Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Yo Orphan Press

So we got your cnf book contest info forwarded on the twitter (thanks Brevity), which was exciting. I'm super happy to hear of another press "Seeking engaging, innovative, or experimental creative nonfiction writing in the lyric essay, memoir, graphic memoir, meditative essay, personal essay, flash essay, literary journalism, nature meditation, or hybrid forms." All to the good. But what's up with the $45 entry fee for said contest?

I get that the economics of writing contests are tricky, especially so in prose, even more especially so in nonfiction (I wonder what the economics are of, say, the Bakeless contest in nonfiction; I know the AWP economics loosely*), and super especially so in any sort of vaguely experimental prose. And for a startup press a contest is a tricky beast indeed. But a $45 entry fee is quite a lot for a $1000 honorarium + publication. That's on the border of the golden 1:20 ratio between entry fee and possible prize money that I usually use to determine whether a contest is exploitative of its entrants.

It seems to me really likely to limit your entries (though I suppose you probably only need 22-23 entrants to break even if you're not factoring in administrative overhead and any judge's honorarium).

I'd be interested in hearing back from y'all about the thinking behind this. (I'd be happy to setup an account to post back here if you like.)

I post this in the spirit of open and frank discussion, not in the spirit of discouraging what looks like an exciting new press for the essay.



* As the preliminary judge for the AWP Book Prize in Nonfiction a few years back, I think I read about 120 book submissions, and forwarded ten to the final judge. As I remember, it was a $25 entry at the time (now it's $30 for nonmembers and $15 for members). So you can do the math on that. There's some administrative overhead, as any contest coordinators can tell you. I think it was still a $1000 prize + publication, though now it's up to $2500 (nice work, AWP). Which is pretty reasonable.


  1. $45? That does seem a bit rough.

    Like you say, I understand that the economics of the thing become a bit rough, and the desire to publish experimental nonfiction is great, but 45? Even if there was a bigger prize (and I'm talking significantly larger, here, like 3-4 grand + publication), that still seems like an unreasonably high cost.

    Mainly, I'm uncomfortable with the idea that the writing needs to be subsidized, especially to this extent. If the only way a book can be published is through submission fees (rather than actual sales or even the potential for sales), I think there's a problem. I think this is already fairly close to the poetry model where the books are mainly being read by other poets.

    With that said, I'm a fan of experimental essays (and poetry, for that matter), so I'm trying to figure out a way around the problem, but I guess I don't really have an answer.

  2. Just realized one part of my comment seems unclear: when I say that there isn't a "potential for sales," I'm not saying that nobody would want to read the book or that there wouldn't be interest. I mean that a $45 submission fee implies (at least to me) that the publisher needs to make their money on the front-end. Again, I know very little about the economics, but a smaller reading fee also implies a bit more faith on the editor's behalf in the contest and the final product.

  3. Yes, it speaks to confidence, I think. To me the $45 implies that they're not confident that they'll get enough submissions to make the break-even point, so they've set the fee at a number that will make it more likely. The obvious downside of that high (in my view) fee is that they are likely to get many fewer entries. I invited them to post so hopefully we'll get to hear from them.

    It strikes me as troubling to start a contest and entirely depend on entry fees to make it break even--especially the first year of it, when it's much less likely to break even. I remember what happened with Zoo Press's prose book contest a ways back. But maybe there are economic considerations I'm not aware of.

    I do know that the contest system (or reading fees in open submissions periods) seems pretty well entrenched with poetry presses (my own press included). I am not opposed to book length contests in nonfiction or hybrid works (there are precious few publishers that really take on nf manuscripts that are oriented to art, as we all know), but I do think it's important to talk about the economics and publishing landscape. Hopefully we'll hear more.

    1. Ander I've posted several times to your site, under the Zone 3 Press entry by Amy and none have appeared. Are you censoring?

  4. I'm torn here myself. When 'dleg' writes "If the only way a book can be published is through submission fees (rather than actual sales ...), I think there's a problem," my response is, "yes, we have a problem." As Ander acknowledges, certain books that risk artistic innovation just aren't going to see print in today's market. Perhaps print-on-demand and online books/Kindle-pubs will solve this down the line, but right now the cost of paper, ink, and mailing is scary high.

    No easy answers. Is $45 a lot of money? Yes. Is it perhaps necessary? It might be.

  5. I will say, as a recent grad on the starving artist path, that $45 would immediately put said contest out of the running for me. $20 is kind of the magic threshold. Perhaps it needs to be adjusted for inflation – I’ll go to $25 for the right contest (I entered the Zone 3 CNF contest), but anything higher and I start to visualize the number of grocery bags I could fill with the same amount of money.

    Does anyone have a read on the economics of the Kindle? I came of age with the “artifact,” and still enjoy the physical sensation of a book (or the Sunday Times) in my hand. However, the Kindle (here I should note that I haven’t actually used one as of yet) does seem pleasantly “bookish” in terms of layout and readability. I’m making the assumption that as with digital music, the e-book will lead to wider/easier/cheaper distribution, which from the artist’s standpoint is what we want, right?

    Of course, it might also be the death of the digressive footnote: