Monday, 26 October 2015

Small publishers and poetry prizes

Do small publishers get fair access to the big poetry prizes, and if not, what are the barriers and what can be done?  I asked four small poetry publishers for their views.  It’s hard for them to come out with these themselves; that could be self-defeating. 

The background was this year’s Forward Best Collection Prize (see previous post). The Forward shortlist, and winner Claudia Rankine (left), shook up the familiar poetry prize carousel – shortlists and judging panels alike dominated by the major publishers, an apparent unwillingness to look outside the mainstream, and this reflected in a predominance of white and (to some extent) male winners.  See the audit I did of the Forward and TS Eliot Prizes nearly two years ago.  Also see that audit for some caveats; it’s not possible to write about poetry prizes without these. 

The TS Eliot Prize shortlist has just been announced and major publishers retain their grip on that; the list of poets is more diverse, perhaps reflecting a trend in poetry publishing.  

The four small publishers I questioned are experienced, hard-working and well-respected.  They come from different parts of the UK and publish a wide range of work.  One has had some success with poetry prizes, the others haven’t.  I asked about the TSE and Forward, to keep it simple, but some answers ranged more widely.  I’ve mostly presented the issues in the publishers’ own words.  Of course not all of them said everything, but responses were similar.  I’ve highlighted the one case where they disagreed.

All appreciated the helpfulness of poetry prize administrators but felt that the processes and results didn’t reflect it.  They identified three barriers to fairness: the judging system (for the TSE Prize), the timing of entries and the cost of entering prizes. 

1.  Prize administration

The Forward Prize administration was praised for being welcoming and helpful to small publishers, for example accepting books in manuscript form, having an online submissions system; and for responding constructively to criticism. 

Especially wonderful is the way [Susannah Herbert] talks to people and listens and takes criticism on board and responds, all in a completely informal and open way.

The staff at the Poetry Book Society (which runs the TSE Prize) were also praised for being helpful.

They communicate well with us and some individuals in the organisation work very hard to be accommodating, thoughtful and helpful – this is much appreciated.


the [PBS] website is awful to navigate – feels like a closed club to even us as publishers

and this contributes to a perception of lack of transparency. 

2.  The judging system

There was general frustration that the prizes are dominated by the big six.  Joey Connolly in The Poetry Review last year: “Only one of the forty PBS Choices in the last ten years has come from a non-major publisher”. 

It does all feel rather London-centric and larger-publisher orientated at times. I’d like to see many more regional indies on these lists, and poets whose work may be more at the fringes.

Specific criticisms focused on the judging system for the TS Eliot Prize.

The PBS and the TSE need a big jolt… the whole set-up is odd: the judges have 40% of their shortlist chosen for them by the other judges of the seasonal Choices... Last year [when two of the three judges had close links with the winner] was a fiasco.

Can we have some non-poets and real-life poetry readers on this panel?  .. I’d like to know WHO the [PBS selectors] are and see that there are also a diverse mix of selectors young/older, women/men, and BAME poets.

3.  Timing of entries

Poetry prizes tend to take in books for reading in advance of publication, so that when shortlists and winners are announced they aren’t out of date.  

If I want to submit for the PBS summer choice/recommendations (books published April/May/June), for example, I have to send them proofs at start of previous December.

Having to send books/proofs in early was a problem for three.  

The smaller the publisher the shorter the lead times. 

But one said:

I don't see why working to a long schedule should be more difficult than working to a tight one.

It’s probably hard for the organisers to get the balance right between timeliness and ease of entry.  Larger publishers may have a presentational /psychological advantage too if the judges are reading their entries as books or well-presented proofs rather than in manuscript form. 

4.  Cost

The cost for small publishers is often the numbers of free copies that are hurled into the abyss of prizes, review copies and comps.  It is sensible to print cheaply: perfect bound cheap editions so the unit cost is small…  My books have a high unit cost because of their production values.

It’s usually somewhere between £60-£200 worth of books to enter, plus printing off of manuscript copies, postage of around £20 – it all adds up. We write off this cost as part of what we do, but it’s a sizeable cost and it can feel like a disheartening process.

The TSE and Forward are not worse than average though there is a cost problem with the PBS Quarterly Choice:

If a book were to be selected for PBS Choice, the terms are grim. They agree to buy lots of copies, a couple of thousand, but these must be RRP under a tenner and they will buy for a very low price… It means you need to set a high cover price and a low print cost in order to make anything on it at all.

Then there’s the Costa Prize, or how “the UK’s largest hospitality company” extracts money from poetry publishers:

For the Costa, in addition to the handful of books [to enter], 20 free books if shortlisted; if you win the poetry category, publisher has to pay Costa £4,000 for ‘general promotion of the books’; if you win outright, another £5,000 on top of that.

Costa prizes.. are pretty much un-enterable for us at present… how wonderful to be shortlisted, but how awful then to try and find £4k to pay for the privilege to a private company as large as Whitbread PLC – no opt out or support for smaller publishers!

What, one wonders, are sponsors actually paying for, if the publishers have to pay for promotion?

And some other prizes:

Guardian First Book Award: in addition to the handful of books, an entry fee of £150 + VAT; if the book is shortlisted, they require 70 free books for their reading groups (..the books get to people who otherwise wouldn’t have read them..).

Dylan Thomas Prize, 20 free copies if you get to the longlist, another 20 free copies if you get on the shortlist.. [and then you] pay £500 for ‘promotional purposes’..

And the Next Generation promotion:

… Not a prize but there was a fee levied per poet, and charged if you were selected, that was the same whether you were a major or a small publisher – plus a number of books had to be sent, and no sliding scale or additional help to enter for small press publishers, despite it being ACE funded.  As a result we entered fewer poets…

5.  Solutions

Despite all this, and even through gritted teeth, these small publishers continue to enter their poets’ books for prizes.  

Not submitting is self-defeating.

The chances that they will be placed or win are remote but one can't let the author down (actually one can [some small publishers don’t enter everyone they’d like to]). 

What could be done to make it easier for them and to lessen the perception – shared widely in the UK poetry world – that prizes aren’t fair?  Which is not good for any poets or publishers, large or small. 

A.   Some changes at the Poetry Book Society/TSE Prize, which is now perceived as lagging behind the others:
o    Widen the range of judges and selectors to include reviewers, editors, poetry readers etc. 
o     Implement a code of practice, as called for in The Poetry Review last year.  To the PBS’ credit it has agreed to do this (see current Poetry Review) – which might help achieve a more varied judging panel anyway.  (The Costa and Forward Prizes said No to this idea, but then their judges are more diverse.)
o    Reform the link between the PBS Choice and the TS Eliot Prize, or remove it altogether.  One option would be to allow the TSE judges to shortlist four books from any of the PBS Bulletin’s recommended books, which would greatly widen the scope (Peter Daniels suggested this in a comment on my audit).
o     Reform the PBS Choice pricing structure so that it is less punitive to small publishers.
o  Revamp the website to make information about the prizes, PBS Choices, etc clear and easily accessible.

B.   Publishers could submit collections initially as pdfs.  Judges would then call for proofs / books at a new, longlisting stage.  (This idea came from one of the four publishers, and a couple of the others liked it.)  Might be unwelcome to judges but would level the playing-field on timing and presentation.

C.   Take the cost out of Costa and the other expensive prizes.  Could mega-plc Whitbread afford a few extra thousand pounds to make their prize more accessible?  At the very least introduce a sliding scale of fees, maybe based on turnover.  

D.  Funders of poetry prizes should consider using their power to reinforce calls for change.  For example:
o     The PBS got £22k from Arts Council England (ACE) last year as part of a 2-year grant.  ACE could make any future funding conditional on changes.  PBS also report £49k from foundations etc in their 2013-14 accounts.  Foundations could be more proactive. 
o     The Forward Foundation gets £144k for 2015-18 from ACE with which it has National Portfolio status.  It’s easy to imagine that a dialogue on diversity has taken place. 
o     Next Generation Poets 2014 received £40k from ACE.  In future, ACE could insist on a sliding scale of charges to help small publishers. 

I’d like to thank all four publishers who spent time and thought on answering my questions.  And finally, as one of them said: 

What are the real prizes? And do prizes actually put poets off writing well?

Friday, 2 October 2015

The Forward Prize; the Poetry Book Fair

I first saw this year’s Forward Prize shortlists while experiencing a moment of internet access a very long way from London.  I noticed with pleasure that Peter Riley was on the main prize list; and wondered who Claudia Rankine was.  The judges looked interesting, chaired by AL Kennedy.  And not one, two but three graduates of the Complete Works programme were on the first collection shortlist...  Maybe the Forward Prizes were stepping off the poetry prize carousel? 

By Monday night I’d read about a quarter of Rankine’s Citizen: an American Lyric (Penguin), more than enough to be thrilled when we came in late, having queued the whole interval at the bar, to see her on stage in the row of five.  (Shortlisted poets from America don’t always turn up – fair enough.)

Citizen presents everyday racism as Chinese water torture.  It’s emotionally electrifying and not like anything I’ve read in form or content.  It pushes the boundaries of poetry, veering from prose poem to lyrical essay to concrete poetry.  It’s ground-breaking enough to sweep definitions aside.  It’s mostly written in the second person, so that you – ‘you’ – become the subject of the many anecdotes and are also challenged by them to think about your own attitudes and behaviour.  Interviewed on stage, Claudia Rankine said that poetry is the realm of feeling and the book is about intimacy.  She had asked people to tell her about moments in everyday life when they felt bad.  The intention is that readers should feel what these individuals felt.  ‘You’ is unstable, she said: it can be accusatory, a call, intimate, general; can become a space rather than a pronoun.  She reminded us of the slights President Obama had suffered, such as the calls for his birth certificate.

There’s a short extract from Citizen, which is published by Penguin, here.  See Dave Poems for a review.   

It was also good to hear Peter Riley, an English modernist whose poems contain landscapes and journeys both physical and political, read from Due North.  And three poets from Ireland (or rather two since Paul Muldoon was stuck in the US lecturing): Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Ciaran Carson.  To focus our attention on less widely read authors such as Riley and Ní Chuilleanáin is one thing prizes should do.  Another first was that three of these poets’ books are out from middle-sized publishing houses, Ireland’s Gallery Press and Shearsman. 

There was a storm of applause when Citizen won.  It felt like a breakthrough moment.  First ever black female winner of the Forward main prize.  We were applauding the woman, the work and the symbolism.  Like the reception last year for Kei Miller, first ever black poet to win.

This year’s First Collection Prize will be memorable too, as the year the Complete Works generation came of age.  Five vivid and memorable books, five excellent readers; and three sets of vertiginously high heels as if in a game of dare.  It was exciting to hear the three Complete Works authors read, in such circumstances, poems I’d read several times on the page. Sarah Howe’s reading of ‘(c) Tame’ gave me the shivers, Karen McCarthy Woolf conveyed the precise madness of bereavement in ‘The Registrar’s Office’, and I was delighted that winner Mona Arshi chose to read ‘The Daughters’ which was published last year in The Rialto.  I enjoyed in a different way hearing Andrew MacMillan and Matthew Siegel read, as an introduction to their work.

If the Forward Arts Foundation didn’t exist we might not believe anyone who proposed to invent it: a private foundation whose purpose is to support poetry and talented poets and to inspire a love of poetry.  A philanthropic poetry godparent.  Really?  In the UK?  I’m not sure we appreciate it enough... 

Anyway the Festival Hall stalls were full last Monday night, the sense of occasion heightened by a glamorously orange-lit stage – same shade as the trousers worn by singer/poetry lover and stand-in for absent poets Cerys Matthews, unless that was the lighting.  She, founder-benefactor William Sieghart and judges’ chair AL Kennedy all played their roles becomingly modestly and our grumbling (no actors to aim at this year) focussed on the over-explanatory MCing of radio and TV personality Kirsty Lang. 

My main motivation for writing about Monday’s ceremony is that nearly two years ago I did an audit of shortlists, winners and judges of the TS Eliot Prize and Forward (main prize only) and concluded that poetry prizes were a carousel.  So this is to mark progress since then.  Forward Director Susannah Herbert deserves much credit for listening openly and constructively to criticism of prize culture (and of previous years’ staging of the Forward).  The way the Forward Prizes are developing ought to put some pressure on the TS Eliot Prize. 

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Reality Street stall
The week’s other treat was the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair with over 80 publishers cramming into Conway Hall, the lack of elbow room a symptom of the expanding scene and the fair’s success.  Who would think that poets and their friends, customers etc (often also poets in another, very different carousel) could make so much din?  As before, major publishers such as Bloodaxe and Faber were next to the middle-sized, the small and the smallest, from Arc or Blart to Veer or ZimZalla, and Hercules to Isobar or Katabasis.  There was a translation focus this year and I was sorry that the Poetry Translation Centre’s reading by Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi was known about and listened to by so few.  He can fill a stadium with four thousand people at home…

Rishi Dastidar on the Rialto stall
The stalls were a delight to browse for look as well as contents.  My favourite thing of all was Sidekick Books' moth-poem visiting cards.  I've nicked a photo off their Twitter feed, right at the end of this.  The Rialto had a stall too so I played stallholder for a bit (it felt like playing shops).  I didn’t buy so much this year but went away as usual with my mental map of poetry publishing enriched.  And with the lovely catalogue, like last year’s no throwaway object but a publishers’ index and anthology combined.  All hail to Chrissy Williams, Joey Connolly and their team of volunteers. 

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Smaller publishers still struggle to enter books for poetry prizes.  I’ve asked a handful of them about what barriers they face and what might make it easier for them.  To follow shortly.