I saw this small article/POV on a few of my friends walls last week and found it a worthwhile and interesting perception, which generated a variety of different thoughts/feelings/perspectives from me. Here's my personal take on the matter (which is longer than the article).
In my opinion, this small article offers some good, valid, thought provoking and very legitimate points, but not the whole point of the picture (not that any picture has only one whole point).
It is certainly true that the AWP convention seems to hugely overcharge as if poetry is some sort of corporate job that makes big bucks, when really it's not a money-based realm at all. Perhaps this is because AWP started off geared towards college-based presses and in more recent years, lots of smaller, independent presses chose to become part of the convention too, even though it wasn't initially aimed at/geared towards them and wasn't reasonably affordable to them, since little individual presses don't have a university covering their fees.
My Blood Pudding Press is a teeny tiny indie press run by one woman and this year's AWP convention was the third time I've attended AWP. Each time (especially the second and third times), I've seriously questioned whether or not I should attend, because it's difficult for me to afford it. Even if it wasn't difficult for me to afford it, I would still feel like it was overpriced, and takes advantage of poets who desire to connect with other poets, and restricts poets who can't afford it at all even if they want to.
For me personally, since I chose to attend AWP this year, I had to turn down the offer to participate in another long weekend poetry event in another state, which might have been a better choice for me, because it was focused on more independent poets rather than academic AND independent presses. However, I couldn't afford two out-of-state poetry events within a few months of each other - and furthermore, when I was invited to be part of the more indie poetry event, I had already committed to AWP, since reservation and monetary prep for the AWP has to be handled VERY far in advance, unless you want your fees to go up even higher.
With the very first AWP I ever attended, I was extremely excited about the event; in fact, I was THRILLED, not because of the ability to sell my press's books at a convention center table, but because I'd been aware of the AWP for years and had never been able to attend for various reasons and was so incredibly excited about the idea of being surrounded by all kinds of different presses and poets from all over the place. I don't think book sales is the primary driving force of most AWP attendees; I think its main appeal for a lot of poets is a more broad scale connectivity, instead of a small scale niche in one particular area. (On a side note, some small scale poetry niches feel sort of like popularity contests to me - where if you don't specifically focus on them in particular and connect with them in particular and support their particulars, then you don't fit in to their niche and they'll mentally kick you out.) While it's very true that AWP's somewhat more broad scale connectivity is seriously limited when only some people can afford to attend, I think it is also true that most smaller scale niches don't support or appreciate everyone either.
As for the book sales versus the giving away of books, this year was the first AWP I've attended where I did not have a table for my tiny indie press and thus was not particularly focused on selling. I did advance prepare and take some chapbooks from my press (just in case), but I didn't walk around carrying boxes of chapbooks and promoting promoting promoting and trying to sell myself. I wanted to walk around and BE myself and look at other people and books and re-connect with or connect with other poets and give out hand-designed business cards and gizzard stickers.
Thus I sold nowhere near the number of books mentioned in this article. In fact, to be completely honest, I only sold four books. I had told myself that I wasn't going to buy any books this year (or very very few), because I STILL have un-read books from the past two AWP's I've attended, but I ended up buying close to twenty books (eighteen to be precise, but I gave away one of them - and I also received two free contributor copies from lovely lit mags with my poems inside them).
Close to twenty books at a huge press-based, poetry-focused book fair convention is on the low end for me, but still - that's buying WAY more books than I sold, as well as paying approximately 500 bucks for me and my man to have badge access to the convention itself, plus our gas money, plus our hotel room money, plus spending significantly more on food and drink in less than five days than I usually spend in three or more months. To plan and prepare for this event in advance, I had to make a substantial effort to spend less money and save more money for more than half a year, in order to be able to afford to attend this convention - and I still would not have been able to afford to attend it if my partner hadn't split the bills with me.
Backtracking to the two previous AWP conventions I attended where I split a table with another press, I sold a lot of chapbooks for a three day event (at least by my own standards), but a lot of chapbooks for a three day event was still less than 50 chapbooks, and that involved sitting at my table the vast majority of the three days (other than taking little breaks to check out other tables, talk to other poets and press editors, and buy other books).
So based on my own experiences, my own finances, and my tiny indie press perspective, AWP expenditures are WAY overpriced and unreasonable for small independent presses and people with low or very limited income. Personally, I can somewhat write off the unreasonable part by considering it a special vacation experience for myself, because it's not like I'm someone who vacations much. But that doesn't write off the overpriced to the point of being completely un-doable for a whole lot of low income poets. So why do I still go? Why do I allow such expenditures to take advantage of me? Why not just leave it for the academic presses it was originally focused on and who can more reasonably afford it?
Well that's a good question and I think I've already answered it to an extent and I don't necessarily have a detailed and laid out and extremely legitimate answer, especially since the last two times I've attended, I've questioned myself a lot for doing so. The best I can do is tell you why I personally chose to attend, despite my own mixed feelings and questions. For me, it's not about solely attempting or expecting to sell a bunch of books. (Even when I had a table, in order to recoup all my costs associated with the convention, I'd have to sell well over 100 books and not buy anyone else's books, and that wasn't going to happen). For me, it's not about trying to promote my press to the extent of making it considerably more well-known or significantly bigger, because I want to keep my itty bitty indie press pretty itty bitty, so I don't go insane by making my creative work feel like a job (and so I don't let my editing/publishing outweigh my own personal reading/writing/art).
For me, the primary reason I've attended AWP three times is because I want to be temporarily surrounded by lots of different presses and poets from lots of different spaces and places that I don't frequently encounter. Poetry friends of mine who live in different states and so I hardly ever get to see them and poets who I've only ever seen/spoken with online and have been friends with online for years, but have never met in person before.
Granted, in a way, the whole big group dynamic of the convention does make it difficult to have many in-depth personal interactions, but short interactions with those you would otherwise never get to see can still be pretty exciting, even if they are relatively brief. Granted, the noisy busy group environment can be overwhelming to me; I want to take genuine creative advantage of the relatively short span of time without overwhelming myself into stressful semi-oblivion (and I don't think I did as good a job with that at this AWP than at the other two I've attended - but that subject matter could lead to a whole other post) - but despite the various mental quirks I had a hard time handling, I was delighted to meet a few poets for the first time, briefly reconnect with some poets I hadn't seen for quite a few years, and so forth.
As for trying to sell (or give away) books or be part of the poetry community in my closer-to-home immediate area, that area doesn't have much of a poetry scene going on. The closest area(s) that do are close to an hour away from me. I'm a non-driver. My main man drives and is more than willing to attend poetry readings with me, but it seems that a lot of them happen on weekdays, which can be a bit challenging, if you have an early morning weekday work schedule and a poetry reading that's close to an hour away starts on a weekday evening.
So what if you don't have a poetry community in your immediate area, you don't have many friends in your immediate area, you don't drive, you're not very scene-driven, you're not aiming to be part of any one particular poetry niche market, you're not aiming to start your own poetry niche market, and you can only handle group events in occasional small spurts? That doesn't mean you're clueless or doing anything wrong. Not all poets are the same. Not all poets are deeply connected with the area they live in. Not all poets are comfortable in public. Not all poets are sociable performance artists. If I tried to be frequently sociable, I would drain my own creative energies fast and I would collapse.
If I do something big group oriented (which I sometimes do, when it comes to poetry), it then takes me over a week to recalculate my brain and reconnect with myself and my individual energy and creativity. I know I'm not the only poet/artist/creative type how feels this way. I think quite a few of us need a lot of time and space to ourselves. Some people can energize themselves in big group performance artsy crowds; other people can energize themselves by personally connecting with themselves or one or two other individuals, in a small, intense and genuine form of personal interaction. I far prefer the latter and sometimes attempt the former in small doses i.e. AWP, which happens once a year.
I have no desire to sell myself (or my press) solely for the sake of selling myself - I have no desire to sell myself (or my press) in order to be popular - and I have no desire to sell myself (or my press) by competing with or cutting down others. I'm not interested in being feverishly competitive or combative. I'm interested in doing what I want to do for the personal reasons I want to do it.
I think that many different poetic and creative goals exist beyond the point of just publishing and selling (or publishing and giving away) and so I don't think a writing convention can be easily narrowed down to costs versus book sales. Ultimately, every writer and publisher should set their own goals and make their own choices and share their own thoughts and feelings - and this article shared some interesting thoughts and feelings and encouraged me to share some of mine.
Do I think AWP is rather ridiculously overpriced for small press/independent artists and worthy of being questioned for its overpricing? Yes. Do I think everyone choosing to attend AWP is just cluelessly succumbing to that? No.