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?
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.