Publishing Poetry – making it work here
Now in January 2014, and about 25 collections of published poetry later, I would like Modjaji Books and Hands-On Books to keep on publishing poetry. I love to read poetry, I love to hear poets read their work, reading poetry keeps me on my toes, wide awake, alive to the world and to the inner lives of others. I want to make it possible for poets to get their work published. Publishing poetry led me to found Modjaji Books. However, when you consider that the best-selling collection sold 1100 (Azila Talit Reisenberger’s Life in Translation) and most collections sell 300 or under, and only a handful have sold over 400 (Missing, Please, Take Photographs, Strange Fruit and The Everyday Wife and At Least the Duck Survived), you can understand how being a publisher of poetry in South Africa (and perhaps elsewhere too, is not a commercial enterprise).
It’s possible to publish poetry and cover the hard costs, but it requires that poets and publisher work together, and that both to contribute to the publishing of the work. Poet and publisher both need to be committed in terms of time, money, risk, and engagement.
Unless Modjaji manages to get some substantial funding or some other publishing miracle happens, I’ve decided after nearly 7 years of publishing that Modjaji can’t continue to pay poets royalties for the sale of their physical books. I would like the proceeds of book sales for all new poetry titles to go towards building a kitty for future publications. In other words poets who have been published will subsidise in a best case scenario the publication of the work of future poets. Poets can make some money on their books by organising readings of different kinds and selling their books at readings. I’m also going to ask all the poets that have already been published to contribute their royalties to the fund.
Can one make money as a poet? If not, what is the point of publishing?
If making money out of your poetry is your main ambition, your efforts would be better spent in other ways. Most poets aren’t going to make much, if any money out of their books. You may be lucky and win a prize in which case you may receive prize money. Your poems might be used in textbooks for schools and universities in which case you will receive a small payment.
In my experience there is a tiny audience for poetry in South Africa. But there are poets who have been invited to literary festivals internationally because of their work, and you may be able to get a place at a writers’ residency because of your book and how your book has been received.
Some of the other reasons poets gave when asked why do you want to publish your work?
Fiona Zerbst: Closure and moving on to new work – getting stuff out of the way, really. One’s preoccupations change over time.
Phillippa Yaa de Villiers: From my point of view, I go through phases where I’m preoccupied with something, either a theme or a genre that I want to explore until the day comes when I’m ready to stop looking at that particular thing. Publishing, sharing the fruit of that investigation is a way of closing it so that you can move on to other things. It’s a way of ordering the chaos of creativity. Most of the effort goes into the process of making the work. That’s always more interesting than the product. But the product is where you get to share and contact other humans.
Helen Douglas: “What has to be understood is that form and content combine in an activity which reveals meaning, grasps the mind of the reader, so that he [sic] is forever changed, because, if he has understood, there has been a meeting. And that meeting has permanence since it is held in public words.” – Robin Blaser
Helen added – Which is to say poetry has to be public to do its work which is transformational
Sarah Frost: For recognition? And to gather prism-like reflections from others about the nature of one’s own work (like Indra’s web). For instance I had not realised many of my poems were about the terror of loneliness until Donovan Roebert read my book and took the trouble to articulate his experience thereof.
Rustum Kozain: I suppose it comes from that ur-desire which drove the first people entering the symbolic order to scratch out a picture or symbol on a rock, something by which to say “I was here”.
Robin Winckel-Mellish: At some point it’s lovely to share one’s poetry with others, with a beautiful book. Its the next level and a gift, and very personal too. I have reactions like: now I’m getting to know you!! I must add that having a publisher is somewhat like having a midwife to get the sometimes awkward process going! In Holland a poetry collection is called a “bundle” and that what it feels like actually: a bundle of joy (hopefully)!
AE Ballakstein: …for me the poet is the voice of the spirit in an eternal song to humanity; each poet singing only a few notes, and these notes are sung through their published works. I think poets have an intrinsic desire to contribute their note to this song, and so find reward in doing so when their works are published, especially in book form. There is reward in this contribution to the legacy of notes. Just as in academia we seek to contribute to knowledge through academic publishing, so poetry publishing contributes to pushing the frontier of the song that we know humanity needs to hear.
Kobus Moolman: It is for me about listening to what I hear for the first time. About seeing what I discover. About making the dark and the silent, living. And the rewards? Enough to know that just as I have been built up and broken down and reached and reassured by the community of other makers of beautiful terrifying things, so I too in my small way can reach and build others.
Kelwyn Sole: Single poems aren’t just discrete entities in time and space – there’s often an ongoing logic to a body of work, which one can only discern reading over a period of time … i.e. good poets have a unique perception and logic, which is as much a figurative logic as anything else.
Mike Cope: Writing is half. The other part of poetry is the audience. Publication whether on paper or spoken is part of reaching them, and completing the cycle.
Delisa Zulu: publishing a book gives the readers a room to visit where they can come in at anytime anywhere and listen to a author
Immanuel Suttner: To prove I exist or existed, to try and add some substance to the shadowy outline of the society for the propagation of immanuel to win or muster applause and acknowledgment and validation and theoretical sex appeal, not necessarily in that order, to try and get people concerned about the same things that concern me, to draw attention to the contradictions and seeming cruelties that oppress me
Karen Lazar: I write to bridge the divide between unknowable and unsayable states( for instance living inside a stroke or other brain changes) and more generally knowable ones, to capture the million ways to be a human being.
Susan Hawthorne: You can say things in a poem or series of poems that are difficult to say in other ways. I like being able to challenge people’s ideas subtly as other poets have done for me. I wouldn’t be in Rome writing full time if I hadn’t published. It is also wonderful when a reader gets your poem – or shows you another way of reading your own work.
Michael Dickel: Readers are what I want always. Engaged readers, preferably. Books give a raison d’etre to do readings / performances (and open doors at venues that don’t necessarily get opened if you don’t have a book). Books also open doors for some teaching gigs. But mainly, I want engaged readers. I wish more people would review, comment on, critique, and discuss poetry books (of course, mine, too). If I write poems and they sit on a hard drive or in a drawer, why write them? If I send them to journals, there are some readers, but of one, maybe two or even three poems. A book provides a deeper perspective on the work, but also connects poems one to the other. It is a work built from poems, much as a poem is built from stanzas, stanzas from lines, lines from words. The book, therefore, is its own work of art, when taken as a whole and read as inter-related elements. It potentially engages the reader more fully in the themes, ideas, images, and motifs of the poetry I write.
And it’s cool to say, “my book of poems.” It is. An accomplishment of some sort.
But that accomplishment feels even better when readers say, “I liked this poem or that poem,” the work “spoke to me,” and the like. Engagement. Yep.
Raphael d’Abdon i think it’s about sharing with others the emotions of a particular journey. it’s about capturing the joy and pain of the “here and now”, so i agree with phillippa and ingrid. for me a poetry book is about “framing” a specific life experience in a coherent body of works, as kelwyn put it.
rewards? receiving feedback from fellow writers and poetry audiences (the only people who are interested in poetry… …), individual growth as a writer (well said, kobus)…
What Modjaji Books/Hands-On Books can and can’t offer
We will produce your book – which includes editing your manuscript and proofreading the designed text. You will end up with a beautiful book.
We’ll send your book to various journals, newspapers and magazines for reviews.
You will become better known on the poetry circuit – you might be invited to participate in readings and at literary festivals and poetry events.
Your book will be listed on the booksellers’ database so that it is visible to anyone who wants to search for it or for you as an author. Your book will be listed with African Books Collective (a Modjaji partner) so that it is available internationally.
Your book will appear in the Modjaji Books catalogue and will be taken to any book fairs which Modjaji Books goes to as an exhibitor for at least the first 3 years of its life.
Your book will be entered for relevant prizes.
You may get invited to readings, literary festivals and other unexpected events.
We can’t promise you will make money.
We can’t promise how your book will be received.
You will be surprised, usually pleasantly. You might also be disappointed.
You will learn something about yourself and your poetry.