Tuesday, November 22, 2005

It’s suddenly frickin’ cold in New York. Why? Who’s idea was winter? Can’t we just have it as a metaphor, rather than a real, and endlessly prolonged, season?

• New books for review:

A GRINGO LIKE ME by Jennifer L. Knox
IN THE MIDDLE DISTANCE by Linda Gregg (galley)
GOD’S SILENCE by Franz Wright (galley)

I’m excited to read the Knox. For a long time, as her poems appeared increasingly in journals, I was skeptical. I wondered, “is this poet just being funny for funny’s sake, just to get people to like her and her poems?” But as I continued to read the poems as more and more editors fell for them, I began to think those editors had made a good call. Knox’s persistent, sometimes overabundant silliness is offset by a formal rigor, as if she is fitting banana-shaped pegs into square holes, an accomplishment that turns out to be quite impressive. And the poems are fun as hell, too. I would say this, though, to Soft Skull Press, the publisher of Knox and Pafunda’s books: Over the last couple of years, you’ve built up a compelling and increasingly important list of poets. Please, put a little more money into the books themselves, the objects. They seem rather flimsy, as if they’re not meant to last, and these are your poets’ bids for some time outside of the passage of time. Don’t let their books disintegrate.

Linda Gregg sits atop a deep well indeed. Her muscular, clipped sentences spring from a fountain of hard earned wisdom. It doesn’t matter how much we know about how she’s earned her wisdom—the poems are wise and sustaining, and that is enough to know.

Wright’s new book is much like his old books, but much longer—it’s 140 pages! What that means is that there are many tiny, negligible poems, most of which contain a few stunning (and I mean absolutely stunning—one is arrested, stopped) lines. There are also a few major pieces, poems of such penetrant power that, like reverse ants, they can carry countless poems a fraction of their size. I’m not sure, yet, whether there is anything here as momentous as “The Only Animal,” the most important poem in Wright’s last book, which, to my way of thinking, is a poem that will last.

• Recent Book I want but haven’t been able to get my hands on yet:

FORIER SERIES by Joshua Corey

• Forthcoming Books I’m looking forward to:

Joshua Clover’s next book, forthcoming, I believe, from U. of California sometime in the next year or so
AMPUTEE’S GUIDE TO SEX by Jillian Weisse coming next year from Soft Skull

I know this is a lot of yammering on about books, but it saves B and other friends from having to listen to me talk about them all the time. At least you can choose not to read this if you don’t want to; they’re stuck with me.


J. S. Buchanan said...


I have found your blog to be intellectually stimulating. Feel free to stick a link in my guestbook (www.jaeford.com).

Paul Sweeney said...

Well, just thought I'd let you know that after all your tips I bought a few of your commented upon books: Crush, Richard Silken; Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, Timothy Donnelly; Periplum and other poems, Peter Gizzi. I read a review in the Boston Review on The Removes by andrew joron, and I liked that so much, hey, I bought the book (took something like six months to find and deliver!). So, keep up the good work, someone is listening !

shanna said...

hey, thanks for the nice words re: Jen's book and SSP poetry in general. we use a great digital short-run printer, actually, and (ahem) topnotch designers, and personally i think our poetry books look MUCH better than most small press books. the sad truth is that we very rarely (uh, never?) make money on poetry--and we're not a nonprofit, so that's an issue--and if we did we'd probably use it to pay the (ahem) poetry editor at least a token salary. ;)

Anonymous said...

I have to agree about the book quality complaint. Soft Skull surpassed its Kinko's origins to produce really nice books (Maggie Nelson's Jane) but I saw what Slicker was talking about when I looked at the Pafunda book. It looks and feels like a galley. This has nothing to do with the "topnotch designer" or editors getting or not getting paid. It has to do with production values and fairness to the poet. If the press can't afford to do a decent print run, that press should be taking fewer books or publishing smaller editions, not cutting every corner with budget paper, bad glue and flimsy covers. A first book never happens again, and a lot of first-book poets are going with Soft Skull. Everyone deserves a substantial, professionally-printed object for all the hard work of being a poet. Is this a controversial position? It doesn't seem like it should be. B

Soft Skull Press said...

There's a debate, of sorts going on here that really requries hard data. And it's a littlw weird when the criticism is coming from someone calling themselves "Anonymous."

It was great to see the nice mention of Jen Knox's book. The admonition, oriiginally from Slicker, and subsequently from Anonymous, does compel me to explain something about the current and probably future economics of poetry publishing.

The second we agree to publish a poetry book, we've lost money. Advance orders for poetry from trade booksellers now run in the 300-400 unit range. We're getting about $1.8K Doing offset printing is going to cost a minimum of $2.2K. Royalties will run about $400K. Mailing review copies will run about $200-$400. Various listing fees charged by wholesalers like Ingram, B&T, Bookazine, Partner's etc. another $150.

So we don't do offset, we use the best short-run digital printer we can find. Sterling Pierce. Used by New Directions, Norton, Penguin, S&S, etc etc... That way we don't have negative gross margins. Careful research into the types of printing the average small poetry press is using indicate that many poetry presses are migrating to short-run digital printing, both for front and backlist printing.

Of course the per title overhead at Soft Skull is about $4K. So we have massively negative net margins, of about –60%.

If Soft Skull were a non-profit, this would be a non-issue (foundation support covers between 60% and 75% of most non-profits). If Soft Skull were quite profitable, this would also be a non-issue (Knopf, FSG, Penguin, Scribner, publish poetry as a prestige loss-leader...). If Soft Skull were a one-person operation from someone's house or apartment, generating the bulk of its sales through the high-margin means of events or a website (where you're capturing 75-100% of list price) as opposed to through national distribution (where you're capturing 37% of list).

But we're none of those. In fact, we are what we are because there aren't many companies like us, and we fill a somewhat important cultural niche of providing a lot of quite alternative cultural product with much more marketing and publicity heft than that product could otherwise obtain. There are trade-offs in a capitalist economy: you can obviate them by submitting to the dictates of state and corporate foundations; by publishing Stephen King and the Left Behind Series and chick-lit; by doing a few books a year and selling them at events, and online; or by squeezing your overhead as low as it can go, finding cost savings anywhere and everywhere you can find them, hustling as much free publicity as you can, and surviving purely by selling books to consumers.

So it would simply be impossible for us to do what you propose. We either publish poetry as cheaply as we can, or we don't do it at all. (Or someone find a way to clone your brain and transplant it into the buyers at B&N, Borders, B&T, Ingram, Prairie Lights, Shakespeare, Elliot Bay and about 150 other independent bookstores. Cause we can't make them order our books. Alternative transplant said brain into the hand of the credit and collections guy at our primary offset printer.)

One other thing I should observe: If we shifted our price points up, booksellers, rightly or wrongly, would deem them to be too far out of the industry norm. And the point-of-sale data on the titles we've done using short-run digital, as opposed to offset printing, indicate that we've not experienced any decline in actual consumer demand. So we're not experiencing diminished sales (hence false economies) as a result of this shift.

"Anonymous" I have to confess really betrays a complete lack of comprehension of any kind of economis when s/he states "If the press can't afford to do a decent print run, that press should be taking fewer books or publishing smaller editions." The problem is not the press being unable to afford a "decent print run' it is that when one is in fact a publihser capable of consistently delivering books to brader markets than poetry specialist micro-presses do, we need orders. Orders from booksellers. One would be a stunningly incompetent publisher to print five times the advance orders.

To addres shis/her sepcifc mention of JANE: we managed, in the strength of the media attention that we felt we could garner for Jane (because of the subject matter) to get advance orders in the 1400 unit range, a litle more than what we're getting for David Lehman and James Cummins book (because of Lehman's sales track record.)

You speaking of "deserving." This is capitalism unfortunately. A bankrupt company does poetry publishing no good.

I do get your disappointment. And I imagine it's shared by others, too. But it derives from a vast array of cultural and economic factors that exist way beyond the realm of an arbitrary decision-making process occurring here in our office...we're a symptom, just as much as the book is. Soft Skull could get out of poetry publishing right now, if that's what you really want. It would make our lives a lot easier. And that I am saying on the record, with my name attached.

Anonymous said...

Responding to the Soft Skull post. I thought your rundown of production costs and quandary was super informative, and I would never suggest soft skull stop publishing poetry. I was agreeing with slicker's dismay, and sticking up for new poets who want goodlooking books, and responding to Shanna's reply in which she said the books do look good and people aren't getting paid, which didn't address the issue. Your posting does address the issue, with hard facts but also with some strange fury. I don't think my opinions warrant such defensiveness. If you read my post, you will see that I am not anonymous, I signed it B. I am a recurring character in Slicker's blog. I go under Anonymous because I don't have a blogger account. But I'm me, B, and indicated so. Does a perceived reluctance to identify myself alter the usefulness of my point? Best. B