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Journal, Day One
Directing Alice James Books is a dream job: I get paid to read, edit, and argue about poetry. And having worked for a more traditional independent press, I was particularly attracted by AJB’s cooperative, power-to-the-poets (knowledge-is-power) and feminist/diversity model. Poetry and social justice in one—how cool is that?
As a poet, I like that we give our authors real input in cover art and design choices, and as a publisher, I think it works as a positive force in the success of the book (and ultimately, the author’s career). An author happy with the book design is generally an author who participates more energetically in the publicity and marketing process, and we ask for a lot of participation. The unusual level of participation in editing, design, marketing and publicity is part of what makes being published by AJB different, part of how we empower our poets in the publishing process. That combined with the fact that our cooperative poets make business decisions on behalf of the press and choose manuscripts for publication, gives our authors unusual insight into the publication process.
I am also a fan of our acquisition-by-consensus model. I think it makes for very fair book contests, exciting and challenging aesthetic arguments, and consistently good and diverse editorial choices. Contest winners (and solicited authors) are decided by a consensus of an 8 – 10 rotating-member editorial board, so all of the finalists are read carefully by all of us, and discussed both at the screening and at the finalist meeting. That’s a lot of personal attention.
It works like this: We hold our screenings in central New England as a convenience to board members and for maximum screener pools. For our regional contest (the Kinereth Gensler Award), we generally have three to eight screeners (generally published poets and/or MFA candidates) in addition to our board members, and up to twenty for our national contest (the Beatrice Hawley Award). Every manuscript is read by a minimum of two people, one of whom must be a board member.
If a manuscript gets two “nos,” it is eliminated, but any combination of “yeses,” “nos” and “maybes” continues to be read until we are clear whether or not it is a semi-finalist or better (two board “yeses” make a manuscript a finalist). After all the manuscripts are read, our screeners depart, and the board members winnow the semi-finalists down to a smaller pool of finalists. Then the office staff photocopies and ships all the finalist manuscripts to the board members, and we spend a few weeks reading them carefully before meeting to discuss which should be published. That meeting generally lasts between six and eight hours, and generates the marvelous aesthetic discussion (and close consideration of contemporary poetry) I referred to earlier.
My pleasure in that is surpassed only by my enjoyment of working with our authors to edit their books, and by the way I feel when new books arrive from the printer and I hold a new title in my hands for the first time.
I’ll elaborate tomorrow on our feminist/diversity model, and talk later in the week about how being a publisher has affected my own writing (and reading) process, but I’d like to end today by inviting questions from readers about Alice James Books, about writing, being published, etc. I’m at your service!