While I have my own reservations regarding certain book contests and their fairness in judging, this irks me a bit. Basically, the gist seems to be that if you're not part of some trendy little group of insiders, at least one of whom is lucky enough to run a press, you're not interesting enough to be published anyway so just forget it. I think contests when they're run well, can introduce us to books we might never see otherwise, that editors might never see otherwise. I have to admit that while I would consider myself loosely involved with a few different cadres of poets which are great from a support standpoint, none of us have the capital to start publishing each other's work (at least in mass-market book form). Poets tend to be very poor people. And loners for the most part. If you don't have a buddy who's an editor at a press, big or small, you're up the creek. Of course, ideally, over the transom submissions would work, but this feels as hopeless as the contests--at least with the latter you can take comfort that hopefully at some point, it stood a chance on equal footing with the others and maybe someone read it.
A lack of community doesn't necessarily mean less book sales, in fact, it might mean more. Sure, you publish a book and all your friends buy it because it conforms aesthetically to what they think poetry should be, and they'll gush all over about how great it is, but no one else gives a damn about it. And lack of community certainly doesn't inform quality in any way. In my experience, in most of those incestuous little inside publishing cliques, I think quality suffers immeasurably. No one reaches out to a greater audience, beyond their circle jerk, beyond everyone who thinks and writes exactly like they do.
I think contests DO level the playing field if fair and un-shifty. And while I don't really follow any particular contest series year after year, I will note that at least 80% of what I read and like are contest publications (whether the winner or other manuscripts picked up in the process) And indeed some of my favorite authors have been introduced via contest books. Olena Kalytiak Davis' And her Soul out of Nothing. Mary Ann Samyn's Captivity Narrative. Larissa Szorluk's first two books. Simone Muench's The Air Lost in Breathing. Karen Volkman's Spar (and her first one I think was also a contest winner.)Christine Hume's Musca Domestica. The only notable exception of my own favorites I can think of is Daphne Gottlieb, and her career in poetry hasn't been quite as traditional, coming out of the performance end. And maybe Arielle Greenberg and Nick Flynn. Would the others have been published if not for contests? Maybe..but then maybe not...And of course, maybe the contests gave that extra boost in readership that allowed me to find them.