This blog entry concerns manuscript reading at Tupelo Press and the question of reading fees, the whys and wherefores. Beginning in a few days, a series of new blog posts expanding on my earlier entry: On Making the Poetry Manuscript.
So, the other day, we received this note from one of our far-flung correspondents:
“Reading fees are still more than a little shocking to me, though I understand the rationale; but does Tupelo require a new fee if a manuscript has earlier been submitted (and fee paid) for a contest? Or is that manuscript simply ignored and must be resubmitted for consideration? I am asking this question of various publishers, as I guide (early stage literary press) through the rough waters of responsible publishing.”
“As I understand it, every time you submit your work, you may have revised that work and therefore it has to be treated as new work, and as such has to be read and therefore the fee charged. Is this what you understand, that every manuscript submission merits a new fee?”
Yes, we charge a reading fee each time a manuscript is submitted to us for our consideration. Of course, at the outset it’s crucial to keep in mind that, other than the July Open Reading Period (now though the end of July), every submission is read blind, so in that respect, everything comes without clothes. No names, no acknowledgments, no bios. Nothing but the poems.
So, I might better say, of course we charge a reading fee each time a manuscript is submitted to us for our consideration. Even apart from the question of anonymity, we read every manuscript for every submission period as if it’s the first time the manuscript has ever been sent. It gets a fresh reading every time. We might assume that poets work on their manuscripts: revising poems, substituting poems, revising the order of the poems, etc. So even the “same” manuscript can be new in important ways. But even if no new work has been done on the manuscript, no changes made, even if it were exactly the same, it’s the time and attention given over to reading manuscripts (that each submission deserves) that we charge for. And what we charge is the equivalent of half a tank of gas.
Moreover, I am not the same reader every time I read a manuscript. My tastes evolve. My reactions aren’t predictable. Being human, my attention span varies. Being human, what makes me want to turn the pages one day may not work for me the next day. In other words, the same gallimaufry of factors that find themselves at play when you read a book are similarly swirling around the room when I read a book.
The fact that so many poets submit the same manuscript to us multiple times—whether revised or not—shows me that most poets grasp the obvious fact that so many of the conditions leading to a choice of manuscripts to publish are in flux. As a matter of record, virtually everything we’ve ever published has been submitted to us several times over, even by those you might think of as Tupelo’s “big names.”
Sometimes big revisions make a big difference. Sometimes small revisions make a big difference. Sometimes a fresh reading makes a big difference. Often, even subtle changes in the order of the poems makes a huge difference. And sometimes, between one submission period and the next, a poet has an epiphany about how to make his/her poems or manuscript work—something snaps into place and s/he just gets it. Who’s noticing? Well, I like to think that we do.
Whether or not we use readers for a particular submission opportunity, I read everything, and “everything” usually means about a thousand manuscripts—so that’s about 4,000 manuscripts per year. The project of reading takes not hours or weeks, but months.
What am I looking for? I keep reading until I find a manuscript that makes me want to keep turning the pages, and, to quote Jeffrey Harrison (who recently judged the Berkshire Prize for a First or Second Book of Poetry), no matter where the poet’s strategies reside on the continuum between the traditional and the experimental, I’m always searching for that compelling thing: a collection that feels as though it has arisen out of an actual life, celebrating and struggling with the issues and events of that life.
I find myself wanting to read poets who have made meaningful discoveries about those events, whether those discoveries lead to beauty or despair. I like to see poems that bring together different ways of seeing the world—the scientific, the spiritual, the personal, the historical, the oneiric—through a synthesizing and transformative imagination that is attuned to the details of the physical world while seeking realms beyond the visible, beyond what can be said but is well worth trying to say—and here I’m quoting from Jenny Molberg’s winning Berkshire Prize manuscript—“spreading/ a strange, unutterable music” onto the page.
Finally, and of crucial importance, paying a reading fee to an independent literary press is a vitally important way to support the work of that press. I don’t know of a single independent literary press with an open list (i.e., one that actually provides publishing opportunities for submitters) that could stay in business without the income derived from reading fees. Tupelo Press publishes about 15 books per year, and of those, only three are contest winners. The rest of what we publish is selected from the open reading period and from manuscripts originally submitted to contests or the open reading period that stay on my desk (chairs, tables, floor) – ones that I find I want to keep going back to.
Here’s the most important thing I have to say: there is no market economy for poetry. Poetry participates only and exclusively in a “gift economy.” See Lewis Hyde’s transcendent book The Gift for his brilliant exegesis. Here’s a fine review by a librarian.
And here’s a video of former Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Hass speaking on poetry and the gift economy.
If artists want art to survive in America, artists have to create art, and artists have to join together to support the creation of art. That’s our ethical obligation as humanists. Vissi d’arte. And every poet—every artist—who wants to enter the discussion needs to read Lewis Hyde.