September 08, 2011

What I Think About When I Think About BlazeVOX

Looking back on my last few blog posts, I see a running theme of aggregation. I was very tempted to write a post with the title of "BlazeVOX, DBF, and PSSC." That is the nature of my life right now: one thing piled on top of the other. I came into September and October knowing they would be about worktravelworktravelwork, and that is the case. The purity is satisfying. But I kinda miss having the time to go see a movie. 


So. Back to the subject at hand. There was a recent wave of controversy over the publication practices of BlazeVox, an independent publisher that has put out books by many poets I respect, including Aaron Belz, Christine Hamm, and Steven D. Schroeder. For a primer, here are the posts that got people talking:


Brett Ortler,  "The Half-Hearted Acceptance Letter"
HTMLGiant, "Has BlazeVOX Gone Vanity Press?"


Here are two posts that offered thoughtful concerns:


Mike Meginnis, managing editor of Puerto del Sol
Roxane Gay, HTMLGiant contributor & co-editor of PANK


Here are two posts that offered thoughtful defenses:


Reb Livingston, editor of No Tell Books
Shanna Compton, editor of Bloof Books


(In addition, I really liked Bruce Covey's notes on the comparative economic model of Coconut Books, but I'm not sure I can link to them if you're not his friend on Facebook.)


My instinct is to champion BlazeVOX, and not just because I like what they (or at least their authors) do. No one celebrates the implosion of a press and the consequences for its authors. People kept making references to the Tupelo Press controversy of a few years back, but what it really made me think about was when Zoo Press shuttered a year before. So I was very glad to hear that Geoffrey Gatza had reversed his initial decision to close BlazeVOX's doors at the end of the year, with this open letter explaining their practices (and a commitment, one hopes, to communicate better in the future). 


What do I have to add to the conversation? Well, a lot of the hubbub has assumed that DIY/indie presses operate within some sort of bubble--for better or worse--and that the editors and authors moving within have motivations and financial considerations apart from the rest of the book world. Hmmm. I've experienced all levels of publishing. I've collected friends' handmade editions in runs of 50. I've served on the Board and as editor at a nonprofit collaborative press. I've published poetry with a university press. I've published poetry with a New York house. I've published nonfiction with a New York house. All within the space of six years or so, which means you can't tell me that the publishing era isn't somewhat contiguous, even with recent technologies. 


Fostering the isolation of poetry from the rest of publishing is terribly misleading. 


Here is what I'd like to affirm, interject, and propose:


-Affirmation: All poetry book presses receive financial collaboration from their writers. Or if not, they should. 


To object to providing $250 support because it is in hard money is to get distracted from the overall point. $250 = cost of travel for two events (traveling cheap) + postage for 5 potential reviews + postage for 5 reading opportunities + a box of promotional cards. If you're not prepared to pitch in this amount three times over in the first year of publication, then ask yourself what your goals are with publishing a book with a press.


Are you looking for the validation of seeing your words in print? Then self-publish. Are you looking for the validation of being associated with a certain editorial imprint? Then respect the thousands of dollars of man-hours, comparatively, someone has sunk into building that reputation. Are you looking to sell some books and maybe even make money back? Again: be prepared to invest three times over, and then some. 


This start-up financial burden, however imposed, is not something the author is forced to take on alone. Ask your community to support you. For years, Finishing Line Press has had people whose chapbooks they accept for publication pre-sell copies, explaining that their final print run would depend on pre-sales. Or go on Kickstarter; one poet supported her trip to Bread Loaf this year with a Kickstarter campaign, which will help sell her book of poetry by association (and I contributed, happily). 

I have been fortunate enough to have successful books, and to be a full-time writer for this blink of a year or two. But there are no free rides. I've invested hundreds of dollars in buying my own stock so that I could handsell when on the road. Even when I got a generous advance, it was only because I agreed to a project timeline that meant I would have to quit my job. I am happier than I was five years ago. But I am poorer, too.


-Interjection: "Poets spend more money on their desire to be published than they do on poetry itself"...unless you count the poetry they buy in pursuit of being published.


The first part quotes Reb Livingston, who made a cutting & true point about the many people who will come to hear her speak (or hear her poets read), opt not to buy a single book, but then have the audacity to ask about their submissions policy. The second part of the italicized phrase is mine, an interjection. It's not pretty, but here it is~


How many of us are guilty of buying a book for the sake of interacting with the 
author? Editor? Publisher? Then never getting around to actually looking at the book?


When I see a camp championing a press because of its authors....and then a subset of those authors complaining/admitting shoddy production values...I think Uh oh. 


In some ways, I think buying-without-reading is just as damning a trend as not buying books at all. That's why something like VOUCHED's Guerilla Book Stores, which I witnessed in action firsthand at the Decatur Book Festival, is awesome. And yet so...disturbingly rare. This goes back to what Roxane Gay observed about the "Kingdom of Kings," a.k.a. the over-saturation of the market. Maybe we'd all be better off if we stopped buying books to network, and only bought books to read. 


I apologize to publishers in advance if my sales take a nosedive after this. 


-Proposal: We need better, more innovative models of promoting poetry to new audiences. (Here I am echoing Jeannine Hall Gailey). 


If the epicenter of your annual sales model is the AWP conference, you gotta shake it up. That's right, even if you plan to have really cool swag (shot glasses!) at your table, and an offsite reading at the grubbiest hipster bar in town. We have got to stop thinking that credibility in our own community is enough. 


Even if your nod to the outside world is just to leave one copy in a print run of 50 on a bench in your local public library...do it. One reason I loved Ugly Duckling Presse in early years, and now projects such as isreads, is that they "trick" people into receiving poetry who might otherwise have never seen it. I love oddball distribution tactics. Tucking poems into a free newspaper, or taping them up outside an aviary? Hell yeah. That is the spirit, even if the monetization doesn't immediately follow. 


Think about posting to social media venues (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) based on content and themes, rather than author identity. As a woman who stumbled into a whole cult of capybara fandom after "Unit of Measure" was published, trust me: people will come to poetry if they realize the poetry addresses something they care about. 


Think high schools, maybe with some talking points to make kids comfortable. Even if the work is experimental. Especially if the work is experimental. Remember how much e.e. cummings blew your mind in the 10th grade, even if you didn't totally get it?


Think of going into elderly communities. Sure, they might not prize your shot glasses. But they are educated, they knew their Modernism back in the day, and they buy books


If this sounds like a bunch of advice-from-on-high, keep in mind: if I had relied on the audience for literary memoir to be the primary support of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, I'd feel like a failure right now. Right. Now. Two months after the book came out. I'm speaking from deep in the trenches of working my ass off to support my writing. 


In the case of this book, my best readers may be people who don't regularly make it out to bookstores or universities. My publisher and I have to hustle to reach them--through social media posts, through speeches in unconventional venues, though School Library Journal, through editors in mainstream media who just happen to have lives affected by food allergy. But once we do find those readers, they are smart, enthusiastic, and highly engaged. They are worth the work. I don't think this is that dissimilar to finding people who could love poetry...in the world beyond self-appointed poetry lovers.


#


So, yeah. I hope that's helpful. I spent about five hours on this--which, if only I were a paid "poetry consultant" for a big corporate firm, would have easily netted me $250 in billable hours. Sigh. 


#


I'll have to wait and gather my thoughts & snapshots from DBF and PSSC in one place, on the flipside of this weekend's travels. Long story short: I love Decatur. Also, I'd love for you to join me this weekend in Charleston, South Carolina. Here are the details of my Friday night reading & my Saturday morning seminar on sestinas....


Join Sandra Beasley for an evening of poetry, including a reading
from I Was the Jukebox and new work
Friday, September 9 ~ 7 PM
The Charleston Library Society
164 King Street (just before Queen)  
Free & open to the public


Seminar with Sandra Beasley on “The Gyroscope of Form:
Sestinas Past, Present, and Future”
Saturday, September 10 ~ 10 AM
The Charleston Library Society
164 King Street (just before Queen)  
Members $10, College of Charleston students free, all others $15


Oh! For that matter, if you live in Virginia please consider dropping in at Chop Suey Books on Sunday afternoon in Richmond, VA:


Join Sandra Beasley for a reading from her memoir,
Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tale from an Allergic Life
Sunday, September 11 ~ 4 PM
Chop Suey Books
2913 West Cary Street
Free & open to the public

I will be roadtripping with my dad. I am pretty excited about that, since 1) I won't have to drive, and 2) my dad is awesome. Kevin Wilson, author of the The Family Fang, also roadtrips with his dad for book tour. So there. 

24 comments:

Christopher said...

I love this. You go beyond the philosophical that I get at in my post re: BlazeVOX at Vouched, and get into some of the practical concerns of how to innovate and promote poetry beyond ourselves.

This is absolutely fantastic: "If the epicenter of your annual sales model is the AWP conference, you gotta shake it up. That's right, even if you plan to have really cool swag (shot glasses!) at your table, and an offsite reading at the grubbiest hipster bar in town. We have got to stop thinking that credibility in our own community is enough."

That's exactly what I was trying to say in my post.

Thanks for mentioning Vouched, and I'm glad you got to see Laura in action with her table at DBF! I'll pass on the kind words to her!

Sandra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sandra said...

Christopher, thanks for reaching out!

I'm embarrassed to only now be getting on the bandwagon of VOUCHED, but I think it is so on target. If you can please share this essay with others, I'd really appreciate it. It was the last thing I had time to stay up late last night and write...so hearing you took the time to read it, and felt like I made some good points, made my morning.

Cheers,
Sandra

[earlier post deleted because it posted prematurely...darn technology!]

Greg said...

This post is very well thought out and presented. I immediately agree with most of your points and intend to re-read and consider carefully all of them. I have been very fortunate (or blessed) to have been published by two small presses at little cost and who were very clear about my obligations in marketing and selling. Your post should provide excellent guidance for aspiring writers.

Jilly said...

Interesting - since I had to quit working because of the Ehlers Danlos & dysautonomia $$ is really tight. I am not in any position to contribute $250 or whatever to a publisher, nor travel, do readings, etc.

If I write another book (not likely at this time though) I'd better self-publish again, sounds like.

Sandra said...

Jilly, I have faith you could do a Kickstarter (or other online) campaign for $250 that would quickly accumulate on your behalf. People know you, your work, and what you've done for the poetry community.

I don't want the ability to write a check on the spot for $250 to serve as a gatekeeping device. That's not the point.

That said, if I was your potential publisher and I knew you wouldn't be able to do any readings or travel in support of the book, I'd want to commit to an action plan for promotion before signing a contract. Would the substitute be an aggressive online campaign? Where, and how? These things need to be outlined. Otherwise I think it's a recipe for frustration.

There are always exceptions, and whenever individual writers step forward to say "but this is my situation," no one wants to seem like they are passing judgment. You know I am not judging you as a poet here, or as a person.

But I stand by my statement that if someone cannot commit $250 worth of support to produce a book--either by direct provision or rallying others around them to pool resources, a la Kickstarter--then it is probably not the right time to ask an outside press to invest in a book. There are so many other ways of being an active, engaged and publishing poet, and then pursuing the book if the time is right down the road.

Blood Routes said...

Such a great post, full of some issues I've been trying to come to terms with lately. I had only heard the stirrings of the BlazeVOX debacle here and there but it's nice to see it presented in a fair and balanced way.

It's odd, but the longer I try my hand at writing, the more easily I come to terms with the fact that small presses are going to require that you take on a great deal of (if not all of) the marketing and other non-writerly things. It's one of the reasons, IMO, that so many are self publishing now...te mentality of "might as well go it my own if I'm expected to spend cash and do the marketing anyway."

As a side note, I was super excited to see that you'll be in Richmond on the 29th (a scant 90 minute drive from Central VA)...but then bummed when I realized that day is already entirely booked on my end.

-Barry Napier
www.barrynapierwriting.wordpress.com

Christopher said...

Goodness, don't feel embarrassed. We've only been around a year, and despite some low-level lit press, we're still a pretty humble thing. It makes me really glad to know your excitement for what we're trying to do.

I've pushed this essay out on twitter and facebook. Hope it gives you some hits! I want more people to read this and have this excited, balanced, and professional mindset to their art. Your thoughts on the responsibilities of both publisher and writer are so refreshing to me.

Jeannine said...

Thanks for the shout-out.

I'm going to take a quick issue with your requirement of the $250 monetary commitment to publish a book. I do not believe presses should ask the authors for any money (unless that's agreed upon beforehand.) I understand what you're saying (yes, travel for readings costs money, etc.) But I think that stating that an author must "pay to play" is elitist and wrong. If someone has a hard time financially, they can still set up a blog, still review books, still volunteer with a local reading series or press or literary magazine. For eight or nine years when I was going through some rough times financially I volunteered for, well, just about everyone in town. I did web work for publishers and literary magazines for free, for instance. I think that this kind of commitment to your literary community (or publisher) is worth more than $250 - it is invaluable. And so few people commit their time and effort this way. Sometimes if you don't have money, you have time. And that can be a great gift.
Just my 2 cents...as it were.

Christopher said...

@jeannine It's buried a bit in the comments, but she addresses that concern here:

"I don't want the ability to write a check on the spot for $250 to serve as a gatekeeping device. That's not the point.

That said, if I was your potential publisher and I knew you wouldn't be able to do any readings or travel in support of the book, I'd want to commit to an action plan for promotion before signing a contract. Would the substitute be an aggressive online campaign? Where, and how? These things need to be outlined. Otherwise I think it's a recipe for frustration."

I.e. there are other ways to produce $250 worth of promotional value without actually spending $250.

Am I reading that right, Sandra? I don't want to put words in your mouth.

Sandra said...

Hi Jeannine,

I completely understand, and hope you looked at my response to Jilly further up in the comment thread. I think I addressed your points there--in agreement. Volunteering $250 of work in kind is appropriate, as long as you can substantiate how that work will be carried out.

BlazeVOX's main sin, in terms of public relations, was asking for the money as cash up front in a graceless way. But I think anyone who thinks they wouldn't soon spend that amount in support of their book and publisher--if they are doing what needs to be done to help the book succeed--is somewhat unrealistic.

Some of the examples you gave of volunteering instead included working with a reading series and website service. Having done those things under the exact same circumstances--unable to afford to donate outright, thinking I could make amends by donating time--my experience was they they cost money. Print ink, hi-speed internet, gas to drive readers around. It adds up.

Cheers,
Sandra

Jeannine said...

Yes, but I just wanted to make it explicit, for people like Jilly who had commented earlier, that being "financially not-in-great-shape" doesn't mean you can't promote your book, or that you won't make a worthwhile author. I hope (with some naivety, I'm sure) that what publishers consider first is the quality of the poetry.

Sandra said...

Oh, yes, I hope everyone considers the quality of the poetry first & foremost! We are all on the same page there. But it is rare that a publisher doesn't have more worthy MSs than they can afford to publish. I'll be honest: if you have two manuscripts you love in an open (aka not-blind) reading, and can only afford to publish one...and one of the two authors is known to actively promote his/her books, and the other known to be reclusive...I would not fault any publisher for being swayed toward choosing the former poet.

I would also admire the one who chose the latter. But it's a hard call, knowing the full arc of the process.

SB

Jeannine said...

Sandra, yes, donations of time add up, but it also empowers people who don't have a lot of cash up front to feel that they are capable of contribution. I'm so touchy on class issues because both of my folks grew up very poor, one on a farm, one in the inner city, my family struggled when I was a young child (of four) to not get our car repossessed and things like that, so I hate to think someone in a cashless bind might be shut out of the world of poetry. Would my mother, for instance, have been judged a lesser writer because she could not have spent money on contest fees? Publishers should be able to read manuscripts without fees, and publish without charging the authors. I think in all these discussions (including my own) we have to remember the literary publishers have a responsibility to market as well as the authors. Scaring up audiences for poetry (and all literary writing) is something we should be doing as a team, with other writers, with our local communities, with our publishers. I hope.

Jeannine said...

PS I hope it doesn't seem as if I'm arguing - I guess I'm trying to articulate something that's been bothering me for a while in these discussions, which is kind of an assumption that poets can afford stuff. A lot of my friends who are the best writers are the least plugged in, the least able to afford all the extras...
I think you're definitely adding in a positive way to the conversation. Most people who seek to publish a book of any kind are unprepared for what it takes to sell a book. If I had known how hard it was to sell, say, 1000 copies of my first book - how many reading trips I went on, how many hours I'd spend - I might have been too scared to start.

Sandra said...

Jeannine, so worries. I understood the spirit of what you were saying and did not take it as a criticism. It is actually ironic because I am in the same position for my memoir right now--having to gently push back against families/advocacy groups that advise best allergic reaction response practices with no regards for those who don't have health insurance or fret over the cost of Epi-pens, which have to be replaced every year. I appreciate that you're sticking up for those who shouldn't feel like they can't "afford" to see their work in book form.

Sandra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sandra said...

[Jeez, I wish we could revise our comments without deleting them! Just had a typo, so starting again.]

Jeannine, no worries. I understood the spirit of what you were saying and did not take it as a criticism. It is actually ironic because I am in the same position for my memoir right now--having to gently push back against families/advocacy groups that advise best allergic reaction response practices with no regards for those who don't have health insurance or fret over the cost of Epi-pens, which have to be replaced every year. I appreciate that you're sticking up for those who shouldn't feel like they can't "afford" to see their work in book form.

Jeannine said...

Yes, I just experienced those epi-pen costs first hand this year - ouch! I think it's good you're covering both practical AND best practices!

donnadcowan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven D. Schroeder said...

Aw, thanks for the respect. I always appreciate it, no joke.

Word verification: shysive

Lisa Marie Basile said...

Thank you, Sandra, for this wonderful post. It's thoughtful and direct and honest. People do have to switch it up when promoting. People should be reading the books they're buying. And people shouldn't forget the financial burdens of publishing. We do it because we love it, and I'm not sure what the proper answer is to all the mechanical flaws of it, but I do know your post struck a note and we need for straightforward honesty like this.

allyssa said...

Landfill.

Rachel Dacus said...

Thanks for this thoughtful, timely essay speaking to the heart of a rapidly changing publishing paradigm, leaving poets and presses bewildered as to their proper relationship in supporting each other. I think few publishers are focused exclusively on their own interests, most care deeply about the art, and perhaps more poets need to get creative about getting poetry into a wider world. I really think, from my own experience, this is key. I'm lucky to have a large group of non-poet friends who appreciate poetry and have helped spread the word. They often ask me what's really good (meaning along the lines of their interests) in contemporary poetry. The field of books is vast they're overwhelmed trying to sort through and find things they resonate with. Your suggestion about promoting books through alliances based on the content of the writing, rather than identity of the author, strike me as the way things will happen in this new world of books and reading.