The Price of Publication and Self-Publication in the Literary World by Ren Powell

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The Price of Publication and Self-Publication in the Literary World

There is a term “pay for play” that is used about political donations and political appointments, for stand-up comics paying for stage time, and even for artists who pay for exhibition space. I have never heard it used when discussing literary publishing, but maybe it is something that needs to be discussed.

 

I have my graduate writing degrees from a university in England, and almost all my books have been published in Norway, so for many years I didn’t bother reaching out to literary publications in America. Once or twice, I queried publishers who had books on their lists, written by poets whose work I admired a great deal, but I’d been told that since I wasn’t a U.S. resident and couldn’t promote the work through readings, they wouldn’t look at my manuscript. 

I’ve reached a point in my career where just having a nice book on the library shelf isn’t enough. My work has been published in bilingual editions, but it has rarely been read in the original language by people who have English as their mother tongue. And that matters to me. Real communication matters to me. It’s why I write.

So, I began looking into submitting work to American publications again. But over these years reading fees seem to have become the norm. Not only for book publishers, but for literary magazines. 

A poet I admire recently promoted a new zine that publishes a poem a day. Good poems, good poets. All of whom pay $5 a pop to have a poem considered for publication. I know it isn’t much, but I keep thinking of a gambler who throws down a chip or two at a time… for hours. For years. 

Is this a game for the wealthy? Are poets now entrepreneurs “investing” in their careers? I can understand the sense of it for poets who teach at universities, where poetry publications are a way to secure tenure. But for the rest of us — “academic,” but not in academia — what and where is the return exactly? 

We support visual artists and musicians when they scoff at being asked to work free “for the exposure.” But writers are actually paying for exposure. Worse actually: paying for a lottery ticket for possible exposure. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I will do a lot for a pat on the back, for someone to sincerely tell me that they liked my poem or my book. But how much am I willing to invest financially for this? Crawling my way through the ranks with submission fees to reach the New Yorker could have a very high price tag.

I understand supply and demand. I understand how hard it is for literary journals and publishers to make ends meet. I do. I’m just not convinced that getting their financing from hopeful writers isn’t exploitative. 

Please know that I am not offering a solution. I don’t have an alternative model up my sleeve. And to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if, a week or so from now, I were to give in and pay a submission fee. But I hope not. 

You see, coincidentally, this fall — probably because of COVID-19 and the restrictions we have had — I did give into my desire to make things with my hands. I think the lack of touch, the overload of Zoom, the sharp smell of anti-bac, drove me back to paper mâché, to painting, to poetry objects, to bookbinding. I began writing a poetry collection that was integrated with the objects and the artwork. I’d discussed the possibility of making this kind of book previously with my publisher, but he’d not been able to finance it. I decided to self-publish.

The limited series is expensive to make – and expensive to buy, so I also made print-on-demand facsimiles. Thus, crossing over into “self-published” territory entirely. And I don’t know how I feel about that.

In genre writing self-publishing has all but lost its stigma. I am in awe of the mystery writers and romance writers who can tells such amazing stories – so many – to keep their readers on the edge of their seats. And there are a lot of social media poets who write uplifting, accessible poetry that is so meaningful for so many people! But literary writing is different.

Like fine art, literature with a capital “L” has always had gatekeepers to tell us what is good, who is good. We like that. I admit that, despite myself, I still like that sometimes. If my first instinct is “I don’t get it.” I know if it is published by a certain publishing house that it will be worth my time to give it another go. I trust the publisher.

It is difficult for a writer to get the reader to trust them enough for a second look when they “don’t get it” the first time through. Why should they invest the time?

Gertrude Stein self-published. But then, she was independently wealthy, socially influential, and Pablo Picasso was her friend. That’s quite the endorsement. I don’t have that kind of endorsement, but I do have friends who supported me during the process. Pam Bustin, a writer, story tender and editor, was there for me as an accountability coach. She helped me plan and use a structure to push through without an editorial team, or a Bloomsbury group.

It is too early for me to know how this whole thing will turn out. And I haven’t run across anyone else doing exactly what I’m doing. Yet.

I figure those other literary writers may be out there, trying to be seen. Trying to find readers without paying to play. Can you point them out to me?

Author Bio:

Ren Powell is a writer and teaching artist. She is a native Californian – now a Norwegian citizen settled on the west coast of Norway. Ren has been a member of The Norwegian Author’s Union since 2005 and has published six full-length collections of poetry and more than two dozen books of translations with traditional publishing houses. Her poetry collections have been purchased by the Norwegian Arts Council for national library distribution, and her poems have been translated and published in eight languages. Ren is currently focusing on handbound poetry collections and mixed media experimentation as Mad Orphan Lit.

Contact the author: https://renpowell.com/ and her publishing bookstore: https://renpowell.com/shop/

16 Comments on “The Price of Publication and Self-Publication in the Literary World by Ren Powell

  1. Pingback: Impermanence by Ren Powell (Spring 2021) |

    • I’m just an old man in short pants and compression socks, who refuses to pay a fee to any publication to read my work. I’ve always been against self-publishing (old school) but having become involved in the art world, I now see how important self-published books can be. Your visual art with text is a perfect match for self-publishing, methinks. BTW, this is the best link to peruse where to submit work to avoid reading fees: https://entropymag.org/where-to-submit-march-april-and-may-2021/

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Like you I am an epatriate American living in a Scandinavian country. Like you I’ve publishing extensivelt in journals, but been told a few times that my book ms. was good enough to publish but self-promomotion was essential–readings, signings, etc. I’m old now and decided to self-publish. I did my first books under my own imprint. The next, soon-forthcoming, collection will be under the imprint of Czech-based Literary Bohemian. Ren, poetry book publishing is NOT what it was 60 years ago when I started writing. It will never be that way again. Just don’t quit. Find the publishing route that suits you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Janice! I think I will probably keep publishing with Wigestrand as long as they’ll have me – but it will mean I have to be more productive to keep up with that and my own handbound projects. But that’s kind of exciting! I am VERY excited to hear about your upcoming collection! When??

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks Ren. I think it will be available online in about a month.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for sharing your a bit of your long experience with publishing, Janice. Mine isn’t quite that long – I started in my 20’s, back in the 1970’s, with seven poems in POET LORE – and I am not an expat. I have five chapbooks out from small presses and one from a hospital, and am about to see my fourth full length collection launch. One of the full length books came from a publisher who required a purchase of many copies of the book, so that bordered on self publishing and I will not do it again, not just because I lost money but because I felt emotionally drained by the experience. I am willing to pay occasional reading fees depending on how high they are. I agree that poetry publishing is not what it used to be, and we each need to find a route that’s right for us. We need to respect the flux in our own psychological energy levels and, as you say, not quit!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for your article. For me, submission fees equals economics. As a result, that is the first thing I look for in the guidelines. Three dollars per submission would eat up anything I would make with acceptances. As as a religious sister (nun), I want my name out there so a Catholic reader might consider a religious vocation. But it needs to be balanced with what I can turn in to my community’s coffers. Thank you again for your insightful article. Good luck with your writing.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Ren,
    I refuse to ever pay a reading fee, and nearly always refuse to pay a contest fee (save one–and that’s how I met Pam Bustin). I write genre works, and have been self-publishing for several years now. I know it’s a completely different world from literary works, and definitely from poetry. But I might have an insight for attracting readers.

    It all comes from ‘loss-leaders’–small works that are complete in themselves, but lead to larger works in the same thematic area. Generate a small work that is easily accessible to your desired audience, then give it away for free. By “accessible”, I mean a work that doesn’t generate the “I don’t get it” reaction. (IMHO, if that’s the first reaction you get when reading someone’s work, then that artist has failed at a fundamental level). It’s like leaving a small bowl of milk outside for a cat you might have seen wandering around.

    People will take samples readily, but only a subset of them will buy into your longer works, so don’t be disappointed when they don’t buy a larger work. But keep leaving that bowl of milk out, and word of mouth will kick in rather quickly. You’d be amazed at the number of people who will go for your paid works.

    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

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