40 Years of Poetry Publishing

Fri, 22 Nov 2013 17:00:15 +0000

Founded in 1972 by Sam Hamill, Tree Swenson, William O’Daly, and Jim Gautney, Copper Canyon Press started out selling hand-bound, letterpressed limited editions of poetry books out of the trunks of their cars.  Today, over forty years later, with nearly 500 poetry titles under its belt and operating out of a white clapboard house in Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon is one of the country’s largest and most renowned publishers of poetry. Given poetry’s reputation of posing a challenge for even the shrewdest of sales managers, the press’s continued success seems astounding. How, one wonders, does Copper Canyon manage to continually bring poetry to readers in a marketplace marked by short-lived sensations and digital oversaturation?

The diversity of Copper Canyon’s catalog is noteworthy. It includes original collections and translations of heavyweight poets—including Nobel laureates (like Pablo Neruda and Rabindranath Tagore), Pulitzer Prize winners, and National Book Award winners, among them Ted Kooser, W. S. Merwin, and Lucille Clifton—as well as work by emerging authors like Ben Lerner, Natalie Diaz, and Kerry James Evans. Also featured is an impressive number of bilingual volumes of poetry translated from Arabic, Chinese, Belarusian, and other languages. To a considerable extent, Copper Canyon’s bestsellers—former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s Delights & Shadows, for example, sold more than 70,000 copies—allow the press to keep on publishing work by lesser-known authors, such as Lucia Perillo’s Inseminating the Elephant.

The press is also embracing digital formats, moving broadly and fearlessly into the e-book market since spring of this year. So far, more than eighty titles are available for the Nook, Kindle, and Kobo. For Copper Canyon’s marketing and sales director, Joseph Bednarik, the dialogue with readers and their (intellectual, emotional, and spiritual) experience with poetry is the main motivator. Over a glass of beer, he told me that nobody has quite figured out where the publishing industry as a whole will go, but that it is an exciting time for the business and that it would be foolish not to be open to exploring digital publishing venues.

In an effort to keep quality standards high and make submissions more manageable for its employees, Copper Canyon has moved away from an open submission system. Before switching to a fee-based submission process, over 1,500 manuscripts were sent in to the press each year, an amount that was simply unmanageable. Now, there are two-month reading sessions throughout the year, during which about 400 manuscripts are submitted. Poets pay a $35 reading fee, which entitles them to pick out two Copper Canyon titles for their own library as well as paying for a thorough reading of their manuscripts by Copper Canyon’s editorial department and their team of volunteer readers all over the country. Copper Canyon’s executive editor, Michael Wiegers (who took over from Sam Hamill in 2005), then has the final say in choosing which manuscripts will get published.

At the Wordstock 2013 poetry publishers panel, Bednarik also reported that the publishing house has tight control over books’ marketing. For example, authors will have a say in their book’s cover design, but Copper Canyon reserves the right to pass the final decision, often after presenting several versions to and consulting with their distributor, Consortium. Design and marketing here go hand in hand: it is important, for instance, how book covers look on the small scale, because readers will mainly come across them online first.

Numbers are a big part of Bednarik’s work and the day-to-day reality of the press, he conceded. With a staff of eleven, Copper Canyon—a non-profit organization, like most other poetry publishers—relies on grants and private donations for about half of its revenue. Technically, he said, every book Copper Canyon sells is underpriced; “it just doesn’t seem to work any other way.”

After over forty years of going strong, what’s next for Copper Canyon? Parallel to their printed books, they will keep expanding their e-offerings. An upcoming collection that I, personally, couldn’t be more excited about is Richard Siken’s War of the Foxes, slated for publication in spring of 2015. Siken’s debut, Crush, sold well over 20,000 copies—if this doesn’t bode well for Copper Canyon, then I don’t know what would.

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