Putting the “Test” back into the “Poetry Contest”

time to test your publishing knowledge:

how much does it cost to publish a book of poems? how much does it cost to distribute a book of poems to bookstores? libraries? through SPD? through IPG? how much is postage? how much are mailers? what royalty percentage should we pay our authors? how much is a judge paid? how much is an ad in Poets & Writers? how much is an add for APR? how much is an ad in Rain Taxi? how much does a bound galley for review cost? how much is the credit card processing fee for online submissions? how much is an online submission program? how much money will we receive during a contest period?  can we survive without a poetry contest? how many books do we have to sell to break even? how much is an email manager? how much is a website? how much is a table at AWP? how many books do we have to sell at AWP to break even? how much does it cost to have Quemadura design a book? how many boxes of pizza should we buy to feed your staff? what kind of pizza?

these are only some of the questions that a small press has to ask themselves. while most poets have no idea about what goes on behind the scenes to operate a press or a poetry contest (besides the obvious one that jorie graham is probably sleeping with the winner), i’ve been privilege to not only have started two different micro-presses, but I’ve also worked many years for one of the best independent publishers in the U.S.: Omnidawn Publishing. I’m also one of their authors, so not only have I learned so much from them about how to run a successful press, but i also know what it’s like to be one of their authors who benefits from all their hard work. 

so i wanted to share with you an email i received today from Omnidawn co-founder Ken Keegan. He analyzes the Walt Whitman Award, and i think it’s really an important learning moment for all of us (especially Anis Shivani). i’ve also bolded a certain portion of his email for emphasis. As always, i’d love to hear your thoughts:

One of the primary criticisms in the June 3 Anis Shivani article in the Huffington Post is the cost of such awards, and he cites in particular the cost of Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, particularly when compared to the amount of money it brings in ($25 entry fee x 1, 245 entries = $31,125 this year, probably more than any other contest). Where does all that money go? This is the focus of one of his main criticisms, but he just asks the question without simply thinking it out for a moment and adding up all the costs of the elements detailed in the Poets & Writers article. In his summary (in the third to the last sentence in his article to be exact) he states, “It doesn’t cost $30,000 to publish a book of poetry.”

Well, in the case of the Walt Whitman award, it does, and if you actually analyze how much they do for a book, and how important and beneficial all this is to a poet’s career, you can understand why. Here is the breakdown of costs that can be easily determined at a minimum value. These are pretty tight minimums, and costs are probably higher. I doubt that what is left over ($3,765) does pay for all the costs that are not spelled out in detail in the article (screeners at an hourly wage, labor or fulfillment to create mailing labels and mail the books out, advertising, overhead, etc.).

From Contest Fees (1,245 entries x $25 entry fee) : $ 31,125

5,000 books sent to all member of the Academy of American Poets
       (approximate membership noted in Poets & Writers article):

Cost of printing 5,000  books (effective cost .80 each)                    $4,000
Shipping from printer to Academy (Aprox 1600 lbs @$.40/pound)       $ 640
Postage to mail to members (5,000 x $2.38**)                                 $11,900
Mailers (5,000 x .24***)                                                                                   $1,200
                                                                                                                     $ 17,740                  

Credit Card Processing Fees for online submissions at minimum 4% of total: $1,245

Prize Money to Winning Poet (as stated in Poets & Writers article): $5,000

Judge Fee (as stated in Poets & Writers article): $1,500

One Month Residency at Vermont Studio Center (List price on VSC web site
       is $3,750, but I would guess it is about half that to the Academy)                  $1,875

               Total cost of known components                                                                    $ 27,360                      (27,360)
               Remainder for paying screeners and other staff, labor to mail,
                (or fullmment house cost to mail), advertising, etc.                                                                           $    3,765

* Approximate cost of printing a 72 page book with a full color cover with a run of 5,000.

** $2.38 is the minimum cost for shipping Media Mail. First Class postage for a 6 ounce book in a 7/10 ounce mailer (7 ounces total) would be $2.39). This is the weight of a small 6″ x 9″ book of 72 pages. The cost would be more for a larger book, which is probably more common. Discounts of approximately 10% could apply for pre-sorted bulk mailings, but these would probably be more than offset by the fact that most winners have larger books.

*** Approximate minimum cost of a suitable mailer in bulk order of 5,000, in this case bubble mailer of minimum size to mail 6″x9″ book, with weight of 7/10 ounce each. These mailers are priced at .24 each in quantities of 3,000 plus from Uline, a major supplier of packing materials to business. These mailers are the least expensive available, especially when you consider mailing costs for heavier mailers.

Most authors know that there is a huge difference between just publishing a book and publishing it with ample support. Apparently Anis doesn’t, and he doesn’t give much value to the following:

1. The poet gets a royalty (prize) of $5000
2. There is a very nice one month residency at Vermont Studio Center
3. This is the most important and most expensive. 5,000 copies are printed and distributed free of charge to the most important and influential poets in America, many of whom will read the book because it is such a prestigious award. Talk about jump starting a poetry career.


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6 thoughts on “Putting the “Test” back into the “Poetry Contest”

  1. Interesting analysis! It seems strange, though, to use the Walt Whitman Award as the example because it is NOT typical of poetry contests, which, for one thing, do not give away 5,000 copies of their books free. If we adjust the figures in the Walt Whitman example to reflect a more typical contest (1,000 entries, $25 entry fee, print run of 1,000 books, 50 review copies distributed, prize money $1,000, judge fee $1,000, etc.), we get a total revenue of $25,000 and total expenses of about $4,500 (not $27,360!). Let’s be generous and assume we have grossly underestimated the miscellaneous expenses for staff, promotion, etc., and double our estimate. That still results in expenses of only $9,000. Let’s assume we have also OVERestimated revenue if you figure a typical contest gets closer to 500 entries than 1,000. That gives us an estimate of $12,500 revenue and $9,000 expenses.

    I am NOT someone who thinks contest fees are a rip-off, and I am in awe of the enormous amount of work demanded of people who manage and work in small presses. Still, I think an objective look shows that contest fees MORE than amply cover the expenses of publishing a book.

    1. Well, many contests do mail a copy of the winner’s (or last year’s winner’s) book to all contest entrants. And it should be noted that most contests do not have nearly as many entries as the Walt Whitman–because is is so prestigious and has such a large prize. From the ones I’ve been involved with, I would estimate the totals as usually running more to 500 entries or fewer–often a lot fewer. This means costs will be less, but revenues will be substantially less.

      Another piece of the expense that Craig didn’t list is the cost of staff or freelance worker to log in all contest entries, take off identifying sheets (and no matter how much you stress that you don’t want anything with identifying information, such as acknowledgements pages, a number of entrants will still include them), give a tracking number (for the blind judging so that when it’s done you can find out who won and notify them), etc. Administering a book contest of any kind is a very labor-intensive operation, and most small presses haven’t the staff to do all this. Some can use students, but many pay someone(s) to do this so that the contest will be truly blind.

      Excellent article, Craig.

      1. thanks so much for your comment linda, and for breaking down other aspects of the labor! good to hear so many people with experience running a press and a contest dropping their knowledge!

  2. thanks for your comment robert! the walt whitman is being analyzed because it was discussed in the P&W article as well as in Shivani’s essay. plus, it highlights how a poetry contest can “jump start” a writer’s career…one of the bonuses of the contest system.

    that being said, you are right, it’s not the typical contest. maybe other presses will post some of their numbers here in the comments or elsewhere…would be educational to see. and i think that kind of transparency will soothe some of the anxiety out there about where all the money goes. cuz, as we know, “MORE than amply” is quite subjective.

    thanks again!

  3. I’m glad to read this, Craig, thank you.

    I’ve been thinking about “The Business of Creative Writing” and publishing house internships and whether they’re required for MFA students so that folks could actually get some concrete knowledge of the industry we all plunge ourselves into. In my program, these courses weren’t, and I think that’s too bad.

  4. hey b, thanks for your comment! i think that’s too bad too. and you read my mind cuz that’s something i will talk about in my next post.

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