Behind the Curtain

I'm fascinated with the business of poetry, and this is a peek inside what it takes to keep a (successful) small press going. From the WOMPO listserv, this is a response by Jeffery Levine of Tupelo Press (the original question was asked by Nic Sebastian) on charitable organizations.

I appreciate the honesty and candor in his response.


Unlike the huge charitable organizations that have large staffs and war chests for TV and print ads, plus sizable payrolls just for development purposes and highly-compensated executive "teams," most (all?) independent poetry presses have practically no payroll at all. We bring our lunches, and take turns mopping the bathroom floor.

Here's a case in point: at Tupelo Press there's no development staff at all. Our managing editor works part-time, half that time as managing editor, half as production manager. To save the press money, he works out of his home in northern Vermont. My office manager works 3/4 time. (I'd love to bring her up to full time, but can't.) I work 80 hours a week, about 1/4 of that as publisher, about 1/4 as editor in chief, 1/4 as marketing manager, 1/4 as publicist. As for me, I have never had a salary of any kind. Everybody else who does work for Tupelo Press either donates the time, or the work is outsourced (i.e., to our excellent designers, to our excellent web master, our industrious database updaters -- all of whom provide substantial nonprofit discounts. All of my time is donated, and has been for 10 years. Over that period, about $700,000 of my own money has gone into the press to get others in print and out into the world. (Because of the market meltdown -- those funds are no longer available.) Likewise, my board has given substantial dollars over the years to accomplish the same task. This is a common story in literary publishing around the country.

Nobody in nonprofit independent publishing is making money off of donor funds. We have an annual budget of approximately $225,000. We publish 10-12 books a year. The total cost of publishing those 10-12 books, counting two part-time salaries, all of the costs of design & printing, and the post-launch support--review copies, ads, readings, publicity releases, etc. -- comes to $225,000. Every penny goes into making those 10-12 books happen. Again, this is a shared story. Every independent press scrimps to get by, and is lucky to get by. Excuse me for saying the obvious, but I'll keep saying it: publishing poetry is a labor of love. Unless you're Poetry Magazine sitting on a $100,000,000 Ruth Lily endowment -- and the Poetry Foundation, the uber-organization that holds the Poetry Magazine money, determined immediately not to share any of that astoundingly irresponsible gift with the publishing world. Instead they built a tower. As Billy Collins said, it's like giving your entire fortune to your pet goldfish.

So, my suggestion is this: save yourself the anguish. If you have the means to support one or more presses, the world is better for it. Offer to join the Advisory Board of a press you admire. Donate time to help prepare the Profit & Loss Statements, the Balance Sheet, the Cash Flow Statements. Help with a grant application. But bring a strong stomach.

Jeffrey Levine


Catherine said…
Wow, $225,000 for 10 - 12 books? Obviously in New Zealand our budgets are even more shoestring, I believe the cost is something like $6,000.
Of course publicity etc must be less here since we don't have the vast distances to travel.
January said…
I bet the cost is more production than marketing. $225K seems like a drop in the bucket over here. Doesn't account for all the sweat equity that goes into keeping a publisher afloat.

No one is getting rich off of poetry books, that's for sure.
Writer Bug said…
This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing! I guess this is why we all have to think of writing as a labor of love, otherwise we're likely to be very disappointed...

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