Yes, sometimes publishers, both big and small, seem like evil goblins. Especially if you're an unpublished poet. But I see even my well-published poet friends struggling to find continuing outlets for their new books. An this is a teaching moment: it doesn't get any better after your first book.
In fact, for the last six months I've been reading up on the publishing realities for both poets and novelists. And it ain't pretty. There are too many writers out here and just about zero readers, especially for poetry.
And this isn't the fault of a struggling small-press. Everyone is complicit in the problem.
The Reality for Small Presses
According to an editorial by Jeffrey Lependorf in Small Press Distribution, "the human race publishes a book every thirty seconds" and "most poetry titles are printed in runs of 250 to 1,000." Even a "healthy title" publishes under 2,000 books and that will be "the one and only print run for that book." So the best you can hope to sell from a small press book is 200 to 2,000 books. To put that in perspective, Billy Collins, our poetry superstar, has reportedly sold 200,000 books and some consider a novel to be a bestseller if it hits 10,000 copies sold. Most books of poetry published by small presses will come and go without selling many copies.
No Publishers Willing to Take Risks
Even novelists are struggling. Big publishers aren't taking risks with new authors right now. According to novelist David Carnoy, "vaunted old publishers like Houghton Mifflin have literally put the freeze on new acquisitions. In short, it's ugly out there." And big publishers are not taking new poets period. Poetry does not sell unless you are a name. It's wasted money for them when even their fiction and non-fiction titles aren't moving.
Poets for the last 10-15 years have been entering endless contests to get a book deal. Small presses don't have the funds to print their runs, so they've set up contests where all entrants provide $25 each to cover the cost of printing the winner's book. This has become virtually community publishing where the community raises the money for one poet's print run. This is not a bad thing, per se (it's good for your karma, I guess), but the system has become a dismal odds game for most writers, a game that will probably never result in anything substantial.
Because if you do find yourself, happy day, a winner of a small press contest, you'll be paid only $1000 to $3000 and have a very small run of books published. Eventually, you'll go out of print. You'll also get...
No Help Marketing
Even big publishers have stopped putting any marketing heft behind any but the already-bestselling authors. New authors at big publishers are having to self-market to get the word out about their new books, sometimes even hiring publicists. I just took a fiction class with a teacher who has a first book of fiction coming out this year. She had no website up and I asked her what her marketing plans were. She said she was leaving that all up to her small-press publisher and moving on with writing her next book. From what I've been reading, that's like plunging your head in the sand. It's denying the stark realities of publishing today.
Even getting a review is more challenging: according to Betsy Lerner, the publishing house editor who wrote The Forest for the Trees, "there are fewer venues and outlets for novelists" ... The New York Times, Time and Newsweek are all scaling down their book reviews.
Published poets are telling me the same thing about marketing: they're getting no support from their presses, aside from the title being posted on the publisher's web site. Poets have an even steeper hill to climb to get out in front of all the novelists and self-help books. Marketing is something you must know how to do on your own...especially if you hope to sell a book to a stranger.
No Space in Bookstores
So even if you are a novelist and have a publisher, you have little hope of marketing support. On top of that, you have only a few months to make a splash at the bookstores. According to J. Steve Miller in his guide Sell More Books, bookstores only stock 25,000 titles; therefore, less than 1% of all books published by traditional publishers make it into bookstores. And if a new title in a bookstore doesn't sell right away, the unsold books get returned and never restocked.
Besides, the fact is big bookstores are all failing and closing. Mom-and-pop bookstores are still out there, but they have even less space for your little books of poems.
What This Means
So if all goes well for you in the world of poetry publishing, you'll win a small press contest. But then what? This will not get you many books printed, let alone an unlimited print run; this will not get you any marketing support or expertise; this will not get you any reviews; this will not get you into a bookstore. Ever. You will have the prestige of seeing your book on your shelf but you will not sell many books and you won't make any money on the books that do sell.
Is Self-Publishing for You
That doesn't necessarily mean self-publishing is for you. If you are not interested in actively marketing your book or taking on the stress of learning all the details of producing your own book, you are better off sticking with contests or lamenting the state of things like a true martyr and waiting for the world to start spinning the other way.
Of course, I would love to have an existing publisher take care of producing a book on my behalf. This would definitely give me more street cred; however, I think my Do-it-Yourself mentality might come in handy here in the new technology age. After all, I taught myself HTML back in 1997 and have been producing web zines for many years. In 2000, I taught myself how to create my own Cher zines with self-publishing software.
Print-on-Demand paperbacks and eBooks have given us the tools to create our own books and sell them on big online booksellers, where most people are buying their books now anyway. Print on Demand means your book will be available forever and you will receive a higher percentage of the sales. And with self-published books, you can work on marketing your book for your entire life.
But you'll have to work for it. Especially to rise above the din of badly-produced POD books already out there. But if you have a good work ethic and take the time to learn how to do it, you might do better than traditional publishing. Self-publishing success stories are out there, even for poets. Even before POD, Walt Whitman famously self published. William Faulkner also self-published poems and plays.
It's not hopeless. Hell, I've sold more than 500 Cher zines. Here's how I see it: I can start with a book of poetry to learn how to do it, see how it goes. If I fail miserably, I'll have learned all about formatting a book, designing its elements, coordinating its production and the most important lessons on how to market a book.
In the next few weeks, I'll start talking about how how I got started and how I'm getting it done. It's been thrilling and sometimes aggravating but definitely well worth trying.
The graphic above is from Evil Wallpapers at http://evilwallpapers.blogspot.com/2011/09/best-evil-wallpapers_10.html