Vanity presses, exclusion, etc.
I have been looking again at Clifford's book on poetry publication, which includes price estimates from various publishers who could be interpreted as operating on a play-to-play basis. This exercise took place in roughly 1994. The prices varied from about £2000 to about £4000 for a book. There is a cheaper option available, he records. The figures are interesting because they show how you could have a successful business on that basis.
I searched the BL catalogue to get a count of how many books the publishers named by Clifford published during 1994. This raised a problem, because most of them did mainly prose. (War memoirs and interpretation of bible prophecies featured a lot.) I lacked the energy to disentangle which ones contained poetry. Less than 100 poetry titles, I believe.
My spreadsheets continue to grow and I now have a list of 4000 people who published at least 1 book of poetry during my chosen period, 1960 to 1997. This figure has limited use, since it certainly isn't complete. It is aimed at eliminating incorrect statements about the poetry business. It is a basis for a guess about the total – 6000 poets, is suspect. Of course that raises the question of whether there were another 6000 who didn’t get a book out and who were thronging round the entrances, unable to get in. I really don’t have that figure. The data can only answer certain questions and we don't get to choose which ones those are.
Data can exclude certain outlier theories. For example, theories about the poetry world being closed. This idea doesn't really run with a list of 6000 or even more names who did get included. The pattern is more like – editors turned down work they didn't like but there was a lot of work they did like and, also, there were a lot of editors. The industry did say “no” but you have to tune in to the 6000 yesses.
I can see in my lists several people who began with quite doubtful pay-to-play set-ups and then wrote excellent poetry which also came out from reputable publishers. With the vanity sector, I am thinking not just of artistic incompetence but also of people who lacked self-confidence and drive – and maybe wanted to focus on writing rather than on the door-knocking and marketing (and researching the labyrinths of stylistic loyalty). So a complete gap between vanity projects and “genuine” poets is just a theory and less real than most. I don’t feel like naming the people who made the crossover, but they are good poets and in a way that excludes naivety. I think poets as a group dislike rejection and a paying press is obviously going to spare you that part.
I don't want to start researching this, but I could quite easily list 1000 books which came out on a “pay to play” basis, and it is quite possible that some of them are really good. As, this is an area which the business traditionally overlooks. Also- a bet on poets being timid and avoiding difficulties is a winning bet. If there is a tier of ignored poetry, it is less because elitists all share the same prejudices than because some poets are astute enough to write the poem but not robust enough to send off dozens of submissions. I strongly suppose that if 200 magazine editors see a good poem, then one of them will publish it. In the negative case, evidently, it could be a bad poem. A bad sheaf of poems. But, I can't claim that a sensitive poet-thing can read 100 rejections without becoming hardened in a way which affects the reason why they started the journey.
I have just sent off for a copy of ‘Letter to Lao-Tze’, by John Smith, 1961. He wasn't obscure then, and in fact I know pretty well what this book is going to be like, but he is a writer who has been pretty comprehensively forgotten. This is my way of trying to remember.
I think all poets are a mixture of delusion and scepticism and I doubt that vanity press poets are essentially different. We all share the same belief that our work is really important. To update that a bit, some people like to refer to the “products” of creative writing classes as a separate class of being, as if their love of poetry and their path towards stylistic maturity were actually different from anyone else’s. Now that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people who have spent time in those classes, you can see that there is no really findable division.