December 09, 2008

Supporting Your Authors

Since each new blog post pushes down my tribute to 32 Poems, a quick reminder: Subscribe! You'll be glad you did.

Earlier today I traded emails with Marianne, my wonderful managing editor at New Issues. We were touching base on the winter deadlines for book prizes--not publication contests, but the awards that can be bestowed on a title in the first year following its release. There's about a dozen of these prizes on my radar. Usually, the entry fee is something like $0-$50, plus 1-5 copies of the book; the prize usually includes a reading opportunity and an honorarium of $500-$2,500.

At New Issues, I am very fortunate to have a support structure that budgets for judges' copies and contest fees, so that they don't have to come out of my pocket; the press also has paid staff for whom writing a letter of nomination is a reasonable request, in line with their duties. On the rare occasion when they decline to try for an award that I've asked about, they'll articulate sound reasons based on the track record of who has won and what the actual benefits have been. (I also know better than to make a request that, whatever its symbolic value, is not a good use of their resources. In other words I can make that $100 check out the Pulitzer committee myself, thankyouverymuch.)

At many small and independent presses, the burden of applying for these awards falls squarely on the author. The token of prestige and a smattering of book sales for a single, occasional winner does not, for many publishers, justify the expenditure of energy and money that would go into automatically nominating the multitude of authors they publish each year.

That's a shame. Justify it a thousand ways: volunteer staff stretched thin, money better invested in future titles, limited book stock. But the subliminal message to the author is often that the work is good enough, at least to publish, but not so good that it has a chance of winning. And in cases where a nominating letter HAS to come with the publisher's signature, it puts the author in the position of having to remind, cajole, even beg for what feels like a "favor" but is really a reasonable extension of the professional relationship.

I'm a fan of indie publishing, and I certainly admire the vision that causes one to found a new press. But I sometimes wonder if poets, when they become publishers, are really signing on for the whole ten yards of support they need to offer their authors--and if authors, when they ponder the myriad of book contests to enter, know all that they should ask of their presses before signing a contract that hands over the precious asset of creative work. It's not just about the gorgeous cover designs or a bustling table at AWP. It's about the sustained commitment from a press that ensures, once the book is released into the world and the "new" shine wears off, it can continue to move outward, find audiences beyond the author's friends, family, and local venues, and thrive.

Some people harp that big awards--the Tufts or PSA prizes--only recognize "mainstream" presses. They chalk this up to a hegemony of judges. But if the big presses are the only ones fully committed to nominations, can you blame them for winning?

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