August 12, 2010
Jee Leong Koh is a New York poet hailing from Singapore via Oxford University where he took his degree in English Literature before moving to the US for an MFA in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. In 2009, defying the conventions of the professional poetry world, Jee self-published his first collection, Equal to the Earth, and has successfully managed to independently promote and distribute it against the odds. Not since the days of William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Virginia Woolf has self-published poetry been taken as anything more than the work of amateurs publishing their purple verse at vanity presses. Now, with the strategic use of social media, the landscape of poetry publishing might be subject to change. In the following interview, Jee Leong Koh shares the secrets of his success.
Tell us about “Equal to the Earth” and the journey it has taken from its inception to your decision to ultimately self-publish it?
Journey, in my case, is literal. In 2003 I left Singapore with a binder of poems in my bag for the Creative Writing Program at Sarah Lawrence College, New York. Two poems from that binder survive, much-revised, in Equal to the Earth. The rest of the book was written after I migrated here, between 2004 and 2009.
Looking back, I realize now that the book needed that gestation time. I was “coming out” as a gay man and a poet. A better way of putting that might be I was “working out” my sexual and poetical identities, and finding stronger and stronger means of giving aesthetic shape to my personal experience. The published book is much more beautiful than the Master’s thesis, and I have no doubt that if I had worked on it for another five years, the book would have been even more beautiful. But I had to stop the process somewhere. Because I wanted a book, a physical object, a finished artifact, a measure of success. Because I wanted to move on and write about other things in other ways.
Like so many of my peers, I sent out my manuscript to numerous first book contests, paying the hefty entry fee, usually $25.00, to be considered for publication. I must have spent hundreds of dollars, but the closest I came was the finals of a gay chapbook contest. At the same time, a good number of my poems were published in literary journals. One was reprinted in A Midsummer Night Press’s Best Gay Poetry. Another poem was selected by Natasha Trethewey for Best New Poets. I was having some success in placing individual poems but no success in putting out a book.
In 2007, a small press called Poets Wear Prada published my chapbook Payday Loans, a sequence of thirty sonnets that I wrote while putting together Equal to the Earth. That publication was my first close contact with the world of independent publishing. I hesitated for another two years before putting Equal into the hands of PWP. When that fell through, I felt I was back where I had started.
Fortunately, by then, I had met John Stahle, the editor and publisher of Ganymede, a gay men’s arts journal. He encouraged me to self-publish through the print-on-demand service, Lulu. More, he enabled me to self-publish by undertaking the book design at a very friendly price. I set up my own imprint, Bench Press, and here I am, doing this interview.
What is Bench Press and what is its mission?
I founded Bench Press on July 4, 2009, my own Independence Day. The press aims to publish “poetry that exerts pressure at every point, and so achieves a momentary rest.” Besides publishing my own books, I hope to put out, in alternate years, the first book of a poet whose writing I believe in. This September will see the launch of Bob Hart’s Lightly in the Good of Day (http://www.benchpresspoetry.com). He is a highly original poet, with a puckish style and plucky vision.
Do you intend on self-publishing all your books from now on through Bench Press?
Yes. In March 2011 I am releasing my next book Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. It consists of seven poetic sequences, the last of which is a divan of 49 ghazals.
I enjoyed so much having complete control over the publication of Equal that I don’t wish to share, let alone relinquish, that control with an editor. I decide on the poems and their arrangement. My designer may propose the look, but I dispose of his ideas. The book is mine, not just in terms of the writing, but in every physical aspect. I read in a Times Literary Supplement review that Moholy-Nagy described design as a way of “defining the content pictorially by organization of visual effects.” I like to learn about kind of organization.
Self-publication also means that I retain the copyright to my work. My books will never go out of print. I can also put them out in different formats as I wish, such as e-books and recordings.
In the world of self-publishing, there are a select few genres that have enough history and cachet, such as comics and graphic novels, to be viewed by the industry and by consumers as serious, high-quality, and therefore economically viable commodities. Poetry is not one of them, at least not anymore. In fact, it is commonly believed that to publish one’s own poems is the kiss of death. Was this a concern for you? And how have you managed to circumnavigate the poisoned kiss?
Is poetry an economically viable commodity even for big publishing houses? I don’t know the figures, but I have always supposed that big publishers put out books of poetry more for prestige than for profits. The small independent publishers, they are lucky if they manage to break even. Like the latter, I publish not for profits but for passion. Unlike them, however, my passion for my own work is existential. What goes into the writing goes into the self-publishing too. I am making myself up, so to speak.
But your question is really twofold. Besides the question of profit, there is also the issue of prestige. I wouldn’t call self-publication the kiss of death, but it is certainly regarded in some quarters as not quite respectable. Who could blame them when there are so many vanity presses out there, ready to roll out anyone’s ego on a red carpet?
The question becomes how to distinguish myself from wannabe poets. The first mark must be the quality of the verse. Why publish at all if your work does not build the house of poetry? This is a serious question that all serious poets must answer for themselves. It is not just about the ego; it is about something bigger than all of us. Call it the ends of art. If we cannot answer the question, we should not publish.
If we think our writing answers the question, we could confirm our intuition by submitting individual poems first to literary journals we enjoy reading. An acceptance means that someone else, another literary intelligence, has found shelter in our words. It is an exhilarating realization. It gives us confidence to keep building. Until we can offer our self-published book to these readers like a home in which they can live.
What are the criteria for success on the self-publishing route?
I have sold about 300 copies of Equal so far, enough to break even, but I am not very much concerned with sales figures. I want to get my book into the hands of discerning readers. I consider a book a success when it finds its perfect reader. In the case of Equal, Andrew Howdle, in Boxcar Poetry Review, comes very close to the ideal (http://www.boxcarpoetry.com/024/review_jee_leong_koh_howdle.html).
How have social networking sites played a role in promoting your product and what is the best way you have found to use them?
Facebook is the main social networking site I use (http://www.facebook.com/jeeleong.koh). I have a personal page where I update my friends on my writing, readings, and publications. I find status updates less intrusive than group announcements. Instead of group messages, I send a personal message to new friends to tell them about my book. I also have a business page for Bench Press, to which I invite my friends to “like” or become “fans.” I have found friendly readers, reviewers and editors through networking on that site.
Other than Facebook, I have a professional profile at the job-networking site called LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/in/jeeleong). I post my reviews of books on my blog, Song of a Reformed Headhunter, as well as Goodreads. The latter provides an author’s page where you can describe and recommend your books. Readers can put your titles on their To-Read page or review them after reading. I also tweet at Twitter, at Jee_Leong_Koh.
I have not made much use of MySpace, because I am not adept with a video camera. Instead, I recorded my readings using free audio recording software such as Audacity, and stored it, also for free, at a file-sharing site called Box. I threw a virtual book party for Equal to the Earth on a dedicated blog (http://equaltotheearth.blogspot.com/). Guests heard me read from my book, and interacted in real-time through the comments feature.
The sheer number of sites can be daunting to keep up with. It is a good idea to link up all the sites. For instance, to provide a blog-feed at LinkedIn, so all blog postings appear automatically on my profile there. It also helps that I make my blog my home base, which provides a focal point for all my on-line networking activities. All the sites are also bookmarked on my Internet browser, as a reminder to attend to them.
Social networking sites are not divorced from real people. Through reading regularly at various places in New York City, I’ve made friends who are also friends on these sites. The doubling is not redundant. One connection branches into three others. It’s useful to remind people, on-line or off, what you are up to, without making a nuisance of yourself.
These sites can become addictive, and so I am careful about the amount and use of the time I spend on them. My writing comes first, and so I try to write first thing in the morning, before attending to these networks of friends. I try to keep my writing firmly in view.
Where do you draw the line between promoting your product and promoting yourself? Are they one and the same?
I do identify very strongly with my books. Now that I am publishing Bob Hart, however, I have another identity separate from that of a poet. I spent much time and effort editing his book, and guiding its design and publication. I am also organizing a book party to launch the book. To a certain extent, promoting his book is the same as promoting myself. For example, I am able to advertise Equal to the Earth in Bob’s book. Nevertheless, time spent on promoting Bench Press is time taken away from my own writing.
I hope to balance the two roles—publisher and writer—by concentrating on each in alternate years. This year I focus on publishing and promoting Bob, next year, on my next book. It still requires ruthlessly efficient employment of one’s time. Most of this has to happen during the summer, when I take a break from teaching in an independent school.
If you had to come up with a business model for self-publishing poetry, what would it look like?
I am a poet, and not an entrepreneur, and so my business model will not make much business sense. Each book costs me between $1000 to $2000. I am happy enough if I cover my costs. Any extra is a bonus. I just want to sell enough to break even, and so finance my next book.
What is your advice for a poet who is thinking of self-publishing a book? What steps should they follow and what should they particularly avoid?
The poet must be prepared to devote a substantial amount of time, thought and money to the venture. I hope my earlier answers have given some idea of how much. It really helps to have gained a hearing with editors, fellow poets, and readers who will review or buy the book. Otherwise the self-published book will languish for lack of a readership. So I would not advise self-publishing for poets fresh out of Creative Writing programs.
Some poets are natural salespeople. Others, like me, find self-promotion almost unbearably difficult. For the latter, the Internet is a boon, because self-promotion can be done with inventiveness and tact, without the need for face-to-face. Hang on to the thought that Whitman wrote Emerson cold for a commendation of Leaves of Grass. But I do not recommend publishing a private letter without the letter-writer’s permission as a blurb.
The process begins with rigorous editing and proofreading of the manuscript. It helps enormously to have two or three trusted readers to pick apart the manuscript. Standardize punctuation. Check facts, names and spelling.
(2) Book Design
Familiarize yourself with a print-on-demand service like Lulu, so that you can give full book specifications to your book designer. Include in your specifications two cover concepts and a complete round of corrections. Choose a book designer who is not only affordable but shows you a creative and relevant portfolio of work. He or she will better understand what you want if you can show him or her your favorite poetry book designs.
(3) Book Launch
Plan for the launch of the book. How will you create anticipation beforehand? Will you start a dedicated book website or blog? Advertise at social events, virtual and real? Promotional flyers and postcards are not that expensive to make. I use Next Day Flyers, and the on-line company does a quick, decent job.
How will you celebrate the new book? Don’t just think about a real book party. Consider a virtual party of some kind. Whom will you invite, besides family, neighbors, friends and colleagues? Everyone loves a party, especially one with food and drinks. If you read regularly at a place, the host may welcome a book launch to brighten up the reading series.
(4) Blurbs and Reviews
I wrote to my Creative Writing teachers for book blurbs, and Marie Howe and Vijay Seshadri were kind enough to recommend my books. Thinking my book might be of interest to him, I also wrote to Christopher Hennessy, who edited Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets. He obliged with a sexy blurb.
Of the 12 reviews of Equal to the Earth, six came from journals that had published poems from the book. Another five were written by friends made through social networking sites. One was written by a fellow-reader at a reading, after I approached him for a review. Reviews take time to assign, write and publish, and so don’t be surprised if they appear a year or more after the book is published.
I have done four interviews so far, including this one. Two of them came about through networking on-line. One appeared in a journal that had published my poems. You and I met at a reading at Cornelia Street Café.
(5) Work Schedule
Have a clear schedule of work from editing to book launch, so that you can manage the process with the whole of it in mind. It is reasonable to devote two months to editing and proofreading, two months to book design and production, and another month to the run-up to the book launch. If you are working full-time during that period, you should probably give yourself more time.
What implications does your success have for the conventional model of poetry publishing, particularly in light of the current shift from print to digital, and the tightening of publishers’ belts in general? Is this the way forward for poets?
I am too new to the publishing industry to play Cassandra. All I can say at this point is that self-publication is a very viable way for poets who have achieved some recognition among their colleagues, and who have the time and money that such a project entails. It will not make one’s fortune, but it cannot harm one’s reputation. The best argument for it is the tremendous sense of satisfaction that comes from making something of one’s own.