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Autumn House Springs Forward

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At age 8, Autumn House Press is growing up. A key rite of passage was completed in October, when the small, Pittsburgh-based publisher of books of poetry by single authors unveiled The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. The ambitious text is aimed at a collegiate market long ruled by publishing giants with massive budgets and decades of experience -- your W.W. Nortons and Houghton Mifflins.

 

 

"We're really competing with the big boys," says Autumn House founder and executive director Michael Simms.

 

Well, yes and no. Simms wants to impress the nation's English departments with this 413-page collection of verse by 94 poets including Pulitzer Prize-winners (Philip Levine, Jean Valentine), Western Pennsylvania poetic champions (Jan Beatty, Samuel Hazo) and rising stars including Mark Wunderlich and Pittsburgh's Terrance Hayes. But at the same time, Autumn House is an independent nonprofit focusing on a niche market and now entering a highly competitive field with dwindling profit margins. It will do well to fill the bookbags of a fraction of a fraction of the nation's 14 million undergrads.

 

In other words, if "the business of poetry" isn't a complete oxymoron, it's still a matter of expectations. A small press such as Autumn House doesn't need to sell like Oprah's Book Club, or even the William Morrow back catalog, to succeed. Rather, Simm's benchmark is David R. Godine, a small Boston-based press that over the course of 14 years has sold some 30,000 copies of a comparable anthology, New American Poets of the '90s.

 

By that standard, Autumn House is off to a strong start. The book, edited by Connecticut-based writer and poet Sue Ellen Thompson, was published in October. As of early January, Simms says, it had sold 500 copies out of an initial press run of 1,500. That's already enough to break even.

 

"I think this is a remarkable success," says Al Greco, a Fordham University marketing professor who studies the publishing industry, when told of Autumn House's early sales.

 

Sales of collegiate texts in English language and literature are about $400 million. But the industry is bruised: Sales of used books, says Greco, have risen to about 25 percent of the $5.5 billion textbook market. That's good for students and even bookstores (who mark up used books more than new ones), but hard on publishers. And Greco adds that the online used market is "the razor at the throat of these college textbook publishers."

 

Simms, a 50-year-old native Texan, poet and university-level English instructor, started Autumn House because he loves poetry. But operating out of offices in his home neighborhood of Mount Washington, it's done pretty well, issuing 16 collections by individual poets. Part of the formula is low overhead: Autumn House is an all-volunteer operation.

 

So far, the anthology's market is mostly limited to the anthologized and their students. But while Autumn House can't afford to send sales reps to colleges like the big publishers do, it does have a modest advertising budget, including forthcoming ads in publications teachers read (Poets and Writers, et al.) and a display table at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs' annual conference, in March.

 

Something in the anthology's favor might be that it features both big names and emerging poets. That's partly a function of loyalty: Autumn House's own poets (including Pittsburgh's Ed Ochester and the late Patricia Dobler) are well represented. But instructors who come for the brand names might stay for the new faces -- if not for the $29.95 price, compared to, say, $60 for the 2006 edition of Houghton Mifflin's Contemporary American Poetry, which includes fewer poets (71) in more pages (704).

 

As to the poems themselves, Simms chose Thompson as editor because their tastes coincide: poems that tackle big, universal themes such as love, death and family relationships, and that lean more toward narrative than toward language games or formal experimentation. "They're very accessible for students," says Clarion University English professor Philip Terman, who selected the anthology (which includes three of his poems) for two spring classes.

 

Simms acknowledges that collections by individual poets don't sell many copies. If the anthology sells well, it could subsidize Autumn House's other work. If it doesn't, it'll still serve his mission of promoting poetry -- but Simms suspects the two functions are related. "Sales," he says, "tend to follow quality."

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