M. Scott Douglass, Editor of Main Street Rag
Jendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with M. Scott Douglass, publisher and editor of the literary journal Main Street Rag.
A native of Pittsburgh, Douglass is the author of the full-length poetry collection Auditioning for Heaven, as well as several chapbooks. His work has appeared in The Asheville Poetry Review, Slipstream, Southern Poetry Review, and numerous other journals and anthologies, and received a Pushcart Prize nomination in 1991. In 2005, he released STEEL WOMB Revisited, reprinting material from his chapbooks Steel Womb and Eat My Shorts along with new and selected poems into a full-length book format. Dip Says Hi, a chapbook of poems dedicated to the Art of Capitalism, was also published in 2005 by Rank Stranger Press.
Douglass spent twenty years as a dental technician, but he also lists among his work experience: construction and demolition, coaching baseball and basketball, owning and operating a collectible bookstore, and breeding rats for the Pathology Department at the University of Pittsburgh.
Based in Charlotte, NC, Main Street Rag Publishing Company has been producing its print journal since 1996. The press sponsors well-regarded annual contests for poetry chapbooks (deadline May 31) and full-length poetry manuscripts (deadline January 31). Poets published in this series include Pam Bernard, Jay Griswold, Mary Christine Delea, and Susan H. Case. In addition, MSR's bindery division offers printing and book packaging services to authors and other publishers.
Q: What is MSR's mission? How do you want to change the world?
A: Our original mission statement (if you want to call it that) was something like, "bringing poetry back to America's living room." Our feeling was that there was a turf war going on and academia had claimed the literary arts—specifically poetry—as its own private playing field and that exclusivity or elitism was the reason why the general public wasn't "buying" poetry. I've since learned otherwise—that the real reason the American public doesn't "buy" poetry is because it has no taste. That assessment, by the way, is based on the mediocrity of today's pop icons.
Q: Are there particular styles of poetry (e.g. formal verse, language poetry) that you especially like or don't like to publish? Particular topics (religious, political, confessional, etc.) that you'd like to see more of, or less of, in contest submissions?
A: I like to think I'm open to all styles and topics, but the truth is: no one can be totally impartial. The magazine—for which I am the poetry editor—does have a political flavor. Notice I didn't say "leaning." I am a radical middle-of-the-roader, so my magazine selections will poke at either side of the extreme. Right now it's mostly poking at the right, but that's because they're in charge.
If you look at what we've published from our contests, it's fairly diverse, but there still is a shortage of formal verse. That's not because I don't like it. It's because (1) we don't get much of it, (2) it's not very well done and (3) I'm what George Bush would call "a strict interpreter of the law." Don't try to sell me on forms that don't meet the criteria. A sonnet needs to rhyme. A sestina needs to have six lines per set and while I allow play with forms of the repeating words, to be true to the form there should be some semblance of similar line length.
Bottom line: I admire folks who are playing with forms, but I just don't think many of the ones who have entered collections into our contests have done them very well.
Q: Describe your judging process. Who reads the manuscripts, and what are their credentials and judging criteria? If you use screeners, how many entries (numbers and percentage) make it to the final judge?
A: We do each contest a tad differently. Short fiction is judged by our two associate editors, Barbara Lawing and Craig Renfroe. Barbara is a freelance editor. Craig teaches creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. They both read all of the manuscripts and preside over a final debate. They have distinctly different tastes, so beer and wine usually make that debate go down easier.
The Chapbook Contest and Poetry Book Award utilize many of the same people as first round judges or screeners if you prefer. Regulars include Dede Wilson, Gail Peck, Jonathan Rice, A.A. Jillani, and Diana Pinckney. We've also asked previous winners to help judge and have had Pam Bernard and David Chorlton among those who have participated.
Second round is a committee of three who each read everything that advances. For the Poetry Book Award, that committee—which includes me—selects ten to pass on to the final judge. For the Chapbook, the committee is the deciding body over which I have the final say. Since we are using our contests to select manuscripts for publication as well as winners (this year we selected 19 additional manuscripts), input from ALL judges are taken into account. Gail Peck, for instance, is probably our toughest screener. If she gives a chapbook a "10" in the first round, that carries a lot of weight when it comes to selecting what gets published.
For the Poetry Book Award, in the past, we've had celebrity judges such as Yusef Komunyakaa, Joy Harjo, Edward Hirsch and most recently Keith Flynn. In every single case, these judges came to the same conclusion as the committee of three, so this year we are not going to have a celebrity judge and make our final selection the same way we do with the chapbook contest—with me making the final decision. This will allow me to pay the first round readers more—since they do the bulk of the work. BTW, that's where a good portion of our "reading fee" goes—to pay readers. I think it's one reason why we have such a qualified group of first round readers.
Q: Our LCI listings include over 60 chapbook contests whose prizes range from payment in copies to $1,000. How would you advise poets in deciding which contests to enter? Which factors should be more heavily weighted—prize amount, quality of book design, prestige of publisher—and how can they discover this information, if it's not practical to buy 60 sample chapbooks a year?
A: I think it's interesting how few people who enter our contest ever purchase and read the winner from the previous year. I would think that is the best way to gauge whether this is a place where I'd like to be published—and THAT should be the bottom line. No, it's probably not practical to sample one from everyone who sponsors a contest, but most of us have websites. The MSR Online Bookstore allows folks to sample from each book we've published without buying—not that I'm trying to discourage folks from buying, but I'm a realist.
A poet should factor in the likelihood of being published and weigh that against reading fee. The prestige of publisher (I think) leans toward elitist thinking, but let's face it, there are some contests that will do more for the author's reputation and resume than others. What they should factor in—again—is the likelihood of winning: the higher prestige the contest, the greater the competition. I'm a big believer in allocating funds toward probable success and working your way up the food chain.
Everyone has his or her own comfort zone. I recommend that those who are planning to enter a contest do the research for themselves—don't rely solely on what so-and-so says. Read the guides, examine (as much as humanly possible) the publisher's history and go with what feels most comfortable.
Q: How do you publicize MSR's books and chapbooks? Where have they gotten reviewed?
A: This is a sticky subject for me. We approach each book individually—and that's hard when you do so many. We've published over 20 books since the first of September alone.
Many of our authors are first time authors, so we concentrate on getting reviews near where the author lives and getting them into the local bookstores. It doesn't make sense to promote a chapbook nationwide that is most likely to sell where the poet is. It doesn't make sense to spend money on travel and lodging for a book tour either.
I remember ordering an Adrian C. Louis book from a Poets & Writers ad once. Years later—when I was interviewing him—he said it was one of two sales that were generated by that ad. So advertising in even good, logical places, isn't always effective.
I haven't seen a big bounce in sales from any reviews we received—and we've received some good ones in good places—so I think reviews are overrated. Two months ago Jim Ferris' The Hospital Poems—last year's Poetry Book Award Winner—received a wonderful full-page review from American Book Review. It only inspired the sale of one (1) book so far. We've also had some wonderful newspaper reviews from places like The Charlotte Observer and the Madison, Wisconsin newspaper (I can't remember its name) that did not create any sales.
We tend to allow a lot of input from the author as to where they would like to have review copies sent, but we've gotten our best response from places like Small Press Review, Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, and NewPages.com.
We do the bulk of our marketing through our electronic newsletter. It's geared to steer folks to our website and is our absolute best marketing tool. I tell folks all the time, we average greater sales MONTHLY from our online bookstore than we get from all Barnes & Noble sales combined ANNUALLY. And authors and publishers make more per sale on books that are sold directly.
We've been represented by places like EBSCO at the ALA meetings, but that hasn't been very fruitful. We do a variety of regional book fairs and conferences and usually take about 50 titles with us. This year we will travel to Austin and attend the AWP meeting and to DC to attend the Book Expo. I also have a part time marketing assistant who goes out knocking on doors.
Q: Tell me about some of your biggest "success stories"—authors who sold a lot of copies and/or received critical acclaim. What made their books stand out? Please share any particularly creative marketing strategies that your authors have come up with.
A: Cathryn Essinger—what a hustler. She was a finalist in the Poetry Book Award contest in 2003 with My Dog Does Not Read Plato. We only published one book from that contest due to funding. When she was a finalist again in 2004 with nearly the same manuscript, I decided before we even sent the finalists to Edward Hirsch that—if she wasn't chosen as winner—we'd offer her publication anyway.
I can be an SOB to deal with when it comes to putting the thing together and we fought over the cover, but she stuck it out and I think we're both pleased with the outcome. This spring, she did something I hadn't considered. She sent a copy to Garrison Keilor. He then read a poem online earlier this year and yet another a few weeks ago. In both instances, we had a significant spike in sales. Our original run on this book was 1,000 and we're only a few copies away from going into a second printing.
The Hospital Poems by Jim Ferris was the winner of the 2004 Poetry Book Award Contest. It's now being used in teaching classrooms in several universities, been a finalist for several other national book awards. Jim's a real hustler also. He has a radio background and parleyed his win into several radio gigs. It's also helped him get onto several conference faculties including the CPCC Spring Literary Festival as a keynoter here in Charlotte. The festival is in March 2006 and usually draws several thousand attendees.
Q: There's been a lot of debate in the poetry world this year about nepotism, contests that picked no winner but kept the fees, and other questions of contest ethics. Aside from the obvious vanity-publishing scams, can you advise contest entrants about particular warning signs they should look for? Conversely, are there certain practices (e.g. blind-judging) that reassure you about a contest's ethics?
A: I think that's unethical. A contest sponsor—even if they don't feel comfortable with their entries—should be obliged to choose one or send the money back. Period. If in any year they fail to do one or the other—that ought to be the end of their contest days. If that doesn't red flag it for someone who is considering a particular contest, they deserve to lose their money.
Nothing can reassure good ethics. We're all people. I don't think anyone sponsors a poetry contest for the express purpose of ripping people off. It's just not lucrative enough for the amount of exposure you give yourself just to sponsor the contest. But people do make mistakes. Poets, in general, are emotional critters with good intentions, but—as a group—are poor organizers and/or money managers. Most are simply not wired that way. So when one decides to start up a contest, they often don't know what they are really getting into until it's too late.
Blind judging—which we employ at Main Street Rag—is no guarantee of non-bias, but it certainly is a good start. It's hard when you read a multitude of poetry on a daily basis to not recognize something you've read before—or in my case—published in your magazine.
Again, though, I don't think it's a measuring stick for ethical behavior. I don't know that anything is, but I think longevity and the reputation that a publisher has built over the years is important. I think when places like Winning Writers give a recommendation, that's helpful because they have tested the waters for writers.
Q: Will alternatives to traditional inventory-based poetry publishing, such as print-on-demand and ebooks, become more widespread and eventually command the same respect for their authors as "normal" published books? (Right now, many reviewers and prize committees regard self-published and POD books as vanity publications regardless of quality.) Do you think that would be a good or bad development?
A: There ain't enough space here to cover this subject. I think the short answer to your first group of questions is, "Yes," but I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. It could flood the market with titles—some mediocre—and make it harder to find a real pearl.
On the other hand, our binding equipment is basically geared for POD, but I don't believe the POD model is beneficial to a writer—though it's great for a small press publishing house. I also don't think it will ever be the kind of Godsend that some writers believe it will be. I KNOW how much space the equipment takes up, how much waste it can create and what it's capable of. I run it myself, hands-on, every day. Barnes & Noble is not going to park the equipment in the back of a store so you can stand at a kiosk, order a book and pick it up in an hour. Next day, maybe, from a central location, but not the type of immediacy that inspires impulse buying and the price will either be high or the quality will be inconsistent.
Ebooks in their present formats are impersonal and many of us—myself included—have problems reading from a monitor.
But I believe the "normal" way of publishing is on its way out as is (and more importantly) the "normal" means of distribution. And this has a lot to do with POD, but more to do with the internet. The publishing world in general is one of the most wasteful industries on the planet. If distributors, book buyers and booksellers don't get up to speed with current technology, they will eventually put themselves out of business.
Note that I mentioned earlier that MSR's monthly online sales are greater than annual sales from all Barnes & Noble's combined. That's because of the waste factor. I give them a 55% discount (through a distributor) AND pay shipping. Book buyers ALWAYS over order because they've been taught that 30% sales is successful. That's crazy thinking and overburdens a publisher from the front end. Distributors take as much as a YEAR to pay. That overburdens a publisher from the front and back end. It's not efficient.
Online sales is where it's going and that can be handled by POD (if you are so inclined) or by the Main Street Rag model: short runs. We do high quality offset covers whenever possible. We print the covers and warehouse them because they take up less space and cost less to produce when printed in certain quantities. Then we don't warehouse more than 100 copies of any title at any one time since—in most cases—we can produce as many as 1000 books in a day.
I like this model because it allows us to produce high quality productions at a low cost in a small amount of space. The question then becomes—as it is in POD—what constitutes a print run? We measure a first printing by the number of covers we print initially. Once we go back to press for more covers, the book is then a second printing.
I can't speak for reviewers or prize committees—they will do what feels right for them. Main Street Rag (the magazine) does not decide what we will review on that basis. We note that many of America's most loved poets started out self-publishing (Whitman, Poe) and base our reviews on the quality of the work. But again, I'm not convinced that anything short of a NYT review gives credibility enough to effect sales—it's more a feel-good for the author than a financial benefit for the publisher.
Q: Your "Editor's Comments" on the MSR website reflect a passion for political argument, and some strongly held positions. An ethical dilemma I frequently face as judge of the War Poetry Contest is the extent of my obligation to publish poetry whose views are seriously opposed to mine. Which is more important, the free exchange of ideas or promoting the truth as I see it? How do you think editors should deal with that situation? Do you find yourself holding poems to a tougher standard of quality when you find their viewpoint unconvincing?
A: Tough questions. I like to think that our magazine—which is where the Editor's Comments are originally published (as well as online)—is a space for a free exchange of ideas, but I recognize the limitations of completely divorcing oneself from our own opinions. Do they interfere with my poetic selections? I don't think so. We went a long way before publishing 9/11 poems because, frankly, what we were sent seemed rushed and poorly edited.
Each editor has to choose for him or herself. I am opinionated and I make sure folks recognize that what I write is my opinion. I want people to think about it. More important, I'd like them to argue with me. I hate "yes men". And here's a little secret: My positions in the editor's commentary don't always represent my personal opinion. Sometimes I throw stuff out for the purpose of debate. We don't have enough civil debate in America because we are so polarized by political factions who distort facts to their favor. It's hard to know the truth so we just pick "teams" because this team or that team is wearing our favorite color. I tend to believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle and people of common sense—when given a chance to examine it—will come to similar common sense answers. They may not like the reality of the answer, but I have a favorite saying: You can call a horse a pig, but you won't get pork chops from it.
When it comes to the contests, it's the quality of the work, plain and simple. When we talk about contents and subject matter, I'm not really a flora and fauna type poet and poems about that subject matter have a tougher road to get into the magazine. But books are different critters. There is an audience for everything. Is the manuscript the best we received? Is it ready for publication? Those are the questions I ask.
Q: Authors like Dana Gioia see cause for concern in poetry's limited appeal. Should we, as authors and publishers, be trying to get the general public interested in real poetry (as opposed to the greeting-card variety), or should we accept that it's a niche market? What are the aesthetic implications of either choice?
A: I like and respect Dana. The reason our magazine went from poetry-only to interviews, reviews, short fiction, etcetera has a lot to do with a conversation he and I had over manicotti here in Charlotte several years ago. I also know he's a smart business person and his business is promoting poetry. He has to say some of the things he says.
For myself, I think it's a matter of equilibrium: water finds its own level, so does poetry. I don't care much for SLAM poetry and I usually throw a "c" in front of "rap," but that doesn't mean that I think either one should be stopped or ignored or are not good for poetry in general. I think both lower the bar in terms of quality and I think spoken word poets are the least likely people in the world to buy a book—which hurts the marketplace—but they do engage people and it's that engaging that encourages and enables prospective writers and readers to delve deeper. Those that do, may enter a whole new world—and that's good for poetry.
I don't think there's any reason to worry about poetry's appeal. Every major (and even minor) event in America someone whips out a folded piece of paper to read a poem. Sales, on the other hand, may be difficult—but all book sales are difficult these days and poetry has always been a niche market in America. You just have to squeeze your way into the market where it fits best. That was one of the reasons why I—and other editors who feel the way I do (and there are many in the small press)—wanted to pry control over poetry publishing away from academia, so that we could broaden the appeal.
So, I don't think that the American public has lost its appeal for poetry, but I do believe their taste is up their asses. Equilibrium encourages mediocrity—which, by itself, isn't such a bad thing—especially if your audience is your immediate family. What is bad is when we reward people for mediocrity (see "rap" up above).