It's that time of year again -- no, not Groundhog Day, something much more momentous. It's the six-week period when most poetry book contests are open. If you are marketing a slim volume, this is your moment of sunshine to grab. Also your moment to spend a small fortune in contest fees. It's not as expensive as a Hawaiian vacation, but in the vicinity of a very nice weekend away. Actually, I know someone who went for 5 days to Hawaii on a package tour and paid under $900. And I've heard of poets spending upwards of $1,000 on contests, so maybe getting your book to win one is as costly as a good vacation.
I don't plan to spend my vacation money, even though I am marketing a manuscript. My strategy is to cherry-pick contests, find judges whose work I like, or who might have shown some inclination to like mine. And even more important, I will pick contests staffed by people who have shown they like my work -- editors of journals where I've been accepted. If I don't know who the readers and judges are, I'll stay way. Makes sense, doesn't it, to find first readers who might be simpatico?
I'll try all the presses that don't charge fees, as long as they seem to do a decent job as publishers. But most of all, I will try the ones that have published books I like! Probably this isn't any better than throwing darts at a list, but it will let me feel good about the few checks I do write.
The whole contest thing, as poet David Alpaugh pointed out, seems like evidence of the great disinterest the public shows in poetry. Nobody's buying the books, so the publishers have to charge the authors.
Solution: buy poetry books and eschew contests! Pass it along.