Monday, September 5, 2011

On BlazeVox, and other publishing kerfuffles

Facebook has lit up like the 4th of July over BlazeVox's policy of asking authors for $250 toward publication of their books. The first wave involved a blog post (or 5) and some facebook comments accusing Geoffrey Gatza of running a literary scam; the second wave, of BlazeVox admirers and fellow small press publishers, has crashed dialectically on the first. The impression is of a lot of foam. But what lurks beneath the foam is important, very important.

There are a series of needs addressed by small press publishing; these needs often come in conflict. Authors want their work out, increasingly because their professional lives depend upon it. Publishers want the work out, too, but are faced with issues the author doesn't have to deal with, or even know about. How to edit the book, how to fund the book, how to get the book designed, how to distribute the book, how to market the book, how to create and maintain a webpage, how to pay for postage, how to find the time--or the help--to do all of these things--all of these are immediate, practical concerns for the publisher. Time and money.

There is also a terrific impasse at the point books get published. When I think of this problem I see in my mind's eye the AWP book fair (which takes money to get to and stay at), where hundreds upon hundreds of small press publishers sit behind tables under the klieg lights covered with their goods, and try to sell to . . . other small press publishers and writers with a vested interest (if they're lucky) with another press. At the same time, they come under the eye of writers looking for a publisher, eyes that wander quickly past if your press's mission statement does not meet their manuscript. This is not the little magazine scene of Modernism. This is a market-place where writers come because they need work. Poets need publications so that they can work as teachers. Hence a kind of frenzy around publishing. For the publisher, it's the problem not of late capitalism but of a very rudimentary form of it, one where making money is not an option (the guys in the booths sometimes do that), but where scraping by is the point. Well, scraping by and loving the fact of making things, two activities that find themselves at logger-heads.

When I started Tinfish Press in 1995, I had no idea. Over the years, I've poured thousands of my own dollars into the enterprise. That would have accomplished nearly nothing were it not for several titles that have kept us going because they sell. Let me name these titles: Sista Tongue, by Lisa Kanae; Living Pidgin, by Lee Tonouchi; Poeta en San Francisco, by Barbara Jane Reyes; from unincorporated territory, by Craig Santos Perez; Remember to Wave, by Kaia Sand. That's about it. These books have helped to pay for others, including the very worthy Erotics of Geography, by Hazel Smith, a book that seems to wear a heavy raincoat against purchase. So it's not only quality that sells a book; we've published as many good books that don't sell as good books that do. Enter market forces! The way to sell books is to publish at least some (which ones?) that will be taken up by teachers and professors; you need to create a captive audience for them. Selling books toward knowledge--but via coercion. That's the rub, I guess.

And yet students (and sometimes poets) are unaware of this mechanism. Students tell me that books cost too much (which elicits quite an accounting from me--take 40-60% off the top for distribution, add shipping costs from the mainland, etc.), and they probably do. Authors have, on occasion (usually when I screwed up) accused me of making money. I have taken not one cent from the enterprise, nor have I paid any royalties or paid any designers. When I pay people to work for us, I pay out of my pocket so that the books can keep coming.

Our current Retro Chapbook Series has been an effort, among other things, to step outside this series of market forces, to make it simple (again), to create a buzz without overhead. I've had more fun with this project than I've had in years with Tinfish. But the real need for authors is that book with a spine, the book with an aura around it, the book you might just might possibly get a job for having written. And those books, if a publisher is to make them, cost money. Yes, there is the DIY/POD model, and that's been important in bringing down costs. But that model does not open up the work to designers, who have been nearly as important to Tinfish's process as the authors. Not that spending $2,000-$3,000 dollars (plus nearly half that in shipping) is really a ton of money, compared to most consumables. It's just that with grant funding drying up, with people spending more on groceries and gas than on books . . . there are very few resources with which to make these books, especially if you don't have a good job.

Which brings me back to BlazeVox. Their catalogue is impressive. Whatever the problems with Gatza's model of funding his books or distributing them, he's gotten out a lot of books that would otherwise not be published, including a few I sent his way, including work by Goro Takano and Janna Plant. He publishes many books that simply will not sell. That is not to say they are not worth reading, however. That's another rub. Anyone who publishes books that don't sell is either a damn fool or a saint. Geoffrey may be a bit of both, but bless him for it. I'm glad to see just now that he will maintain his enterprise.


charles said...

Thanks, Susan
I really like how this issue is opening up the discussion of small press economic, professional, and cultural issues. Personally, I think small press editors should take some income from their presses, though I appreciate that some who are otherwise fairly well employed may not wish to do so.

I admire what you do, and what Geoffrey does, so very much.


Scott Abels said...

Thanks for this clear-eyed response, and for your relentless work for Tinfish.

I have a book forthcoming with BlazeVOX, and I have zero problem providing some resources to help offset the cost for the book's production. I'd do that for any small press that I believed in.

Geoffrey Gatza gets it right when he says small press culture is a "gift culture."

Susan M. Schultz said...

Congratulations, Scott! Look forward to reading the book when it emerges from out of Buffalo.