Ideas for the field: Poetry chapbooks and PDFs

A reader recently wrote in to LDS Publisher asking, “Is there any hope of selling a poetry collection to any publisher?

The answer, of course, is: No.

LDS Publisher puts it more diplomatically, of course:

The only way you’re going to sell a book of poetry to an LDS publisher is if it’s a gift book, a children’s picture book, or part of an anthology (like Especially for Mormons)–but even those are tough sells.

In my comment, I point out that even though Signature stills publishes about one volume of poetry a year, if you are simply looking to publish Mormon poetry, then Dialogue, Irreantum, Sunstone, Segullah and BYU Studies are really your only options.

This brought to my mind Kent Larsen’s posts on poetry chapbooks — News: Poetry Chapbook from MAG and The Importance of Chapbooks — both are must reads for Mormon poets.

My first thought was that (and now I’m quoting from my comment at LDS Publisher) there are several Mormon poets out there who have published several poems in several of the journals (Darlene Young and Patricia Karamesines, for example), but have no way to take the next step. Since neither the AML nor BYU nor any of the periodicals seem to be interested in taking this step, I think some of the poets should consider forming a co-op to publish chapbooks. With enough sales (which will be very small), grants and fundraising, such a co-op might just be able to publish two chapbooks a year and break even.

After looking back at Kent’s posts form 2006, I see that he is interested in hearing from Mormon poets. Of course, he is hampered a bit by being based in New York. If he is still interested in publishing chapbooks, I’m sure he’ll let us know in the comments.

But here’s my idea for chapbooks:

Poetry is perfect for the Web because it’s generally short and easy to read on a screen. However, as I discovered with Popcorn Popping, it’s also difficult to publish well on the Web because HTML code just isn’t set up for creative line spacing. It’s doable, but it takes a lot of extra work. These days, though, almost anyone can do a decent layout in Open Office and publish it as a PDF with the touch of a button. There are also utilities that will allow users to publish MS Word documents as PDFs. And there’s some very cool Web apps that allow for easy, interesting layout creation, for example Format Pixel.

There are also some great Mormon graphic designers out there who might be willing to donate their time and take the layout a step further.

So I think that the way to go about publishing chapbooks (because as Kent points out, they tend to be very hard to find, often only appearing at conferences and local independent bookstores) is to create them electronically and publish them on the Web either for free or for 1$ per download (to cover hosting costs). Of course, e-publishing is fine, but there’s paper is still better for those of us who love to read. So you then sign up subscribers (and here we’re going old school e.g. 16th/17th century) for the art-book, paper-based version of it. Set a subscriber threshold and a time limit and if you reach the threshold then put the thing in to production. If you don’t, refund the money and at least people have their digital copies. And, of course, if some individuals want to be generous and donate at a level above the subscriber rate, you list them as patrons in the back of the chapbook.

What do you all think?

Finally: If anyone out there has published a chapbook of Mormon poetry in the past couple of years or knows of one that has been published, please contact me at [my first name]@motleyvision.org. I’d be happy to post about it.

19 thoughts on “Ideas for the field: Poetry chapbooks and PDFs”

  1. William wrote:
    “The answer, of course, is: No.”

    I’m ready to publish poetry, if I think its of high enough quality.

    And if it is in another language, I’m even more ready to publish it.

    I won’t claim that poetry will sell very well, but I am willing to get it out there.

    Kent
    [My publishing website is at Mormon Arts and Letters]

  2. I thought as much, Kent. Thanks. You know, I can’t believe that I didn’t mention this at the time that I went to elementary school with some Tanners when I live in Kanab. Although I don’t remember Javen.

    Edje:

    Because of the hight cost of the end product (although Lulu has rolled out some really cheap options so it would definitely be something to think about) and uniform nature of publish-on-demand sizes and papers. The point of chapbooks is to have something that is relatively cheap, limited run and yet has some cool elements to the paper or cover or whatever. The idea is to create something where somebody would want to own the physical copy. Kent’s products go real high-end with that, but other chapbooks can go for $5-10.

  3. I’m sold on the idea of an e-published chapbook. I would subscribe to one–especially if each book only cost $5. Heck, if I had the know how I would put it together! Anybody willing to collaborate or point me in the right direction to start this project? I can’t guarantee how soon I’d get it done, but it seems like something worth trying!

  4. Edje:

    Lulu, like all the author-oriented POD services (they often lie and call themselves POD Publishers — don’t fall into the trap) is less than ideal.

    Lulu assumes that most sales will occur on its site, and its pricing makes it nearly impossible to use their option of selling through online bookstores.

    When you use these services YOU are the publisher, responsible for everything that the publisher does (this is why the title POD Publisher is a lie). So why not use a service that is oriented toward a publisher, instead of one that lies about what they are?

    I’ve covered this before here on Motley Vision, see The Difficult Path of Self Publishing.

  5. Laura:

    Its not any different than self-publishing. Creating the actual book is as simple as creating any document that you can turn into a pdf (preparing that to be a printed book is a bit more complicated, but an ebook is any size and parameters you want). Of course, this all assumes that you have done a good job preparing the book editorially — which is where 75% of self-published works fail.

    However, successfully selling and distributing the chapbook can be much more complicated, if you are looking for a large audience. Selling a couple dozen copies is easy. Its when you try to go beyond the people you know personally and talk to regularly that you find that its not so easy.

  6. I am a book designer and would love to help authors prepare their chapbooks for print/PDF (I don’t do Web design) for a minimal cost. I have done poetry layout for BYU Studies and Irreantum and have worked on _Second Crop_ by John Harris, _Discoveries_ ed. by Susan Howe and Sheree Bench, and the new Eliza R. Snow collection coming out later this year. You can see my portfolio here.

  7. Thanks for remembering that there is such a thing as poetry, William. I went into Deseret Book the other day (something I do only once a year or so) and asked them where the poetry section was. There was none. The sales clerk sent me to “Inspiration,” saying “You might find something there . . . ” But I didn’t. Not a single thing. Not even any Carol Lynn Pearson.

    Soooooo depressing to someone who writes poetry, especially someone who writes almost exclusively Mormon poetry. I guess we poets secretly hope that even though we know Mormons don’t read poetry, maybe OUR poetry is different, maybe our poetry speeaks to people in a way that others haven’t before (we’re more accessible, maybe? or less trite?). But I have to live with the fact that my only chances are that maybe someday I’ll get picked up by Signature (who, by the way, said in an AML session once, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” [meaning that they contact the people they notice in Irreantum and Dialogue]–so I’m still waiting for them to call . . . ) Or maybe I’ll bite the bullet and publish a chapbook sometime but I have no idea what to do once I publish one (the marketing aspect, as you say).

    Anyway, thanks for remembering the poets.

  8. Ah, but see, Darlene, as much as we all like to whine about Deseret Book, the truth is that poets are in much better positions — there is no hope [Well not no hope — let’s not forget Kent’s repetition of an offer he has been making since 2006 to consider poetry for publication by Mormon Arts and Letters].

    But anyway — much better to be a poet than a novelist, esp. a novelist like Coke Newell or Angela Hallstrom, and have the possibility of being carried (and even enthusiastically marketed) by Deseret Book be out there and yet be out of grasp.

    My point is that exactly because there is no hope, you Mormon poets are now completely free to do it yourself. Because if Kent doesn’t publish you (and he wouldn’t be able to publish everybody), it’s not going to happen. That may be depressing, but it also could be very freeing. It’s time for the Mormon poets to go all punk rock on the market.

  9. Darlene–I have no clue about the marketing aspect either but what if you and I put together a collection, and maybe some from the Segullah ladies or Patricia or whoever else is intersted, and worry about the marketing when we come to it? I may not be quite as good a poet as you but I have won a couple awards (nothing prestigious) and sold a couple things–I have a few poems of my posted on my blog. . . anyway, I’m serious about this. Let’s “go all punk rock on the market” and see what happens! If you’re interested, could I e-mail you and we could flesh this out?

  10. Sorry I’m coming so late to this discussion. Internet’s been on the fritz.

    I’ve been toying with the prospect of putting together a chapbook (I only have enough poems for a chapbook). Your idea, Wm, interests me for a couple of reasons besides the fact that almost no one in the LDS market publishes poetry.

    1) Because of my home circumstances, I’m time- and energy-challenged. I’m unable in any concentrated way to go through the process of searching for and corresponding with publishers, dealing with the business (sometimes long and tedious) of submitting work, waiting for months only to get a “we like this but we don’t know how to market it” rejection, submitting to competitions, and all the follow through that’s involved on these fronts. On other fronts, such as putting up websites or having our own blogs, etc. we move very slowly in the K. household and for the same reasons. I participate on AMV precisely because of the convenience of flexible and (for me) generous access and because the trail is already broken (thank you very much, Wm!). My botton line: If it doesn’t work with my household, I can’t do it. I’m always looking for paths of least resistance. If they’re cutting edge, naturally, that’s very attractive.

    2) My poetry is not especially Mormon and not especially not-Mormon, so there I am, hung up on the marketing shoal. The free-wheeling spirit of the Internet seems to float all boats.

    As an aside, Leslie Norris, and I believe I heard this from A. H. King as well, used to say with some frequency that the best poetry wasn’t being published. They meant, of course, by conventional means through what was then the usual routes of magazines, lit journals, etc. I think they were commenting on the strangleholds certain clubhouse attitudes had on publishing markets, but I’m not sure. Whatever the problems, I think punk-rocking the market solves them.

  11. BTW, Darlene said, “I guess we poets secretly hope that even though we know Mormons don’t read poetry, maybe OUR poetry is different, maybe our poetry speeaks to people in a way that others haven’t before (we’re more accessible, maybe? or less trite?).”

    Speaking for myself, my poetry is the most difficult language I write in. I understand it has very limited appeal, which is why I have experimented with other genres, especially folktale-like narratives, which even children can play with.

  12. Wm:

    Do you think it would be feasible to create a poetry chapbook/pdf imprint using OJS as a platform to publish the books (like we’ve used to launch Reading Until Dawn, although I’m not currently using it to it’s fullest, peer-review-enabled capacity), either as a public service or for subscribers?

    I’m just wondering because I’ve become increasingly interested in the prospect of creating a place specifically for Mormon poets to take the next step you outline here—from publishing single poems in Mormon periodicals to publishing them in small, self-contained collections. Of course, this would take some volunteer-power to give repeated readings to manuscripts, to edit them, to lay them out, etc. But the potential’s there; I just wonder if you and our AMV readership think it’s a feasible, worthwhile undertaking (that is, if someone—like a group of AMV co-bloggers or readers [I know Laura and Darlene expressed interest last March, and I’m obviously interested]—was willing to take it on. . . although maybe that’s asking too much. I don’t know. Just putting it out there.)

    In other words, what do you readers, especially you poets out there, think?

  13. It’s possible. I don’t know if OJS is the right platform for something like that, but I’m sure there’s something out there.

    One thing that’s tricky about the Web is that it can be difficult (or at least more time intensive) to format lines appropriately. The Web really wasn’t made to mess with spacing.

    I’ve also become a bit disenchanted with PDF files. It can be a bit confining as a format.

    I’ll be honest: I have some other projects in the fire at the moment. And although my bias is towards electronic, I think that poetry is one venue where print really is paramount. What might be best is a site that collects some individual poems and then offers full chapbooks for mail order.

    Or perhaps I’ve been thinking about this all wrong: one way to start, perhaps — a low-fi, Mormon poetry zine.

    Some of the poems could be handwritten; some could be laid out. It’d be quick and easy and fun and cheap.

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