I posted my query on this topic to the Wompo list and got this useful response from Jeffrey Levine, publisher and editor-in-chief at Tupelo Press (posted here with his permission). Jeffrey wrote:
“Unlike the huge charitable organizations that have large staffs and war chests for TV and print ads, plus sizable payrolls just for development purposes and highly-compensated executive “teams,” most (all?) independent poetry presses have practically no payroll at all. We bring our lunches, and take turns mopping the bathroom floor.
Here’s a case in point: at Tupelo Press there’s no development staff at all. Our managing editor works part-time, half that time as managing editor, half as production manager. To save the press money, he works out of his home in northern Vermont. My office manager works 3/4 time. (I’d love to bring her up to full time, but can’t.) I work 80 hours a week, about 1/4 of that as publisher, about 1/4 as editor in chief, 1/4 as marketing manager, 1/4 as publicist. As for me, I have never had a salary of any kind. Everybody else who does work for Tupelo Press either donates the time, or the work is outsourced (i.e., to our excellent designers, to our excellent web master, our industrious database updaters — all of whom provide substantial nonprofit discounts. All of my time is donated, and has been for 10 years. Over that period, about $700,000 of my own money has gone into the press to get others in print and out into the world. (Because of the market meltdown — those funds are no longer available.) Likewise, my board has given substantial dollars over the years to accomplish the same task. This is a common story in literary publishing around the country.
Nobody in nonprofit independent publishing is making money off of donor funds. We have an annual budget of approximately $225,000. We publish 10-12 books a year. The total cost of publishing those 10-12 books, counting two part-time salaries, all of the costs of design & printing, and the post-launch support–review copies, ads, readings, publicity releases, etc. — comes to $225,000. Every penny goes into making those 10-12 books happen. Again, this is a shared story. Every independent press scrimps to get by, and is lucky to get by. Excuse me for saying the obvious, but I’ll keep saying it: publishing poetry is a labor of love. Unless you’re Poetry Magazine sitting on a $100,000,000 Ruth Lily endowment — and the Poetry Foundation, the uber-organization that holds the Poetry Magazine money, determined immediately not to share any of that astoundingly irresponsible gift with the publishing world. Instead they built a tower. As Billy Collins said, it’s like giving your entire fortune to your pet goldfish.
So, my suggestion is this: save yourself the anguish. If you have the means to support one or more presses, the world is better for it. Offer to join the Advisory Board of a press you admire. Donate time to help prepare the Profit & Loss Statements, the Balance Sheet, the Cash Flow Statements. Help with a grant application. But bring a strong stomach.”