Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Best American Essays 2011

Just got my hands on a copy today. Haven't had a chance to read through it yet (except for Robert Atwan's foreword, which is actually pretty great). I'll probably try and put together a more comprehensive look at the anthology, but I wanted to put this post in as a chance for some preliminary conversation: Does BAE give us an accurate representation of the Essay? Will the "Notable Essays" section continue to be more interesting? Will magazines outside of New York get more recognition? Let me know what y'all are thinking and I can try to talk about it more in an upcoming review.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Economics of the Zone 3 Press CNF Award

Thanks, Ander, for the invitation to make public the accounting of Zone 3 Press's recent book prize. I am just home from a movement to support economic transparency of corporations, so it makes sense to at least make this process as clear as I can.

I occupy the same position as most contemporary small press publisher/editors in that I am also a writer. I also submit to press contests. The buoyant optimism I felt after reading about Lewis Hyde's gift economy faded when my first vigilant round of entries netted no prize winner--causing me to recognize that whatever I told myself when I licked those envelopes, I had expected something for my effort and fees, not to mention the dedication that keeps me at my desk writing in the first place. I'll leave aside the obvious question of whether transaction mindset is healthy or useful, just to note that, justified or not, it results in a sense of entitlement.

Which is to say, it helps me to know how at least one press spends their fees.

At Zone 3 Press we were lucky enough to receive 69 entries for our first Creative Nonfiction Book Award, after being a poetry press since 2006, and I am grateful for every submission--though as much for the attention as the $25 fees. The $1725 it totals--and that assumes all payments went through, and we had several issues with check payments--is not even enough to cover printing, which is approximately $2500 for 1000 books and postcards. Other expenses are the finalist judge's honorarium, an honorarium for the semi-finalist judges (who all read off-site and are unaffiliated with our institution), advertisements announcing the original contest and the contest winner, travel expenses and promotion of the winner's reading, and fees for book tables at festivals. There are also time donations by faculty and staff at Austin Peay State University who oversee the process--including making the books available on Small Press Distribution and responding to queries from contest entrants, and managing information as it passes through multiple hands. We are fortunate at our institution to have the Center of Creative Excellence, which provides compensatory funding, without which we would not be able to publish.

I hope my post demonstrates more than anything that I believe in the value of small presses, which are operating on well-monitored accounts--at the very least if the accounts are smaller they are also more closely examined--and that neither I nor my colleagues are milking cash cows when we are coming into the office on weekends and nights and summer days to help another manuscript into the world.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A short follow-up pending something longer

I invited Kristen Iversen, editor (or maybe co-editor) of Orphan Press, to post a fuller response if/when she's moved to (or has the time among her other projects--so many of us have so many projects), but in the meantime I thought I would excerpt (with her permission) a quick email she sent me and some of the other editors at Orphan:

For one thing, to the best of my knowledge many of the presses you mention in your email are funded, at least partially, by universities, foundations, grants, etc.  Orphan Press is basically me and Greg, a writer and an artist with a lot of passion, some good ideas (we hope), and very small pockets.  We're working to develop other sources of funding, but it's tough and it takes time...
the short answer is that we put a great deal of research into contest fees and the literary market in general, as well as the type of book we want to produce.  We feel that this fee is fair and in line with the market, particularly given our emphasis on high quality overall.  We are a very small press, completely self-funded.  Everyone is on a strictly volunteer basis.  Every penny raised from the contest will go to pay our winner and to cover print and production costs--and we still will likely fall short.  There's no profit here, except for the satisfaction that we hope to experience when we discover a unique and compelling piece of work, and we can bring it forth into the world in a beautiful way.  As the press grows and we perhaps become the fortunate recipients of grants, donations, or other forms of support, we may be able to change our fee structure or offer other ways for our writers to get their work out into the world.
I've also invited Amy Wright, from Zone 3 Press, to post about the experience of running a cnf book contest for the first time at that press. I also invited her to talk a bit about the economics of the press and contest. They'd run contests in other genres previously, I think, but this was the first year of their cnf book contest (the great Lia Purpura picked a manuscript by Essay Daily's own Nicole Walker, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, as the winner; it'll be out in Spring 2013).

My hope is that we can have some frank and open conversation about the contest system and how it does or might work in the world of the essay, creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, and so on.

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.