September 5th, 2011 / 7:20 pm

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.



  1. MFBomb

      Can someone replace the other post with this one? Thank you for putting some actual thought and complexity behind your words. 

  2. bobby

      I was at a library conference a few weeks ago and many of the issues brought up in this post echo much of what was going on there. From being the “army of generals” to having to “hustle, network, blog, cartwheel,” everyone that deals w/ information feels that they are languishing.

      But I think that is a good thing to feel the threat of oblivion. The threat of oblivion does wonders for one’s own creativity. 

  3. MFBomb

      “But I think that is a good thing to feel the threat of oblivion. The threat of oblivion does wonders for one’s own creativity.”

      I agree. It also begs the question: why are some of you creating art again? To be a “published author,” or an artist? Artists always find a way to survive and be heard. 

      Maybe some of you should actually take a break from hustling and get back to the basics before you completely forget why you started writing in the first place. 

  4. Poets are Weird « Tiny Cat Pants

      […] again to add more: New authors will sell, on average, twenty-five to thirty books?! Okay, fine, I am not an avant garde poet, but this bowls me over. Do avant garde poets not have […]

  5. Adam Golaski

      Small press publishing is NOT a thankless task. The benefits are numerous, even if not financial. A few reasons to start a small press: to publish those you want to publish (including yourself), to become part of a greater dialogue, to make books, to make yourself known. It is far from selfless, even if it is time-consuming and costly.

      What I find most peculiar about the way the pendulum swung from attacking BlazeVox to defending them, is the idea that authors aren’t doing enough to support small presses.

      Authors support small presses by submitting to them. No matter how many terrible manuscripts an editor must read, it is backwards to think that a publisher is doing an author a favor by publishing their work. That’s what publishers are supposed to do.

      That authors make up the majority of the small press readership, that they donate money to they small presses they like, that they promote the books (their own and others) published by small presses by writing reviews and by word of mouth, is in addition to their real responsibilities: to write good work, and to submit it.

      (Let me also point out that if a publisher is a masochist, then they ENJOY pain, and so any suffering they experience is yet another benefit.)

  6. M. Kitchell

      Amen to all of this

  7. Brian Miles

      Strangely becoming part of a greater dialogue just doesn’t seem to pay the bills. You realize there are bills to pay, right?

  8. Americanpoet75

      Thanks for your thoughtful article, Roxane.  I think much of what you say is very observable in the publishing / poetry world today.  I appreciate what BlazeVOX is trying to do.

  9. Adam Golaski

      I shouldn’t reply to this, as it seems hardly worth doing so, but I’m weak: Mr. Miles, could I have been any more clear in my comment regarding the lack of financial benefit? Not that there’s none, but much of it is indirect and long-term (for example: establish a name for yourself, in turn get your own work published, and in turn keep or secure a teaching position).

      There are all kinds of debts to pay, Mr. Miles.

  10. Mel Bosworth


  11. J.

      “it is backwards to think that a publisher is doing an author a favor by publishing their work. ”

      I guess we’ve left even any pretense of discussing reality in this post? 

  12. Roxane

      I’m not sure what you’re responding to but yes, pain is indeed a benefit. And for many small publishers, the work is, at times, thankless. As I note, there are also satisfactions. If it’s all roses for you, that’s great.

  13. Lobsterchurch

      That is beautiful. But I’m sorry you deserve credit for fighting the good fight just like Geoffrey Gatza does. Thank You.

  14. Brian Miles

      You could have been more clear, but I got it anyway.

      Your points about the “responsibilities” of the author and presumably the publisher in an economy that doesn’t even begin to support itself (that is, small presses) don’t bear argument. I of course understand there are psychological benefits to running a small press and of course there is the potential to make something of a name for yourself within the community if you do a good job with it.

      That doesn’t change the much more concrete financial reality of running these things. It also doesn’t change the fact that so many people in this community pay lip service to understanding that concrete financial reality before going back to living in a world where people in a free economy have “responsibilities.”

      Masochists? Really?

  15. Anonymous

      Only 25-30 copies sold?  Maybe some authors need to get off their asses and help the publisher work a book.  That’s a pathetic number.  

  16. Adam Golaski

      All roses? Where did I write anything that might suggest I think operating a small press is “all roses”?
      Perhaps you should explain better what you mean by “thankless.” If you are a small press publisher who is “really in love with literature,” how could the work ever be totally thankless? Hard, yes, but unless you literally expect to be thanked for ever thing you do, then I think calling it thankless is hyperbole.Of course, this is all secondary to my main point. Though I see “J.” disagrees (tho his comment is too flip to merit much consideration), my main point is that in this discussion, too much emphasis has been placed on the sacrifices of the publisher.

  17. Adam Golaski

      “…we are probably masochists…” My parenthetical post-script was in reference to Roxane’s description of publishers.
      Speaking of not being clear…. You have stated a fact, that there are bills and that there is a need to pay them, but what are you asserting? Why not consider matters other than “concrete financial reality” when discussing “an economy that doesn’t even begin to support itself”? To enter into such a non-economy implies an interest in matters other than “concrete financial reality.”

  18. herocious

      Maybe it’s time to start thinking about how to minimize costs while not sacrificing too much in terms of quality or limiting distribution.

  19. Nick Mamatas

      If a book is selling 30 copies, the book doesn’t need to be one. Those experimental poems can go on a free website, maybe with some Google ads on the side, and everyone—reader, writer, and publisher—will benefit.

      Anyway, lots of people have hobbies. Sailing is an expensive hobby. Horseback riding is an expensive hobby. Wine collecting is one too. Another expensive hobby? Running a small press. But even on a hobbyist level, professionalism is important, just as it’s important to have insurance on your boat and to pay for horseshoes, and nobody should be subsidizing one’s hobby outside of the hobbyist’s personal disposable income.

  20. Gullime

      whats more depressing than those youtube emaisl of some singer trying to promote his music?

  21. Roxane

      I do find BlazeVox’s sales figures baffling. To move 25-30 copies kind of means your relatives aren’t even buying your book. I don’t know a lot about poetry so when poets keep saying, “This is the way it is,” over and over, my instinct is to believe them because they all say it. Yet, since I posted about this, I’ve heard from a few small publishers that these numbers are not necessarily indicative of poetry sales. I don’t know what the deal with those numbers is.

  22. Frank Depiction

      The future of literature depends on a lot of current writers quitting or dropping dead. I wish we could fire writers, trumpstyle, until we’re left with the hardest-hitting results-delivering winners. Where are the Bill Rancics and Kendra Todds of contemporary American letters?

  23. J.

      Even as a fiction writer, I would not expect 20 (or even 10) of my relatives to buy my book. 

      I probably would expect 20 of my friends to, though. 

  24. J.

      My instinct is to agree with your first paragraph, but then again I’m sure that poets who are trying to get tenure or even just get adjunct teaching jobs would disagree. Perhaps one could then say that a poet who can only sell 30 copies doesn’t deserve a teaching job, but where do you draw the line when all but the handful of biggest poets are probably only selling a few hundred copies at best?

  25. Anonymous

      Based on a publisher I know, someone with good distribution, titles with more interest than most, and other factors more favorable than most, a poetry title does well to sell a couple hundred copies (and some of these are poets everyone here has heard of…but I’m not naming names).  500 copies in less than five years is excellent and rare, but can happen if there’s a way to position or some sort of topical relevance.  This is anecdotal to one publisher, again, but I’d be surprised if anyone else does much more.

  26. Adam D Jameson

      tenure’s had nothing to do with sales figures, and I think it’s
      probably best we keep it that way. Otherwise, writing departments will
      be staffed entirely by commercial fiction writers. Which might be a good
      thing or a bad thing, depending on how “practical” one thinks CW
      departments should be. But it’s important to remember that sales aren’t an accurate measure of artistry.

  27. Amber

      This is the post I wanted to write and now don’t have to. This: “we choose to pursue art rather than commerce.” this is the crux. None of us will ever make money off of of small press publishing and there was never some golden age where anyone did. Art is a passion, a labor of love, and you mostly fund it yourself. There’s a reason the term “starving artist” exists. This is not to say that I think charging people to publish their stuff is okay or not okay; this is just to respond to the same agonized conversation spiral that always happens, everyone wondering what we’ve done wrong, how can we monetize what we do, find more readers, etc.

      The reality is you can’t. The only thing anyone ever did wrong was to imply that artists could expect to do nothing but produce art that a tiny percentage of people even care about, and somehow make a good living that way. You can’t. we won’t. We do it because we love it, and if it’s the $$$ not the love, why do it?

  28. lily hoang

      25-30 copies means you’re not even giving away free review copies. i try to send that many books out from my personal stash for review, not it actually makes that much of a difference. but maybe poetry is different?

  29. Amber

      That seemed odd to me, too. I know if I put out a book, at least probably 50-100 people would buy it, including friends and family. I would think maybe more, but maybe that’s unrealistic? I have a lot of friends, I guess…:)

  30. Sam Ligon

      Every one of them will drop dead, whether they’re results-delivering winners or not.

  31. Anonymous

      Hasn’t it been that time for quite a while? Honestly I’m not sure what other costs there are to minimize. Many small and micro presses don’t pay their editors (it’s a labor of love/insanity thing as Roxane explains), and with POD models becoming so common, printing costs are less of an issue. Warehousing is rarely an issue for small pubs. That leaves… cover art? Website maintenance? I just don’t know what else can be cut out of the costs. Suggestions? 

  32. J.

      I assume he was saying 25-30 copies are SOLD. More are given away for free, presumably.

  33. deadgod

      The future of the world depends on a lot of current people dropping dead. 

      Everybody else can go first.  You’re welcome.

  34. Scott Abels

      “Writers did not know they would be faced with this financial decision when they submitted their work.” 

      When I submitted my manuscript to BlazeVOX, I knew full well that they sometimes ask writers to help offset the cost of a book’s production.  I had already sent the ms. to a few collectives, so I had no problem contributing what I consider to be a small amount of money toward the book (yes, I understand that BlazeVOX is not a collective).  I didn’t know whether BlazeVOX would ask for a donation, but I was ready to provide one to any press that I believed in.  And I certainly didn’t offer any money as I submitted the manuscript.

      I have a book forthcoming with BlazeVOX, and I did not find the process tricky or manipulative.  I understand that some writers felt that it was, but I want to point out that there was a variety of responses to the deal by potential BlazeVOX authors. 

      The acceptance letter was something a lot of people expected to be different.
      The deal wasn’t for everyone, and a lot of people turned it down.    

  35. Nick Mamatas

      If BlazeVOX is a tenure farm, one would think they’d be managing more than thirty copies sold, if only to university libraries and such.

  36. Scott Abels


      I had read about BlazeVOX asking a few writers for a donation of $250 toward the production of their books a few years ago–maybe in 2008.  So that wasn’t new news to me, and I’ve had a few years to think about that system. 

      When I submitted, I didn’t know if BlazeVOX would ask me in particular to donate, but I knew it was a possibility if they accepted my ms. 

  37. Dawn.

      “We do it because we love it, and if it’s the $$$ not the love, why do it?”

      Why does it have to be either/or? This kind of dichotomy just really rubs me the wrong way. It implies that 1) there is no money in writing and 2) if you want to make money, you’re not in it for love. Neither of those are true. Sure, the majority of writers will only make the occasional token payment if anything at all, but there are a number of writers who DO make money, and a number of independent presses who don’t lose money with every book they produce and can afford to pay royalties and even a modest advance in some cases.

      Also, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to make money off of one’s writing. Writing is a profession as well as an art and should be treated as such. Treating it this way doesn’t mean you don’t love it. I want to be a professional BECAUSE I love it more than anything else, and I assume I’m not alone in this.

  38. Dan Moore

      Agreed. The terrible state of academic hiring aside, my concern is that the glut of small presses like this is delaying the destigmatization of online and self-published work, which could help push this ostensibly insular work toward some new readers. 

  39. jesusangelgarcia

      Hallelujah! That’s what I used to argue constantly when writing for years about contemporary “avant-garde” jazz v. Wynton Marsalis or the Yellowjackets, etc.

      I think another not often discussed issue is the relative value or purpose or backstory of choosing “teacher” as a career when it sometimes seems just to be this thing a “writer” does but not who he really is or wishes to be. There are teachers and there are writers, and most are not both, let’s say, on a meaningful level, in my experience.

  40. jesusangelgarcia

      Rock n roll, sistah.

  41. Frank Depiction

      it’s just like, man, Mais où sont les neiges d’antoine dodson!

  42. The value of writing: BlazeVOX, surfeits, aesthetics and capitalism. « We Who Are About To Die

      […] to a point where we are asking about the writer’s responsibility in this financial situation. Roxane Gay has a great post up at HTMLGIANT that examines just how overstuffed we are as a community. We produce so much surfeit to a narrow […]

  43. deadgod

      I think calling a plethora of voices a “glut” participates directly in the stigmatization to which you’re calling attention.

  44. dole

      This is weird to me because I’m more familiar with publishing in the small press comics world, where it is quite normal for creators to self-publish and pay all the costs.  Some of these are people whose books sell thousands of copies, so for the most part they at least recoup the expense, but there’s a lot more work involved than simply trying to pick a publisher.  

  45. Heather

      Gatza (BlazeVOX) accepted a couple of my poems a while back and got pretty tacky/fiery/hateful with me when I sent him a note about a formatting error in the final, published product. It’s online so it’s not too much trouble to fix (he was responsible for the error himself, after all), but he acted like my correspondence and request was unreasonable and a burden. An editor myself, I was completely disgusted and shocked by his behavior. I thought about publishing the emails to warn others, but decided against it. I guess the word is out now, though.

  46. Wallace Parker

      We just got Coca Cola to sign a contract with us. One of our writers has a couple of scenes in her book in which the characters share a coke. The contract paid for the production of the book (100 copies) and enabled us to purchase a perfect-binding machine. Of course, we had to print the Coca Cola label on the back of the book–but we easily turned that into a blurb.  

  47. Dan Moore

      I think a plethora of voices are a “glut” when everybody’s whispering on purpose.

  48. Anonymous

      “It also begs the question: why are some of you creating art again?”

      I’m sorry but it doesn’t “beg the question”. Instead, it “raises” the question.  “Beg” implies a specific logical fallacy.

  49. MFBNewAndImproved

      You don’t have to apologize.  Why would you apologize for supposedly correcting me? Could we consider “I’m sorry” a kind of “logical fallacy” as well?

      I love when people cherry-pick expressions like this. “It begs the question” is an idiomatic expression  Everyone knows what it means in a conversational context. Please get a life. 

  50. Anonymous

      We’re on a literary blog and if you were taught Logic by the professor who taught me Logic, you’d understand that in certain circles (many actually), your idiom doesn’t mean what you think it means.  Linguistic precision has value.

      But thanks for informing me that my life is missing. I’ll attempt to get myself one.

      Btw. “I’m sorry” isn’t an apology. Are you unfamiliar with that idiom?

  51. MFBNewandImproved

      “We’re on a literary blog”–nochiel

      So? Should I also format my posts in MLA? Are your own blog comments ready to be stamped as purely “literary” by Harold Bloom?

      “you’d understand that in certain circles (many actually), your idiom doesn’t mean what you think it means.”–nochiel 

      And if you were taught language can mean different things in different contexts like I was taught, you’d understand my usage of “begs the question” instead of “raises the question” in an informal, blog comment is acceptable–just like it’s acceptable for you to write “btw” instead of writing “by the way” and using a period (forming a fragment) at the end instead of writing a complete sentence, like this: “By the way [<–dependent clause], [independent clause]"=complete sentence. 

      After all, we're on a literary blog. Please write complete sentences at all times!

      But I get that you're probably young and looking for any excuse to flaunt whatever bits of knowledge you picked up in college–even it means bumping an old post to nitpick such a ridiculous matter and be a jackass in the process–so I'll grant you you and your tunnel vision ass your wish. Here you go:

      *It raises the question. 


      "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'; but that ain't no matter"–Mark Twain

  52. MFBNewandImproved

      Before you even have the opportunity, let me correct two typos in the above post: 

      (1) “even if it means…”

      (2) …”you and your tunnel vision…”

      PS–Fuck you. 

  53. Anonymous

      Well, this got out of hand rather quickly. I can assure you that I meant it all in good humour. It is unfortunate that your default stance is antagonistic.

      I wouldn’t flaunt knowledge. I have very little. College proved that to me fairly conclusively, as did life.

      Honestly, I find it enjoyable when people point out to me common usages of language that have different connotations than I assumed. I love learning those little details.  I mistakenly assumed you might enjoy it too.

      I apologise if I somehow offended you or if I threatened to dislodge the pike already firmly lodged in your posterior. That was not my intention.

  54. MFBNewandImproved

      Um, okay.  Sure.