentions, Ted Gilley and Hilary Melton, already have poems appearing in the December issue of Rattle, and another, Douglas Goetsch earned an honorable mention in 2006.

As we were reading these poems, we had no idea who the authors were — we even made a game of guessing gender before we unveiled the winners to ourselves, and performed pitifully.  That we chose the work of poets we’re already publishing demonstrates that, as subjective as our tastes may be, at least those tastes are consistent.  We can pick the needles out of the haystack.  So while I’m sure another team of editors might have chosen differently, I’m confident that we selected the best eleven poems we received, according to our own proclivities.

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.