I should begin by saying that I have no emotional involvement or personal stake in the BlazeVOX fiasco apart from the fact that they were the publisher of my friend Evan Lavender-Smith's book From Old Notebooks, which is a very good book. I'm upset about what the recent damage to BlazeVOX's reputation might do to Evan's reputation, and I'm upset about how the writers who have been caught up in this mess have been made to feel about themselves and their writing. This post will try to do several things. First, for those who don't know about what happened, I'm going to briefly explain it. Then I'm going to discuss some of the issues it raises for me as a writer, editor, and publisher.
1. BlazeVOX asked some writers to pay for their own publication.
The small press BlazeVOX, primarily a poetry press, has been sending provisional acceptance letters to a good number of writers for the last two years. These letters asked the writers to finance their own publication by giving the press a "donation" of $250. This was meant to help the press manage the expense of $2000 dollars associated with publishing a book (more on that number in a second). If the writers weren't willing to pay, then they could publish an ebook with BlazeVOX, but not a print book.
Practices like this are generally frowned on for a number of reasons, but I think the key issues are these: 1) There were two tiers of writers: those who had to pay, and those who did not. For instance, my friend Evan did not have to pay, and in fact did not even know about this practice. Unfortunately, public knowledge of the practice will now have negative effects on Evan's reputation (unless we as a community make the wise decision not to count it against him, and I hope that we will). 2) As Matt Bell has said in several places, it's extremely important for publishers to remember the power imbalance between themselves and writers. Putting writers in the position of paying for publication or watching what might feel like the opportunity of a lifetime disappear is unfair to those writers -- especially because the policy was a secret, revealed to (some) writers only in the moment of acceptance.
2. As is usually the case when presses ask for financial help from writers, the numbers didn't work.
You see a lot of people justify the practice of charging for submissions on the grounds that it makes good business sense. We've discussed this before; the fact is that it doesn't. Assuming you charge reasonable rates, you simply can't make enough money on submissions to make up for the loss of free time. Small press publishers generally make a lot more per hour in their day jobs than they can possibly make per hour of reading submissions from a pay-for-play slush pile. (We can go over the math on this one again in the comments if you'd like; you can play at home, though, by multiplying the number of stories you can read all the way through in an hour by the highest charge you feel comfortable applying to submissions minus the cut Submishmash or Paypal will ask, then comparing that to your hourly wage: the results might surprise you).
In the case of BlazeVOX, the argument was weaker than usual. Publisher Geoffrey Gatza claimed that it cost $2000 per book, and yet only asked for $250 per book from writers, with the stated aim of publishing 15 books under this model. Multiply 15 by $2000 and you get $30,000. Multiply $250 by 15 and you get $3,750. Subtract the latter from the former and you get a deficit of $26,250. If these were the real costs of publishing a book, asking people to put up $250 in order to "help" would be financially ludicrous: every time someone said yes, you would be losing $1750.
It's no great shock that the numbers don't work. My experience tells me that most of the time, when a small press talks about being financially "realistic," they are in fact most likely to be living in a fantasy: one where literature pays for itself without its publisher doing the hard work of selling it to readers. They want to be "publishers" without doing the hard work of publishing. And they are very, very bad at math. (Consider Flatmancrooked, a small press that debuted with big talk of paying writers for their work, started to take paid submissions for a Special Slushpile, and then quietly disappeared. The special slush was defended as a shrewd business move, which made it not at all shocking when the business disappeared.)
3. With a little cynicism, the numbers made more sense.
Gatza's numbers were so unreasonable that it was difficult to believe he could have misunderstood them that badly. Surely he wouldn't be secretly pushing a deal that was actually financially injurious to him and his press. And, indeed, it appears highly likely that he wasn't.
Consider this: BlazeVOX has very few expenses. They use the online print-on-demand service CreateSpace, which essentially eliminates overhead. In CreateSpace, you upload your book's files and then the book is printed every time someone orders it. The printer takes its fee out of the book's sale price. Each sale, then, is inherently profitable. They also design their own books (or, in Evan's case and probably others, the authors provide the design) and spend nothing at all on advertising or promotion (Evan purchased and mailed out his own review copies, building the reasonable amount of buzz From Old Notebooks achieved on his own dime and effort). Any book requires a little money to get it going, but it was difficult to imagine how Gatza could spend $2000 on the production of a book under such circumstances, and easy to see how $250 might even be profitable.
Gatza has since clarified that the $2000 figure does include the value he places on his own time as a designer, promoter, and publisher generally. Given how vague he has chosen to be about his numbers (and occasionally dishonest: his numbers in terms of the number of submissions he received this year have fluctuated wildly), I don't think it's unreasonable for us to do a little speculation and conclude that the publication of a book under this model would be profitable for Gatza, even before a single book was sold to a single reader. Indeed, it's hard to see how it wouldn't be profitable.
We might further speculate that the number of people who have come forward as having received the provisional acceptance and request for donation from Gatza since the news broke is not consistent with his having "only" offered the deal to 30 people, that the acceptance in fact looks like a spam letter, and that BlazeVOX has likely subsidized itself on the backs of hard-working writers without any intent to make the necessary effort to sell the books of those writers.
4. The arguments of BlazeVOX's defenders reveal how little thought they have put into the role of a publisher in the literary community of writers and readers.
There are several arguments used to defend the practices of BlazeVOX, and none of them even begin to persuade. They do, however, helpfully illustrate several points on which small press thinking seems painfully fuzzy.
Gatza's defenders most frequently resorted to the claim that he had "done so much for poetry." I genuinely don't understand this claim. If I take $250 dollars from you for the privilege of uploading a PDF to CreateSpace and not refusing the money of anyone who happens to actively pursue your book, having done no work at all to promote said book, what exactly would you say I've done for you or your poetry? I've gotten the prestige associated with being a publisher, I've got your money, I've got the money from your book's sale, and you have -- at best -- the ability to tell people I published your book. A fact that will become significantly less interesting to most people when it comes out that you paid me for the privilege. You can call this a lot of things, but I think we'd be stretching to say it's really a service.
Others pointed out that the sort of intellectually challenging work BlazeVOX published was not known for making a great deal of money -- a point on which Gatza himself has been especially petulant. ("I believe that you are misinformed about how well a book of poetry does in the markets today and what it costs to get a book into production.") Under the circumstances, they argue, it's not unreasonable to ask writers to shoulder some share of the expense of producing and promoting a book. This makes me wonder if these people know what publishing and writing are, on the most basic level.
When I write a novel, I spend hours and hours and hours and hours on the task. I put to use my seven years of formal education as a fiction writer. I put to use the hours and hours of time I have spent reading. And then there is the time used in the writing itself. I am an unusually fast writer and a novel will generally take me about 1.5 years to draft to the point where I am interested in letting a publisher see it (with another .5 years hopefully being devoted to collaborative editing and revision with the editor[s] of that press). I'm not sure what that translates to in hours, but it's definitely in the hundreds. In other words, when the book is done, I've done my job. That's the end of my obligations. And it's worth noting that if Gatza values his time to the point where typesetting some poetry in an InDesign document and uploading the resulting PDF to CreateSpace is worth $2,000 dollars, then surely the time I've invested in producing the novel is worth tens of thousands. (In neither case is the market setting our price: BlazeVOX and its defenders proceed from the assumption that the market is not interested as a rule and barely worth engaging.)
The publisher's responsibility is to bring some combination of money, editorial skill, and promotional ability to the table. If you aren't providing a reasonably attractive combination of these things, you aren't a publisher, at least as I understand the term. BlazeVOX chose not to market their books, and so lost out on opportunities (consider the relative popularity of From Old Notebooks after a very small promotional push from its author). They chose to ask writers to finance their own publication. And, according to its own defenders, BlazeVOX offered no editorial guidance at all. So in what sense would you call them a publisher? They are a website. They are a brand. But they do not really publish in any meaningful sense of the word.
Neither do a great number of small presses. We'll talk in a moment about what these small presses actually do.
Those who place great emphasis on the difficulty of making money on poetry in today's market often continue by pointing out that Gatza is in a difficult financial position. He has depended on this argument himself from the beginning of this discussion. This sounds like an extremely good reason for Gatza not to publish books. Writing benefits tremendously from the fact that it requires only negligible resources of its participants: a writing implement, a bit of light, and a medium for storage. Publishing does not enjoy the same low barrier to entry. Even in the days of print-on-demand publishing, you simply shouldn't be a publisher of printed materials unless you have a little money to burn. It would be irresponsible to start a business if you couldn't afford to pay your employees, and you aren't a hero if you start a press without the money to take care of your books. Lionizing this sort of poor decision-making is a good way of declaring that we don't want readers. Who wants to read material produced under such conditions?
This is not to suggest that writers should not contribute their own resources in order to help their books succeed: just as a publisher should be, by definition, someone who uses his or her resources to promote good writing, a writer should be, by definition, someone who uses his or her own resources to create writing worthy of promotion. This suggests that a good writer will naturally want to promote his or her own work. But we know that there are many writers who are very bad at this, and while I don't blame publishers for preferring to work with gregarious literary salespeople, nor can I take seriously anyone who claims to care only for the quality of the work who does not allow for the possibility of publishing the sort of shy, quiet, sales-incompetent person who often creates the most exciting art.
As Tracy pointed out to me in conversation, the BlazeVOX structure exactly reverses what any reasonable person should agree are the burdens in the relationship of publisher and writer: in this model, writers are expected to have the money to finance their own publication even though writing should be something available to all classes of people. The publisher, meanwhile, is responsible only for existing and silently doing its work, even though publication properly requires funding! This is an absurd, perverse outcome that diminishes everyone involved.
Still another class of BlazeVOX defender is the literary defeatist, who always appears in these moments to defend yet another measure that exploits writers by insisting that given the state of the market for literary writing, said exploitation is inevitable. These people are historically ignorant in that their argument implies that the market was once better, when the case is the opposite: more people are now reading more books than ever before, and there are more people who list their profession as author than there have ever been before. Publishing has historically been financially lucrative for writers where they wrote work with popular appeal or where they found a wealthy patron; the small press, having written off the possibility of appealing to readers, must rationally seek wealthy patrons; the defeatists refuse to do so and then express shock at the inevitable outcome. But, more to the point, if publication is really so hopeless -- if writers must actually pay hundreds of dollars to print the products of their labors, and if these books will be ignored completely, and if no one will ever read them or derive enjoyment, then why should these writers publish in the first place? What exactly is the point? If it's about the writing, then write, and post it to the Internet for free. Format it for Kindle and give it away. If it's really that bad out there, if publishing must inherently be both exploitative and pointless, then let's just not do it.
5. There is a good argument to be made that writers who believe their work is not marketable should pay for their own work's production far more often.
Most indie presses behave as if they plan to be profitable ventures, both for themselves and their writers. Most of them do not actually do anything to make this happen. Some of the presses should restructure their operations such that profiting on writing becomes a conceivable outcome of their publishing. Others should take more seriously their unspoken premise -- that their favorite writing simply cannot find a paying audience -- and consider what that implies for their operations. And the same is true for writers. Some of us should reconsider the idea that we are impossible to market. Others of us should ask themselves why they keep taking a product to market when they do not believe they are wanted there.
The stigma of self-publishing is silly. If I believe in a book to the point where I believe it's worth my time to write the book and revise it and edit it and publish it, then why shouldn't I believe it's worth my own money to see it in print? If I choose to spend my money in this way, then isn't that only further proof that I believe in my product?
The main problem with self-publishing is that it is too easy if you have the money -- or, in the age of POD, even if you don't. It's much harder to get someone else to endorse your work publicly. To read the book and then to say that it is good. Finding someone willing to do this with your novel is close to impossible. The achievement should be worth something even if that person doesn't have the money to invest in helping you print your book. So, in other words, it would make perfect sense for more small presses to serve mainly as gatekeepers: to provide their good name and reputation to books that were known publicly to be financed by their authors. Writers might even provide this service to each other without the involvement of other presses. Experienced writers might even serve as editors and mentors for younger, fresher writers, and then agree to help promote the new book -- this last model is one I find especially attractive, and one that will make more and more sense as eBooks become ubiquitous. I am not arguing that writers should never pay for the production of their own books. In fact, I suspect that they should be doing it more often.
In practice, this would only make explicit what is already happening implicitly in many small presses, which are notorious for serving as a back-scratching system wherein writer-editors finance the publication of each other's work. It's rarely as direct as critics seem to believe (you won't find a lot of people that literally mutually publish) but the back-scratching network does exist (you will find triangles, squares, hexagons, or more complicated networks that might as well be built on secret handshakes) and that it is not only common but actively encouraged for writers to buy their way into these networks with a mixture of social capital and money. The process would be simplified considerably, and become far less sketchy, if we stopped looking for complicated ways to pay for each other's books and started to simply pay for our own, utilizing the same promotional networks we currently call presses not as a way of legitimizing our relationships but as a natural extension.
To be clear, I believe that small presses could sell more books if they committed to a few relatively straightforward alterations in their practices -- alterations that would begin publishing with a stricter focus on merit and end with the conviction that their products were actually worth buying. We should focus more on being great writers and editors and trust that better products will result in more sales. (Because believe me: We could be doing so much better.) But the only thing wrong with the back-scratching community of presses is the way we use it to create the illusion that we are doing something market-oriented or in any way responsive to external pressures. When you publish with a small press, you are generally making the judgment that you know better than the market: that your book should exist whether or not it can pay for itself. And that is a fine judgment. That is one I often agree with, in some sense, though I think that the more honest answer is often that we simply do not feel like working hard enough to make something good enough to sell.
Anyway, there don't seem to be many good reasons for hiding behind a press like BlazeVOX. If you want to show the market the error of its ways, publish your own book. Find some friends who will talk it up to their friends. See what happens. This is really what the small presses are doing most of the time anyway.
6. Writers and publishers alike need to think more carefully about what they hope to accomplish.
If you choose to be a publisher, it should be because you believe in something and want to use your resources (time, money, charisma) to help more people see it. Publishing books simply to make them exist, without hope of getting them into the hands of actual readers, is a terrible waste of a life. If avant garde poetry isn't selling as much as you want it to, you can print it anyway and accept the losses without complaining, you can print it anyway and try to sell in spite of the odds, or you can publish better avant garde poetry. Any other response is masturbatory.
If you are a writer who writes things nobody will pay for, you need to remember that the size of the world's population means that a book that only appealed to 1 in 1000 people could still be a bestseller with the right promotion. You need to ask yourself what the odds are that you are so smart and so special that you are writing something no one will understand because it is good rather than because it is not very good. (The odds are not very high. Most people who believe this are lying to themselves.) If you think your book is good but you don't think that it will be an easy seller and you don't have the time or the money or the charisma to sell it to people against the odds, then you can publish it anyway and shut up about how hard it is out there (this was your decision) or you can give it away for free online. There are no other options that make any sense.
Or you can write alone in a room. You can love the writing for itself. That would make sense.
Sadly, there is never any point in publishing alone in a room. If you are a publisher, then you need to get out there and do the work required to promote your books. Otherwise you are not a publisher. Don't tell me how hard it is out there for poets. Become a better publisher of poets. Become a better poet.
I write every day though it makes me very little money because I have asked myself if I would stop if there were no money. I would not. I publish because I have asked myself if I would stop if there were no readers and my answer was yes: I would stop. Do you ask yourself often why you are doing what you are doing? And if not, how do you expect to ever become happy? I am a person who struggles often with depression. I am most days pretty happy anyway.