For today's post, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Walzer, whose WordTech Communications poetry press has six imprints: Cherry Grove Collections, CW Books, David Robert Books, Textos Books, Turning Point, Word Poetry and WordTech Editions. They have published my two poetry books, and it's instructive to hear about the inner workings of an independent press that puts out more books per year than most other houses, despite the challenges facing the publishing industry. Here's Kevin:
What inspired you to start WordTech Communications?
My wife Lori Jareo and I started the company in the late 1990s intending it to be a business name for freelance editorial work, as we both worked in writing and publishing fields. We added poetry publishing in 2000, intending to do one poetry book per year; I had earned a Ph.D. in creative writing/poetry but was working in the business world because of the poor job market in academe, and I wanted to keep my hand in poetry. One book per year led to a few books per year and then several, and by 2003 we had grown to the point where we went full-time with poetry publishing, and we will be celebrating a decade of full-time publishing this year.
What distinguishes you from other presses?
We publish more than 40 books per year, all poetry, which makes us one of the largest poetry publishers in the U.S. in terms of number of titles. We are one of the few independent poetry presses in operation, meaning that we are unaffiliated with a university, arts organization, or some other institution, and we are a for-profit press, accepting no outside grants or subsidies and surviving on our book sales. We were also one of the first poetry presses to fully embrace using print-on-demand technology instead of traditional offset press runs for our books, which has allowed us to better manage our publishing expenses.
How has the structure of the press changed over the years?
While we have always been a for-profit press, at our start we were similar to most other small literary presses, using book contests as a way of raising capital and focusing less on book sales. A few of our titles sold quite well because they had motivated, enthusiastic authors promoting them; the author would successfully sell many copies at readings and book signings. This initially took us by surprise, but as we published more books, we saw it happening again and again. It seemed that poetry could still connect with a large audience, especially if the author was especially active in organizing literary events to help bring his or her work to that audience. Sales eventually became our primary source of revenue, and so we took the significant step of dropping contests in 2004. Since then we have conducted an annual reading period that charges no reading fees.
What of the press’s accomplishments are you most proud of?
Publishing approximately 400 books of poetry since our inception, and remaining in business for more than a decade despite, over the past few years, encountering the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. We are also proud of the diverse range of poets and aesthetic styles that we've published; our books range from traditional rhyme, meter and narrative to mainstream free-verse lyrics to highly experimental work. We're able to find excellence across a broad spectrum of aesthetics.
What are the biggest challenges publishers of poetry face in current market conditions?
There seems to be more competition for the audience's attention today than there was ten or fifteen years ago, from the explosion of shows on cable TV to the rise of mobile technology like smart phones and e-books. This has been accompanied by consolidation in the book industry, the demise of large bookstore chains like Borders, and so on. Our approach has been to find alternative ways to get the word out about our books, such as having our authors' work featured on such venues as Writer's Almanac, poetry web sites like Verse Daily, and more. We have also entered the mobile technology sphere with an iPhone application that features a different poem by a WordTech author every day. We are also quite explicit in asking our authors to be active partners in helping to promote their books by doing readings and literary events, and have become more so in recent years; if an author is not comfortable with such activity, then we encourage them to submit their work to different presses.
What’s your vision for the press in the future?
We want to continue to publish a diverse range of excellent poetry, and continue to promote that poetry to an interested audience. We want to explore new ways to reach our audience via such venues as mobile devices as well.
What advice do you have for poets trying to get their books published?
Find a press that you can develop a long-term relationship with. Those presses are harder to find than they should be; many presses that sponsor contests do not make any subsequent investment in new titles by the authors they publish because that is not compatible with the contest model, which may be the only way they can afford to publish at all. Every press has a different vision, and if you can find one that is harmonious with your own, then that has the potential to be a very fruitful long-term partnership.
What recent books from other presses do you admire?
We're very focused on our own books, but I've always respected the design and editorial work of presses such as Copper Canyon and Graywolf. One of my favorite poets is Dana Gioia, and Graywolf has done a beautiful job with his latest book, as always.
How has the growth of the internet affected WordTech Communications?
The Internet is our native ground: we focus heavily on selling books through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online book sites, and we have a very extensive presence on the Web. We have never placed as much emphasis on older poetry sales channels such as independent bookstores, utilizing the services of distributors like Small Press Distribution, and so on; we came into being after the Internet was fully established and Amazon was thriving. Many of our authors, of course, have relationships with bookstores and other venues in their communities, so we recognize the importance of that sales channel as well. One area that we have not yet fully embraced is e-books. The e-book market is growing rapidly and is having an effect on the larger publishing industry, but we are not yet persuaded the e-book niche is mature enough for us. For one thing, the market is still highly fragmented among several different e-book formats (Kindle, Nook, epub, Apple's iBook format), which presents significant challenges with production time and costs. Another challenge is that poetry is much harder to get right in a small e-book format than prose publications, such as novels; poetry often has a highly visual aspect that does not reproduce well in such a small format. However, we continue to follow the market with interest, and will move in that direction if it makes sense to do so.