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Monday, May 30, 2011

The House of Words (no. 30): Nic Sebastian on nanopress

Signs of nanopress editing!

Nic Sebastian hails from Arlington, Virginia and travels widely. Her first collection, Forever Will End On Thursday ( was edited by Jill Alexander Essbaum and published by Lordly Dish Nanopress -- a poetry press with a twist ( Her work has appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Anti-, MiPOesias, Salt River Review, Mannequin Envy, Avatar Review and elsewhere. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale ( She is building an audio anthology of her readings of contemporary poetry at Whale Sound ( and is the founder of Voice Alpha (, a group blog focused on the art of reading poetry aloud for an audience.

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Lordly Dish Nanopress:
the firstborn child

Nic Sebastian has written at length about the "nanopress model," which she conceives of as an outlet for "a poet with at least several dozen individual poems already published by a range of reputable poetry journals," who has "compiled a first collection manuscript in which you have confidence." This poet is one who may have been discouraged by the cost and gambling mentality of poetry contests, who may have set his or her manuscript to some of the presses who still read unsolicited manuscripts without fee without finding an acceptance. She presents the nanopress alternative as one giving :that key element of credibility a poetry press brings to a manuscript – the outside editor’s judgment and gravitas, which both affirm and help hone the poet’s vision."
The nanopress model partners two poets in similar situations, establishing a tiny press and asking each to carefully edit and scrutinize the other's manuscript."The nanopress is a single-publication, purpose-formed poetry press that brings together, on a one-time basis, an independent editor’s judgment and gravitas and a poet’s manuscript. The combination effectively by-passes both the poetry-contest gamble and the dwindling opportunities offered by existing poetry presses, while still applying credible ‘quality control’ measures to the published work."

Whether you find this idea exciting--perhaps you like the freedom of this model, or perhaps you are one of those unpublished poets--or whether you like it not at all--perhaps you find it dangerous to the work of small presses, say, or a little too close to self-publishing--it has given birth to its first books. Here is Nic Sebastian on nanopress . . .
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I've been getting some nice emails on the nanopress project from poets who are in the same place I was when the idea first occurred to me. Here is a representative one from Sheila Squillante (reproduced with her permission):
I was pretty much knocked over when I read your explanation of why you created this nanopress model for your book (which I am enjoying reading, by the way!). I could have written the exact words. I'm sure many of us could.

I'm in that place where I feel like I need to decide to go left or right at the fork in the road. I've invested so much time, money, energy and identity in the traditional publishing model, but how much longer can I do that? How much longer do I want to?

Anyway, I'm rambling and I'm sure you've heard these questions before. I'm wondering if you felt like you had the same "fork in the road" choice to make (clumsy metaphor, I know), and if so, would you mind saying if there was some defining moment (or something) that helped you make it? I'm finding your blog notes on the process really interesting and enlightening, too.

This is a very exciting and inspiring project and I thank you for putting it out into the world. Congratulations!
Hi Sheila! Thanks for writing and for the kind words. Yes, I definitely had a "fork in the road" moment. You can read about it in a) look for a publisher or b) self-publish or c) go the third way - a blog post from way back in July 2008, which is what started this whole thing. I commend the comments thread to you, in particular comments by the naysayers who said the idea would never work. Don't ever be swayed by those kind of comments if you are trying to execute an idea you believe in. (Love you all anyway, guys!).

I've been thinking a lot about this topic for a long time now, but most intensively over the last couple of weeks, since Forever Will End On Thursday was launched under the nanopress model and the various conversations generated therefrom.

I've been distilling my thinking, both as a publisher and as a poet. In the post I just linked to, I talked about the 'publisher's cycle of need' - driven by significant financial imperatives - and the need for poets to break out of it, basically because poets don't share those financial imperatives.

What poet today (the rare Mary Oliver or Billy Collins aside), seriously expects to pay any bills through the proceeds from poetry sales? I mean, really? Or even wants to make money from their poems? Most poets I know just want their poems to be read. An objective diametrically at odds with the publisher's cycle of need. That cycle demands tight control of poems, which a) must be offered in one format (print) and b) must be paid for.

In the old days, the contract was worth it for the poet because of the marketing and promoting power the publisher brought to the equation. The publisher's reputation, their knowledge of and ability to leverage and exploit the market place was hugely important to the poet. But today, with the flattening of the means of production and distribution - the internet, print on demand publishing, e-book publishing, which empower the poet, the ever-shrinking budgets and resources which continually diminish the publisher's promotion power - the equation has been turned on its head.

You are your chief marketer and promoter, whether you get a contract with a publisher or not. That's today's reality for today's poet. So why not take control of all aspects of of your cycle of production?

And I repeat what I have said elsewhere - this is not about dissing hard-working small and indie presses, who are often selfless, work long hours for nothing and are deeply passionate in their commitment to poetry. It is not the publishers' fault that the system is the way it is. Nor is it the poets'. It just is. And has been. All I'm saying is that realities and dynamics have changed significantly around both poet and publisher and we owe it to poetry to absorb, assess and act on those changes.

Everyone will have their own idea about how to proceed in today's environment. My recommendations for the poet who wants their poems read (as opposed to wanting to make money from book sales -- you really do have to choose between these two objectives!) are:

a) Find a publisher who will publish your complete collection in multiple forms, at least some of which are free.


b) Become your own publisher, with an outside editor, under the nanopress model and publish your complete collection in multiple forms, at least some of which are free.

Free? Isn't that a dirty word? you ask.

Generally, maybe, but not for poets and poetry. Poets are not put off by "free" poetry, in the way that most of us are put off by and instinctively suspicious of anything free. Why is it free? It must be sub-standard, somehow off and unwanted. That's regular commerce-speak. It doesn't apply to poetry. We are used to seeing enormous quantities of fine poetry free for the taking across the internet. The number of reputable, discerning poetry journals that offer content received free from poets for free is huge and growing by leaps and bounds. Yes, poets look for some sign of quality control for content (who is the editor??), but we all know that dollar signs are no indicator of quality for poetry.

For me personally, and I know for many others, poetry is definitely priceless. Civilizations through the ages have recognized that poetry nourishes the human spirit and enterprise in a way few other things do, and certainly nothing that is for sale. Queens, kings and chieftains employed bards and poets just for that purpose. Sure, our system in the US (I think they do somewhat better in Europe) has forgotten this and undervalues the poet's skills and contributions, no longer subsidizes them in any material way. But does that mean that the poet should forget too and undervalue too, and try to force poetry into the channels of commerce where it never has (and never will) sit comfortably? Selling your skill as a detective story writer or a romance novelist or a how-to manual writer is one thing. Selling your skill as a poet is quite another. In my view.

But why offer your poetry free? you ask.

Fact: The difference between "free" or "for sale" is a big difference in readership. It just is. For the past several days, I've been sharing statistics from my collection, Forever Will End On Thursday, which was launched 12 days ago on March 21 under the multiple-format-some-free model. This is where we are 12 days after launch (some context - it's amazingly hard to get info about the general size of initial print runs for poetry, but it seems that in the US an initial run of 2,000 - unlikely to sell out - is standard for university presses; while small presses are more likely to have an initial run of 100 -200 or so):

free e-book downloads - 41

free PDF downloads - 24

print sales - 9

free MP3 downloads - 4

CD sales - 2

Sure, this is just one sample, and a random one at that. And it's word-of-mouth, internet promotion only - I haven't been on the road all hours (or at all) drumming up business through live readings. And who knows if obtaining a copy equals actually reading it or listening to it? Or how many more sales would have been made if *no* free copies were offered? (I suspect not many more.)

In any event, total number of copies out there is 80. Total number of print copies sold is 9. Book sales account for less than 12% of total potential reader/listenership.

Really. Get your collection published in multiple formats, some of which are free. Let's get some more statistics loaded up here.

Spread the word, Sheila: if you're a poet looking for an editor under the nanopress model, send me your bio and publication credits at nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com. If I think you might be a poet some editor out there might be proud to help publish, I'll list you on this page at the nanopress site.

Maybe all together we can make the nanopress model work for more poets and get some new cycles and models going for poetry.


  1. Thanks, Marly! A lot happened since this one, including a new nanopress project in the works - I am so in love with this one! Stay tuned...

  2. Yes, I'm sure! It takes a long time for a house to go u-u-u-p, particularly if you fly off to Wales in the middle of construction.

    Curious to see...

  3. Thanks for this, Marly, Nic! I'm very interested in your discussion of "free" because I too have been struggling with the fact that in a capitalistic society, the only way to value something is to assign it a dollar figure. I've gone so far as to offer $20 per poem (more than most literary mags pay) in my new online venture (Glass Seed Annual) and have been incredibly surprised that more folks aren't offering poems for consideration. A life lesson for me, I guess.

  4. Mary Alexandra,

    It's an awfully big world out there. Maybe the word is not out quite yet. After all, I may send you a pantoum in time... and perhaps all my writing friends will do the same and you will be swimming in a deep sea of poems by mid-summer!

  5. I think one of the most important things to remember right now is that there's no one "right way" to get your work out there, but keeping our writing in a virtual drawer does no one any good, and probably does more to discourage us form writing than anything else. I applaud Nic for championing her nanopress model and hope more poets may try it rather than simply self-publishing. At the same time, I don't see it competing with the sort of projects we're doing at my small press, Phoenicia. This is a time when we all need to help each other, and to experiment with different forms.

  6. Hi there, Beth--

    Yes, I do think it's a time of proliferation and trying new things. I don't think nanopress will replace small press and publishers, and I imagine many who try it on the first book will be happy to move to a house on the second or third.

  7. Thanks, Nic, for the thoughtful response to my email here! (and to you, Marly, for hosting the discussion.) I continue to be supremely intrigued by the possibilities. So glad it's worked out for you!

  8. Hi Sheila,

    Thanks for your contribution to that dialogue!

  9. Thanks for this stimulating discussion, which has given me many ideas. I will send a link to my husband, who has several manuscripts in the drawer, having given up on contests long ago. As usual, I am lagging behind, and strive optimistically to win the poetry lottery. I give it a year, and then I will try this model, which sounds interesting. A fine alternative. The only thing I worry about is that I am not thinking about money, directly, but about the possibility of picking up a writing job, part time at least, a residency in a poetry program somewhere a couple of times per year. Without a legitimate publication, not a self-publication, I wouldn't have a prayer. So perhaps this is not the answer for me. Perhaps a small press would work better.

  10. Oh, and thanks Mary for the information about your journal. I have never written a pantoum, but I will try it! Why not?

  11. Robbi, I'll let Nic address those issues.

    Let there be pantoums!

  12. Mary Alexandra - there is no 'right' way and everyone finds their own place on this question. Very best of luck to you as you work through it in your way. I earn my living in a specific field very much outside poetry and I know very well the dollar value of my time in that context. It has a specific price. Sounds like a corny Mastercard ad (the irony!) to say so, but the way I see it, my poetry time can't be measured by the same standards, and simply doesn't have a price - it's literally priceless.

    Beth - Yes! There is no 'right' way and any dynamic that seek to undercut others' ways and choices is simply unhelpful. This is a great group project and, as you say: 'This is a time when we all need to help each other, and to experiment with different forms.'

    Robbi - no-one should go into this with doubts and reservations, especially if there are career (ie financial) implications. There is a clear message right now from the 'establishment' about which is the 'correct' way to go, and countermanding that dictate will of necessity have consequences. What risks can you afford to take, or not to take? You and your husband won't necessarily have the same answers to that question. The money in my life is firmly linked to non-poetry sources and I don't ever have to think of bills in connection with poetry. But others do, and that's most definitely a legitimate factor in their publication decisions.
    I repeat: There is no 'right' way. Just varieties of ways. To reach a shared objective. As Beth said, 'we all need to help each other, and to experiment with different forms.'
    So I'm right here rooting for you. Whichever way you choose. Best, Nic

  13. Nic,
    I thought as much. I wish I could say I had another choice, but at this point in my life, I really don't think I do. So I labor on to stay on the appointed path! My husband, however, is another story, as you say.

  14. I thought of Richard when I first read about nanopress--not because I don't think he's good enough for some other way but because it allows one to take control, and that is strengthening.

    Of course, I also look at what Dave Bonta is doing and see another way as well.

  15. Robbi, the dilemma you describe is exactly what I struggle with as well. I've always imagined a life in academia (I'm an adjunct now), and the worry about credentialing one's work is still very real. It doesn't change the fact that, like your husband, I've pretty much given up on the traditional publishing mechanism. So I'm finding myself really pulled toward something like this. And pulled, too, maybe, toward a life similar to what Nic describes--where my financial stability is not tied to my poetry. But that's another anxiety altogether. :) Can someone point me toward what Dave Bonta is doing?

  16. Robbi - that said, I think whom you select as an editor would have a great deal of potential weight in your world. In my case, I was lucky enough to work with an establishment-credentialed poet, Jill Alexander Essbaum, for the nanopress project that published my first collection. Since I'm not tied financially to poetry in any way, it hasn't been important for me to test that collection on the powers-that-be in academe - ie to ascertain to what degree it 'counts' as a publication for them, given its fabulously credentialed editor and all her considerable associated gravitas in the poetry world. Why not ask around, using the Lordly Dish Nanopress specific elements as your example? If you work with an editor with enough acknowledged gravitas, it would make all the difference in the world. Best of luck! Nic

  17. Sheila,

    If you look back through "The House of Words" series, you will find a very long interview with Dave (just ended, so you don't have to scroll back far) where he talks about publishing on line and how that led to some print publications. Anyway, there's a huge amount of yack about using the internet.

    Or if you want to dig around in his blog (other offshoot projects link to it), just go to

  18. Nic,

    Thanks for coming back with more advice!


    One other thing: you can think about using your book as a means of getting other kinds of publications as well--particularly reviews and articles about poets (and articles about the mode of publication, as Nic does here.) Then the book becomes a way of getting other publications that will count in the world of academia (although schools vary in what "counts" for them.)

    And one thing that one sees a lot in the genre world is a publication with an introduction by someone well known who is interested in your work; that adds luster to a publication.

  19. Missed some of these comments. I have some ideas, and I will perhaps test them out this weekend, when I attend a reading by the poet, very much academically credentialed, who I have in mind.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.