The Death (and Resurrection) of BlazeVOX

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It all started, as it so often seems to these days, with a blog post. Facebook posts were made. Said blog post was echoed by another, bigger blog. Before the day was over, a publisher had gone from being a leader in independent publishing to apologizing to rescinding a practice to promising to shutter his operation to promising to stay in business—and explaining his business model publicly.

The resurgence may have something to do with the blowback—BlazeVOX authors have been defending the press since someone first told the blogger and others to “go fuck themselves,” because they have no clue about the realities of publishing today.

I’ve spent much of the last day trying to sort this story out, and in some ways, I feel I’m no better off than when I started, mostly because of all the screaming, and because everyone, it seems to me, is a little bit right.

Brett Ortler, who wrote the post that might have killed BlazeVOX, does come off as entitled, and makes some unwarranted conclusions about Geoffrey Gatza’s honesty. His comparison of Gatza’s request for money to help defray the costs of publishing to a 419 scam was, in my view, irresponsible. If you’re going to accuse someone of dishonesty, you’d better have more to go on than a gut feeling.

But Ortler did raise some important questions about BlazeVOX’s business model, and I think it’s important to remember that in the end, a press, even one which focuses on experimental literature, is a business, and this business, as Michael Kelleher points out, is how Geoffrey Gatza makes a living. It’s a “meagre livelihood” according to Kelleher, and I have no reason to doubt that—it’s not a revelation that nobody gets rich publishing poetry.

One of the primary expenses for any press, by the way, is paying people to do the work of selecting, editing, and designing books. Evan Lavender-Smith’s comment at The Barking showed a complete disregard for the work Gatza did in running BlazeVOX himself. If people who run presses are expected to do it for nothing, then only the independently wealthy or those with other sources of income will be able to run them. Workers deserve wages (an especially important sentiment given that yesterday was Labor Day in the US).

When I was an undergraduate and was waiting tables to make ends meet, I occasionally got customers who were never satisfied, and I would remark to my fellow servers that if only they did our jobs for a week, they’d change their attitudes. I think perhaps the same goes for the relationship between writers and editors. As a writer, I see editors as gods, powerful beings who can create happiness by selecting the acceptance form letter rather than the rejection form letter. As an editor, I see myself (sometimes at least) as a janitor, wading through piles of muck from people who have sent out work without bothering to see what the submission requirements are (or if they exist), and without bothering to see if their work even fits the journal they’re submitting to. Caroline Crew’s short rant at We Who Are About to Die does a good job of describing this feeling. Editing is hard work, and people sometimes forget that it is work at all.

And I don’t even publish books (yet). I’m learning firsthand the amount of effort that goes into book design, and let me tell you, the learning curve is steep.

There’s never enough money for poetry. The amount that Gatza was asking some of his poets to contribute toward the cost of publication was roughly the equivalent of ten poetry prize entry fees. Back when I submitted to contests, if someone had told me that if I enter ten contests, I’m guaranteed to be published by one of the presses I sent to, I’d have jumped at the chance, and I know I’m not alone in this.

And authors today, even established, popular authors, must expect to spend money and time promoting their own work. The problem here has to do with when Gatza asked for the money, and how. Ortler’s complaint that the acceptance felt like a bait-and-switch is a legitimate one, even if Gatza didn’t intend it that way, and by all accounts, he didn’t. But when HTMLGIANT introduced the term “vanity press” into the discussion, they raised questions about the legitimacy of the other books BlazeVOX has published in the past.

What does it mean for a publication to be legitimate? A friend of mine had a publisher offer to put out her collection of poems as a handmade book, in a very limited print run. It’s the sort of thing that’s right up her alley, as she works in visual arts as well, and yet she hesitated because she is also a university professor and she was afraid that the book wouldn’t count toward her tenure. She was also worried that the poems, once published in that format, wouldn’t be eligible for inclusion in a book by a more mainstream publication. Concerns about legitimacy aren’t limited to people on the tenure track.

As Shanna Compton points out, it’s inaccurate to call BlazeVOX a vanity, or subsidy press because a subsidy press takes all comers with the ability to pay, and Gatza didn’t do that—he worked closely with his authors in the design and editing process, and only ever asked for partial subsidies of publication costs. Cooperative or collective publishing seems to be a better term here. What is less acceptable is that he sought submissions without mentioning up front that that was the plan.

The publishing world is in flux; business models which have worked in the past are not working so well now, if at all, and never really worked for poetry. As Bruce Covey writes in his Facebook post on the subject, “Random House 20 years ago couldn’t afford to pay for a book tour for Kenneth Koch in the way they could for first-book fiction writers.” Even a famous poet with a major press in a more auspicious era faced these issues.

Most small presses have responded to harder economic times with the contest model, but that is also highly problematic at best, as David Alpaugh argued in 2008 in Rattle, and (unfortunately), poetry e-books seem to be facing the same problems of legitimacy that online journals faced only a decade ago. But poetry e-books from respected publishers will probably have the reading public’s confidence sooner than later.

They will have to, as the print model of publication becomes even more unsustainable. The poetry collection, designed and printed as a mass-market product, isn’t dead yet, but its days are numbered. I would be surprised if we see them much at all in ten years; instead, I expect to see a continued resurgence in limited-run handmade books and in multimedia poetry e-books.

The question is not over whether authors will spend their own money on their publications—that answer is yes. My payment for publishing A Witness in Exile earlier this year was 150 copies, and the ability to buy more at cost from the press. I might have broken even so far, given what I’ve spent to attend AWP last year and on review copies and postage, but if I have, it’s not by much, and the press has almost certainly lost money. And my story isn’t unusual. Read Daniel Nester’s piece on buying his own books for a penny if you want some more evidence of that.

Geoffrey Gatza’s sin here seems to be one of asking for money inartfully and at the wrong time in the process. Brett Ortler’s sin was assuming dishonesty when poor communication was really the problem. There are no victimizers here, even if more than one person feels like a victim.

I’m glad Gatza decided not to shutter BlazeVOX, but I hope he gets someone to help him on the business end of things. He’s not registered as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, which means he can’t apply for grants and the like. He probably should be a 501(c)3, but that takes time and expertise of the kind that generally charges hundreds of dollars per hour. And that money has to come from somewhere.

Ideally, that money would come from sales of poetry collections, but the ideal and the real are not the same. This is the problem of our age, and the eventual move to electronic publishing will only mitigate the problem, not solve it, because editors still need to be paid for their time and energy and poets still deserve some remuneration for their work. This cannot become a volunteer-only industry, not if we want poetry to thrive.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →