A Kingdom of Kings
Whenever a press or magazine closes or threatens to close or when the reality of their dire financial situation comes to light, everyone freaks out as if it is a surprise that small presses and magazines are constantly facing immense financial pressure. When will the economic realities of small press publishing stop being shocking news? At this level, there are too many of us publishing and not enough readers to sustain these efforts. More people want to edit or publish or be published than want to read books that are published. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t support publishing actively, but there are simply not enough of writers to solve this problem, given the sheer volume of presses and magazines out there. As I noted in my last post on this subject, a day doesn’t go by when I receive at least one press release or request from a new press, magazine, collective, or other publishing endeavor. These editors and publishers basically say, “I have a unique vision and I want to share that vision.” They are more invested in the uniqueness and sharing of their vision than supporting the vision of someone else. How many people in Chris Higgs’s post said, “I’m a small publisher”? We are an army of generals, a kingdom of kings.
We haven’t figured out how to market what we publish to people beyond our community. Everyone has a vision but most of us have little idea how to give that vision reach. Until we address that problem, we’ll keep pointing at the falling sky with wide eyes. A month from now, all this passion for BlazeVox will be forgotten. That might sound cynical but it’s probably true. How many of you bought any of their titles in the past three months? The last year? Their Kindle titles are available for $.99 on Amazon so you could probably own the entire catalog available for Kindle for less than $100. I’m sure most people don’t own any of these titles and that’s fine. We can’t support every press but it’s an important reality to face. We’re talking about BlazeVox today because Brett Ortler was disappointed to learn that if he wants his book published by this particular press, it would require financial collaboration. He talked about his disappointment in a visible forum. If Brett did not post about BlazeVox, most people would not be thinking about this press until they had a reason to. Whatever surge in sales BlazeVox hopefully experiences this week will soon subside and they’ll be back to selling few books, not because the books aren’t great but because there’s no audience. That’s the core problem here and sooner or later, we will have to deal with that problem and face the hard answers about why this is the state we are in.
We have learned that BlazeVox is an interesting press that cannot afford to publish books without financial support from writers. That, in and of itself, is not the problem and it is a shame that for this publisher, it has come to this.
On the BlazeVox blog today, Gatza addresses why his press requires financial collaboration from writers. He writes:
We publish work that we love. We love good writing and avant-garde texts. The reality is that avant-garde books, unfortunately, do not sell well. It is only our love of the texts themselves that keeps us hard at work.
We work with authors new and established to get their work out there; however, there is significant financial risk in this. We ask our authors to help fund a small portion of their book. The money covers a small percentage of the cost of production, which includes my time. We do not ask all authors for a fee up front. We make this decision based on whether or not sales of the book will cover the costs of its production. Authors like Anne Waldman or Tom Clark will sell well enough to recoup these costs. Most books by new authors will not. In general, books by new authors sell around 25 – 30 copies.
There it is. This a problem of supply and demand. I am, admittedly, shocked by just how low the demand for avant garde poetry is. However. BlazeVox is willing to create a supply for which there is very little demand. That is a choice, however admirable a choice it may be. A writer who wants to have their book out in the world, who writes avant garde work, must also make a choice as to whether or not they want to contribute financially to the publication of their book. I don’t think anyone has assumed Gatza is getting rich from requiring financial participation from some writers. There is no relationship between wealth and poetry unless you’re the Poetry Foundation. Whether you agree or disagree, the concern, and much of this discussion, has been about transparency. An undisclosed fee after acceptance is also not the same as an openly disclosed reading fee prior to acceptance. Writers did not know they would be faced with this financial decision when they submitted their work. Almost anyone would be disappointed to learn there was a caveat to the acceptance of their manuscript. We are human, as is Gatza who probably made some missteps in how he handled this aspect of his business though given the publishing climate, I don’t know if missteps could be avoided.
I’m as much a dreamer as I am a pragmatist. I respect anyone who chooses to put their time, money, and/or energy into publishing books. I don’t think these people belong on a pedestal, though, nor should writers be put on a pedestal. There aren’t that many of us so it would probably be in our best interests to stand together, as equals, on common ground as people who give a damn about literature. When you make someone into a hero or saint, they just have that much further to fall.
In publishing, both parties bring something to the table. The writer brings their work and the publisher offers the means to produce and distribute that work. In the best of all words, the publisher can afford to do so and compensate the writer. In return, the publisher earns a profit too. We are not living in that best of all worlds, not anymore. In this world, even when a writer secures a publisher, the writer has to hustle, network, blog, cartwheel, tour on their own dime with little or no advance, to hopefully sell a few copies of their book they might never see royalties from, to an over saturated, limited audience that is being asked to support a thousand other writers at the same time. The publisher simply hopes to break even on production costs because at this level, there’s no way we’ll ever make back our labor costs. That is a choice.
In the brief history of the discourse about BlazeVox, many people have stepped forward to support Geoffrey Gatza. To a person, he is lauded as a tireless supporter of experimental poetry and publishing. He works hard and is dedicated and supports himself via the press and operates at a loss. I have no doubt all these things are true. However, these realities are discussed as if they are exceptional. This is how nearly every small publisher functions. More importantly, to live like this, to work like this, is also a choice. We continually lose sight of this matter of choice. Bashing editors or publishers for having to make hard decisions is not at all acceptable but the other extreme is just as problematic. The idea that editors and publishers should be canonized for supporting literature makes no sense. Participating in publishing is not a burden foisted upon us. Arms are not being twisted.
However thankless small press publishing is, and it is really quite thankless, we are probably masochists or a little crazy and/or we are just really in love with literature. Love is crazy. We obviously get something out of participating in this so-called thankless endeavor. When there is so little payoff, there has to be a driving force. There has to be some satisfaction. Too few of us talk about the satisfaction. Instead, we offer an endless litany of our consensual martyrdom. I get it. The frustrations are so constant that we’ll lose our minds if we can’t complain. As an editor and publisher, my satisfaction is the joy of doing this work. I suspect the same holds true for Gatza and most editors and publishers. Some people knit or run marathons or build train models. Writing, editing, and publishing are my thing, always have been. If you’re reading this, one or all of these endeavors is your thing too. The fun of working with writers and making books or editing a magazine is more than enough to outweigh the bullshit. If the balance ever shifts or if I can no longer afford this folly, I’ll take a break or I will do something else. I will make that choice. We all have choices to make about how and why we do what we do but the canonization of editors and publishers, who choose to be editors and publishers, is unnecessary. We choose to pursue art instead of commerce. Sometimes we suffer for this choice and sometimes we benefit greatly. The publishing climate is rough, challenging, whatever adjective you’d like, but choosing to participate in publishing despite this climate, is not an act of uncommon valor. If we consider our participation as such, we don’t leave room for anything else.