Grassroots Effort Saves Poetry Reviews

Kevin Larimer

The industry trade magazine Publishers Weekly this summer decided to stop publishing its monthly Poetry Forecast section, an editorial move that would have had deleterious effects on independent publishers. But if you were at the beach or busy with your summer reading you probably didn’t hear the news. In response to complaints from many publishers, editors, and poets, the decision was reversed a few weeks later, before any changes were made to the magazine.

Publishers Weekly received approximately 150 phone calls, e-mails, and letters about the decision.

Here’s what happened: In July, Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, a nonprofit organization in New York City, heard from several of CLMP’s members that Publishers Weekly was changing its approach to reviewing poetry. No longer would the magazine be running anonymous, prepublication reviews in its monthly Poetry Forecasts section. Instead, a reduced number of poetry reviews would be published as part of Nonfiction Forecasts on an unscheduled basis.

Lependorf immediately contacted Jeff Zaleski, the magazine’s Forecast editor, who confirmed the rumor. Lependorf then sent an e-mail to all CLMP members as well as others in the publishing industry—including Jonathan Galassi, publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Daniel Halpern, publisher of Ecco Press—alerting them to the magazine’s decision.

Many of those who received the e-mail were not happy. Martha Rhodes, the publisher of Four Way Books, a small press in New York City, wrote in a group e-mail that the decision was “penny-wise, pound-foolish” and asked for letters and e-mails of protest to be sent to Zaleski. Lependorf’s e-mail included a similar plea. “We set out to prove that Poetry Forecasts matter not only to poetry publishers, but to a much larger literary community,” Lependorf says. “Rather than complain about the decision, we set out to have Publishers Weekly’s constituents describe the importance of the reviews.”

Dan Machlin, publisher of Futurepoem Books, a two-year-old small press in New York City, was among those who, after receiving e-mails from Lependorf and Rhodes, evaluated the significance of the reviews. “Coverage of our first few titles by Publishers Weekly has been a crucial step in building legitimacy for Futurepoem’s publishing efforts,” Machlin says. “A Poetry Forecast from Publishers Weekly is a powerful means of convincing teachers, bookstores, distributors, grant makers, and important book reviewers to pay attention to us.”

Matthew Zapruder, editor of Verse Press, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the decision: “Publishers Weekly is a commercial venture, not a charity, so they have to do what’s best for their organization and bottom line.”

But for many in the world of independent presses, where the bottom line is quite a bit lower than in commercial publishing, that explanation wasn’t good enough. Zaleski estimates that Publishers Weekly received approximately 150 phone calls, e-mails, and letters about the decision. The response was so great that the magazine reversed its decision and reinstituted its monthly poetry section in September.

“You spoke. And we listened,” Zaleski wrote in an e-mail to those who had contacted him. “In response to the passionate inpouring of e-mails and telephone calls from the many who love and rely upon our poetry reviews, we at Publishers Weekly are extremely happy to report that we are resuming our dedicated monthly Poetry Forecasts section.” Zaleski wrote that the initial decision to reduce the number of poetry reviews arose from the belief that they “were not of prime utility to our readers.” That belief, Publishers Weekly realized, was wrong.

“It has been humbling and edifying to see how Publishers Weekly’s reach extends not only to our subscribers, and beyond them to our readers who don’t subscribe, but also to everyone who cares about books,” Zaleski wrote.

For some, the grassroots campaign not only reversed an editorial decision by a 131-year-old international newsmagazine—no small feat—it also reinforced a sense of community among poets, editors, and publishers. “I think it’s awesome evidence that every once in a while public opinion does make a difference,” says Rebecca Wolff, publisher of Fence and Fence Books. “I think it must also say something about the publishing community. Even though it’s quite disparate, there is still a lot of concern within it for its integrity and health.”

Kevin Larimer is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.