why I like grant applications

Of course I could fill two paragraphs with why I don’t like them (e.g., budgets present and past, learning new application software, the very fact of a deadline), but there is much that I do like. Interestingly, writing a good grant application is like writing a good formal poem. Like a sonnet form or a sestina or an Oulipo exercise, a grant application forces me to move outside my comfort zone and think in someone else’s terms. I can’t just say I want to do any old thus-and-such, but rather, I must fit my goals into the terms of the grant. Though this can mean a lot of frustration at the start, the effect is often a richer project.

For instance, recently, the North Carolina Arts Council, after a several-years-long consultation with Nello McDaniel and George Thorn at Arts Action Research, retooled their project grants from simple support of publications and literary and other arts events, to a more goal-oriented approach: to encourage arts organizations to reach more and more-diverse audiences. These project grants, with all the arts now grouped under the umbrella term “Arts and Audiences,” ask us (directors of organizations) to think about what audiences we feel most connected to, and which audiences, currently disconnected, we might want or need to connect with. Whereas in the past the emphasis was on producing books (and promoting them), the emphasis now is on “connecting with audiences” and creating “meaningful experiences” with the arts.

So what does “connecting with an audience” mean for a press? Through the years, CWP authors and board members have hosted conferences, taught and performed in under-served community settings (such as shelters, halfway houses, small public libraries, independent bookstores), served as mentors to new writers, and many other community activities. Mainly, however, we have written and produced books. Promotion of these books has often begun with these community activities, but the be-all an end-all has always been to sell them to libraries or directly to readers. We believe that the most significant relationship a reader can have with a piece of literature is to read it. Readers are our audiences, plain and simple.

Who are our readers? Do we know who they are? Yes. Like most non-profits receiving government support, we keep careful track of attendees at our events. Our authors are asked to count attendees at their readings and to make some “guesstimates” about the races and genders of those attendees. We don’t like this–we know it’s guesstimation, that we really can’t tell much about a person based on appearance–but it’s a necessary evil. Carolina Wren Press was established in 1976 with a mission to publish “underrepresented” writers, which in the 1970s seemed obviously to be women and black writers. Nowadays, we recognize many other types of underrepresented writers, including disabled authors, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender writers, other people of color and mixed races, and even experimental writers. Part and parcel of this mission has also been to reach underrepresented readers. We believe that by publishing new and/or marginalized voices, our works will appeal to new and/or marginalized readers. We’ve endeavored through the years to choose appropriate, accessible venues for our events–to be inviting to those audiences. Through the years we have seen highly diverse audiences, often counting 30% or more African-American attendees, more than 50% women, and significant attendance by members of the LGBT community.

In the last five years, however, we have noticed a significant drop-off in sales to libraries, and in orders from chain bookstores (exception: college bookstores associated with B&N, Borders and Follett are still our biggest wholesale customers). We get very few reviews from larger publications (exception: the Women’s Review of Books has noted our publications in recent years). Our book sales to individuals remain steady–and are exactly proportional to the efforts of the authors themselves in getting themselves readings and teaching gigs–but they aren’t going up.

So, what is happening here? First answer: the economy. Books are a luxury item, so when money gets tight, people don’t buy them. Libraries have had to cut back also, especially since so many of them have been in the midst of retooling–going digital and investing in computers and software (second answer, the digital revolution)–for the last 10 years. Libraries are also shifting some resources from print acquisitions to the purchase of eBooks to loan to their members. Bookstores are also changing in the face of the economic decline and advancements in digital printing, online publications, and–hugely–online shopping, both for printed books and eBooks. Because of technology that allows online shopping to see inside books, even the browse-to-buy function of bookstores is becoming moot. Additionally, the huge discounts offered by online book retailers, and benefits like membership discounts and free shipping, are factors in the demise of local, independent bookstores. And local bookstores are the store-equivalent (and necessary partners) of small, independent presses.

Independent bookstores are going to have to change their strategies, and so are we. I don’t know what they will do, but I know what we are doing: Jumping onto the internet. Instead of fighting the new technology, we are embracing it. We are learning about eBooks, about (eek! dare I say it?) print-on-demand, about podcasting and tweeting and blogging. We have to make our books “discoverable” on the internet, and doing so requires links between our site and other literary sites, author’s webpages, stores, and blogs.

So, back to the grant application (oh yes, I did have a main topic for this rangey blogpost). This year, instead of applying for funding for one or two books (and the associated promotional events), we are asking for funds to help us create an audio disk, a sampler of past and forthcoming poetry. We will also render several past, best-selling titles, into eBooks. One of these, Jaki Shelton Green’s Breath of the Song will include an additional section of new poems. The disk will be a promotable publication in itself, but it will also be an important marketing device. Individual MP3’s can be posted widely on the internet–on our site, certainly, but also on other sites, with links to ours. The disk can be mailed to libraries to alert librarians to our list of poetry titles, and to independent bookstores in this state and nationally. Because the disk will include a multitude of voices, it can help us connect with a multitude of audiences–both online and through libraries. The eBooks will allow us to connect that portion (estimated at 30 to 40%) of readers now using eReaders. In general, these projects will help us meet readers where they are looking for books…on the internet.

So, cross your fingers that our grant application is approved!

–Andrea Selch, President

Further reading:

See this timely article from the Best American Poetry Blog

Also, check out David Wilk’s Publishing Talks, most especially his interview with Don Leeper of BookMobile on February 14, 2011.

Subject for a further blog: What is CWP’s role? Are we a national press or state press?

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One Response to why I like grant applications

  1. Ruth says:

    Great article! And very timely for me as I am learning a lot about writing grant narrative this year! Thank you!