Friday, March 12, 2010

Push Pull Pen

What do I have to do to get my manuscript published? How long will I have to wait to hear? You published my previous manuscript; why not this one? These are just some of the questions poets ask when talking to publishers about their new manuscript. This week I spoke to five editors across the country about the challenges and opportunities facing beginning and mid-career poets.

Until he turned the operation over to Randal Macnair, Ron Smith had been running Oolichan Books based in Fernie, B.C. for 36 years. In that time, he’s seen the industry grow, then shrink as the number of poets writing in Canada soared. It’s meant fewer opportunities for poets to get their poems on to book store shelves and tougher choices for publishers over who gets the congratulatory note, who the rejection slip.

“When I started we expected to sell between 800 and 1,000 copies, with a few like Robert Kroetsch’s Stone Hammer Poems selling as many as 4,000,” says Smith. “But that’s steadily gone down. There are more people writing poetry and more poetry titles being published than in the past, but the audience is small. They’re still a dedicated audience, but their purchases are spread over more titles and so editors are more selective.”

Oolichan receives approximately 800 manuscripts each year. Thirty to forty of these, Smith says, will be interesting, but only three or four will make it into production and into book stores. The ratio is a little better at Brick Books, Canada’s largest poetry-only publisher based in London, Ontario, where acquisitions editor Barry Dempster and an editorial board will shepherd seven titles through production each year. Dempster says one of the poet’s biggest challenges is knowing when their manuscript is ready for prime time.

“Often people jump the gun; they put together a manuscript, they’re excited, they want to be able to make our reading period, so they send the work in and it’s not quite ready.”

Dear Ms. Atwood, we are pleased to inform you…

Assuming a publisher agrees your manuscript is as brilliant as you say it is, other hard realities loom large. Because the average title will sell 3-400 copies most poets understand they’re unlikely to get rich. Most also understand that the promotion wings of publishing houses are normally very small – often one-person shops - and hopelessly under-funded. That the Canada Council will backstop reading tours and a reading fee for some poets is undercut by the abysmal support for the arts in this country overall.

Poets get this. They also understand it’s a collaborative effort: the publisher doing what they can to get the word out, the poet buttonholing friends and family to come out to their readings. What poets don’t understand is why no-one outside of family and friends seems to take notice. Once upon a time it was reasonable to expect your book of poems would be reviewed, says Carmine Starnino, editor of Montreal’s Signal Editions. Not any more – and once again it’s a matter of numbers: too few freelance writers knowledgeable enough to write about poetry, too few poets willing to fill the breech. He thinks that should change.

“I just find it hypocritical for me to approach Poet X to review a book and Poet X will say no, I don’t want to do that, it’s too dangerous. But the very moment Poet X has a book out, he or she expects a review. There is a connection between the two and I think poets fail to see that. So we have reaped what we have sown.”

Some of the biggest misunderstandings, though, begin long before a book is ready to be reviewed. Under Ezra Pound’s pen editing assumed near mythic importance in the delivery of Eliot’s The Wasteland. Hence Starnino's surprise when he gets a call from a poet he’s just signed expressing alarm that their manuscript is deemed imperfect and in need of red ink.

“I think that many poets no longer expect to be edited and do not like it. I have accepted two manuscripts where the poets bolted after they learned there would be real editing happening on the books…Not enough is said about the ways in which alert structuring and sequencing can toughen and transform a group of poems.”

Ron Smith agrees:

“I’m somewhat reluctant to take on someone who has decided that their manuscript is finished and clean and pure. Because none of us is a particularly good editor of our own work. There is always something that can be changed or helped along the way.”

One rule of thumb nearly everyone agrees upon is the ban on multiple submissions. “When we discover that you’ve sent your manuscript to five different publishers,” says Barry Dempster, “and that now three of them want you, that’s really frustrating because of the amount of work we put into a manuscript.” Thistledown Press publisher Allan Forrie echoes that sentiment. “For us to read and write notes and sometimes pay readers to do this, to take a manuscript through that process, then have the poet say `Oh by the way this has been accepted by another press, that’s lost faith, lost work.”

It’s a stance embraced by most, but not everyone, in the industry. Alana Wilcox, editorial director for Coach House Press says outside of those moments when she or Acquisitions Editor Kevin Connolly actively solicits a manuscript multiple submissions are fair game:

“If it’s just over the transom then I don’t have any trouble with it at all, because I know that it takes us a long time (to make decisions) because we’re swamped with getting the spring books out and can’t possibly read any manuscripts.

“I do have a problem when people do that and don’t keep everyone informed about what’s happening. I like to know that it’s out at other places and that if something happens the poet will let me know.”

Poets want to know where their manuscripts stand, too. And while much depends upon the number of manuscripts publishers are considering and the point at which a poet submits their manuscript most editors agree poets should not have to wait longer than eight or nine months to hear if their work has been accepted. And no-one is offended if you send a query note asking where your manuscript is in the process.

The Mid-Career Poet…

One of the grimmest conversations a publisher will have is with a poet whose book the publisher has just published and who automatically expects a contract for another. That’s not always a legitimate expectation, says Ron Smith.

“I’m going to tell them if we continue to work together that my expectation is that the next book will build on the first; it’ll go in a new direction, it’ll do something different, it’ll surprise me in some different way.”

Carmine Starnino believes publishers and editors have as much responsibility for the poet’s career as for their last book. He expects a poet to stay with Signal Editions in return for the editor “making sure that second book is as strong as possible.”

“And if it means waiting an extra year or two until the poems are written, that is what we do. In rare cases, where the poet has just lost all ability and there is just no way I can edit this into shape, and no way this can appear in print, then I will turn the book down.”

Every poet looks forward to that day when they’re known as an “established” poet, one whose reputation has been secured through the continued delivery of vivid, adventurous, iconic poetry. But there are down sides, not the least of which is an attitude prevalent among younger poets coming up that you’ve essentially shot your bolt, that you are in a word done. It’s for this reason that many publishers, including Coach House Press, shy away from publishing Selected Works.

“I don’t like selecteds that much,” says Alana Wilcox. “We really haven’t done one recently in my tenure for a number of reasons: First, yeah it’s a sense that it’s over. But also I think it’s a little bit unfair to the other books that a poet has, and to the other publishers, because suddenly all those books become irrelevant or unsellable.”

Wilcox says she’d rather devote the six spots Coach House reserves for poetry books each year to new work. Carmine Starnino agrees Job One is finding “good young poets” but also thinks selecteds have a larger place in publishing. It means re-visiting “not just the dead guys”, he says, “but the mid-career poets”.

“Very few presses out there are interested in doing selecteds, but it’s something I take very seriously and so you’ll find many selecteds in my series since I’ve been editing.”

Anthologies are also considered to be essential to the mid-career poet, but even these have limited importance according to Allan Forrie. “If poems migrate to an anthology I suppose it is recognition of the poet in terms of audience and I think anthologies have a workable purpose in education…But for the intimate experience of the one reader and the one book, I’m not so sure.”

Quality still counts…

So what do editors want to see when a manuscript slides across their desks? A basic grasp of verse forms, an understanding that poetry appeals both to the eye and ear and that line, rhythm and image really matter. Most importantly, poets are expected to be aware of an audience, however that audience might be defined.

“We’re looking for craft and skill first,” says Barry Dempster, “for a certain originality of voice, and for some sense of vision that guides their effort to do something that perhaps hasn’t been done quite that way before.” He and other editors are also looking for a manuscript with a sustained quality from beginning to end.

The good news is that if you’re good enough you will get published. This is where Starnino differs with some of his colleagues: he believes the opportunities for publishing your poetry have never been greater. Where the larger poetry houses have died off, smaller presses have taken their place. And where small presses can’t handle the load, blogs and poetry websites can.

“I think collectively we’re oeuvring up everybody,” Starnino laughs. “Honestly you’d have to be a pretty bad poet in this country not to find a press, and in the end you’ll just publish yourself. That’s how a lot of presses have started actually.”


Brenda Schmidt said...

This is excellent, especially the part on the mid-career poet and those grim conversations.

David Kosub said...

Thanks, Brenda. Glad you liked it.


Lind Hutsell-Manning said...

I look forward to your blog each Friday. Thanks for all your hard work. I am somewhat shocked to think anyone would not expect editing from a newly accepted ms. This has been, in my experience with novels, always the case and I would expect it with a poetry ms.

David Kosub said...

Yes, I was a little surrpised, too, Lind. I wonder if it has something to do with the poet's perception that an enormous amount of compression and concision has already gone into the work.

Thanks for your kind remarks.


Anonymous said...

Nicely put together article. Very accurate. I tend to look forward to the collaborative process after all the isolated work the submitted manuscript has taken place. never anything wrong with making the work better! - Michael Blouin

David Kosub said...

Thanks, Michael. Yes, it was interesting pulling the thing together. And I think most would agree with you on the importance of collaboration. I'm guessing the key is how well the editor frames his or her comments about what needs strengthening in a body of poems.

It's also important to suss out what the poet's original intention was behind the use of a particular device or approach: sometimes even the poet is unclear about this and the editor would do well to simply pose the question and to explore with the poet how much the poet's objectives and the outcome in the poem match up.

Another thought: the poet might discover he or she wants to revise their original intention (though you hope that this would be evident to the editor early on). Anyway, just thoughts.

Thanks again for your kind remarks about the blog.


Anonymous said...

Oolichan may be in Fernie, B.C. now, but it has been in Lantzville.

David Kosub said...

Yes, I wondered about that myself and asked the publisher: While Oolichan has an office in Lanztville, it's main office is in Fernie.


Harold Rhenisch said...


Honestly you’d have to be a pretty bad poet in this country not to find a press, and in the end you’ll just publish yourself.

A clarification:

Or a pretty unfashionable poet.



David Kosub said...

Ok Harold, now I'm intrigued. By "unfashionable" I take it you don't mean corduroy jacket patched at the elbows and blue jeans. Do you mean the predilection for writing in the "plain" style? For the sensual versus the cerebral? "Fashion" covers a lot.

Anonymous said...

Very nice, but a total fantasy. The problem is the reverse: most poets want/need an edit.

Hardly anyone is edited anymore. Publishers wait with their hands out at the trough of MFAs/Banff.

Most poets published in the US would love an edit too, but of course, there is virtually no editing in the US poetry market.

There is some here.

Not enough anywhere though, for my tastes.

David Kosub said...

Hmmm...interesting. Thanks. I wonder if some editors are nervous about touching an ms they think is pretty good already. Though you seem to suggest a more widespread problem.


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