Thursday, March 01, 2007

Submission Vs. Subscription

There is a particular sore spot with many magazines in the poetry world regarding contributors/submitters that carry few subscriptions to magazines. Most publishing poets can’t possibly subscribe to all the magazines they send to, or like, for that matter, just as most editors can’t print all the poems they receive, or like. It can be a source of contention with editors that they might receive hundreds of submissions in a very short period of time, yet not a single one of those submitters has a subscription to the magazine. On the other hand, most publishing poets get enough contributor’s copies and read enough books that they aren’t necessarily hurting for poetry (not to mention the fact that they’re constantly writing it, as well), and so more than a few subscriptions simply becomes an expense to avoid.

Struggling writers have a symbiotic relationship with struggling editors. Poetry is a hard sell, and the larger the press, the harder the sell. The bottom lines of poets and the editors of poetry don’t often match, or collaborate much. While a poet may expend a great amount of energy trying to get his/her work out, editors are doing the same thing. A poet often can’t afford dozens of subscriptions to magazines, and most of these same magazines can’t afford to keep printing poets and their ilk for free.

I think a better approach to describing the situation would be to stretch out some thought on both sides of the tension.


For the editor of a print magazine, good will and love of poetry can go a long way, but these things won’t distribute the next issue. A great piece of work from a writer can help the magazine, but again, this won’t pay the printer. Therein lies the trouble. Who DOES pay the printer? There are several avenues for this. Some magazines can qualify for various grants (not many, though), some can manage to get advertising (very difficult for a smaller press, and sometimes unwanted), and a more common answer is to maintain a fully-functioning press for authors that wish to self-publish or whatnot. The most common route, however, for paying the printer is through subscribers, and when there aren’t enough of these, the editor and staff themselves often pay from their own pockets, sometimes for long runs, issue after issue. This can cause a magazine to slowly bleed to death. The money, staff, and even the will to want to continue putting out a magazine can begin to erode when enough losses begin to accumulate. After this begins happening to the editor and staff, it may take only a single issue wherein very little good poetry was submitted to make the editor question whether this is worth his/her patience, money, and time, and even if it is, they simply may not have much of these resources left.

Most editors are writers on some level, as well. They know the gauntlet you’re making your way through, and with magazines coming and going with such expediency, cropping up all over the place, it can be difficult spotting their own among the mix. Over time, or even right from the start, it may grow easy for a struggling editor to conclude that their publication is unimportant, or making no progress. If only there were more subscribers...


The poet isn’t making any money with the poetry. Oh, on occasion, a magazine will pull a slipping of 5 bucks, or a token payment, but in general the writer gets published as his payment, and often there can be expected a contributor’s copy* or two. The very idea of ‘struggling poet’ is the poet part, but we can’t forget the struggling part. Struggling means trying write, then trying to get your work out there, and to do this well usually requires a lot of submitting. Gaining subscriptions to so many magazines is improbable and expensive. In addition to this, many poets feel there is a big difference between a poet and a subscriber, while some editors may want to unify these two into one.

So, the poet pays to write the poems with his/her time, thought, and whatever vices needed to create (escaping domesticity for a short spell to write, coffee, pens, pads, a laptop, books, maybe cigarettes, etc...), and all of this adds up. The poet is doing research on magazines to find out where their work may be wanted, which takes time and charting. The poet buys envelopes, printers, and box after box of paper, in addition to staying up late nights gathering select addresses and whatnot from the multitudes of magazines out there. After finding a magazine of interest, the poet pays to send a selection of poetry to the magazine, and the poet pays even, for the response, which arrives in the SASE. The poet pays much more if the magazine is overseas and requires IRCs (International Reply Coupons), as well, which cost quite a bit, especially if some magazines request that several be included. When every postal submission ends up costing around a buck each (and 3 times that for overseas submissions), sending out a large batch of submissions can break the poet’s bank. After paying to write, paying to revise, paying to submit, waiting long periods of time for a response, and then paying SASE postage to be rejected day in and day out, while trying to gain more time to write in the interim, there is little time, money, or patience left over for ordering subscriptions to the numerous magazines out there.

As with electricity, water, and poverty, the answer to the dilemma of subscriptions and submissions settles at the lowest point. This resolve is that most poets will subscribe to a few magazines at a time, if that, and with enough poets doing so, many magazines manage to stay afloat above the bottom line. Locality can play a crucial part of this situation, as many people will subscribe to something local over something that is not. Otherwise, magazines use whatever tricks they might need, as do submitters.

The big miracle would be if the general public started taking up more interest in poetry, but whether this is going to happen anytime soon is a hotly debated thing in the poetry world, especially among editors. For now, heavy competition for the poet and the act of keeping a magazine afloat for the editor are both intensive, creative things, and I have to believe these facets are directly responsible for the miriad of voices and styles you can find in today’s magazines and poetry. At the end of the day, we are not lacking for avenues or material. We are lacking only for assurance.
ray succre

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