Kill the Author: Blaze Vox and "Vanity" Small Press Publishing

by on Sep.05, 2011

As many folks already know, HTML Giant published a post about Geoffrey Gatza’s practice of asking potential authors to be published by his press, BlazeVox, to chip in 250 dollars to help publish the book. I don’t know all the details about the situation, but it seems OK to me to ask for contributions. It seems maybe Geoffrey has handled it not so smoothly, making people feel like they had to give money in order to be published.

More importantly, I have been interested (and sometimes dismayed) at the big discussion this has started all around Facebook and the Internet. But overall, I think the discussion has been very much worthwhile having, and I hope it will develop into a further debate about the situation of small-press publishing in terms of its finances, issues of “legitimacy” and perhaps even the idea of the Author/Poet (as promulgated in MFA programs, in the movies, at prom).

But I’m also busy so I’ll just make a few points:

* There has been a big explosion in small presses and chapbook presses etc over the past 15 years. The reasons are many: digital technology, institutional critiques etc. New technology has made it cheaper and easier. But it’s still not a money-making venture. Unless you’re really rich personally (and/or talented with book-making and grant-writing), it’s hard to run a small press.

* Joyelle and I obviously don’t get paid for Action Books and yet it takes up a whole lot of our time – translating, editing, sending stuff out etc. We don’t do it to become rich. We started the press because we felt there was no presses out there publishing books of our aesthetics, and we wanted to publish this stuff, get it out there, get involved in new, more interesting conversations about poetry. It’s part of what we do as writers.

* There’s nothing wrong about Geoffrey asking for money (though it may send the wrong vibe to the author). There’s in fact nothing wrong with self-publishing. Walt Whitman self-published; Stein I believe paid her press to help them publish Tender Buttons (correct me if I’m wrong about that). Etc Etc. The fact that subsidizing of the press calls into question the “legitimacy” of the press suggests to me that legitimacy is tied up in money. So Coffee House Press has more legitimacy than a small press because it has more money. OK, it’s more legitimate but most of the best books I’ve read from the past 20 yrs have been from very small presses.

* It’s true that small presses represent a new moment in poetry. No longer do we have the “Great Figures” (like Lowell) who comes with instant institutional clout. Though people like Tony Hoagland try hard to make certain people (including themselves) into such figures through award and grants and marquee readings at the AWP etc. I don’t like that.

* This doesn’t mean there aren’t people I think are great writers. But I don’t try to promote their work as “legitimate” or institutionally correct; I write reviews or, increasingly, posts on this blog talking about what I find interesting about their work. I argue that Joyelle or Alice Notley or Aase Berg or Hiromi Ito are “great”: and the readers can decide if they’re interested or not. And hopefully if they like these writers, what I write will make their readings more interesting (at least not less interesting); and hopefully they’ll write something in response that will make my reading more interesting. I feel like a hippie writing this, but basically this is how i like to think about poetry functioning. This is what I mean by “conversations.”

* Unfortunately a lof of poetry still functions according to “legitimacy.” Or longs for the old legitimacy and greatness. Is BlazeVox a “Vanity press”? I don’t know what that means. But based on the comments to the post, the fact that Geoffrey had to ask for financial help somehow delegitimized his enterprise. And money does still matter in poetry to a lot of people. A lot of folks won’t read books published by small presses; or review books by smaller presses; or will assume a book published by Coffee House is more legit than one published by Tarpaulin Sky. I get that vibe a lot. Maybe I’m wrong. But there seems to be a contradiction in our moment.

* One of the things the discussion really brings up is the idea of the Author. And here again I don’t have any hard evidence. But to me it seems people are still in love with the idea of being a Great Author. Which is a person who writes in solitude. Who just writes his or her poetry. Activities like reviewing or publishing are activities that taint the pure glamor of being a poet. This is one of the most frustrating and most pervasive ideas out there. And it’s an inherently conservative view: one based on the validation of the “Literary Authorities” (Tony Hoagland, university press etc). I really hate this.

* I’m generally opposed to lazy attacks on MFA programs but I do think this is an incredibly MFA-based idea of the author. Some may call it “Romantic” but the Romantic writers wrote a whole lot about other people’s writing and they certainly were published by “vanity presses” of sorts. No, I think this is a view definitely reflecting a common MFA pedagogy based on validation of the teacher, the institution.

* Lots of folks seem to blame small presses for why there are no more great poets. There is simply “too much” being published these days. How can we know what is good? How can we tell what is a good writer? My answer to this complaint is: You mean you always believed that which was published was great??? My answer is: You read the books (outrageous!) and you think about them. And you read what others write about books (because clearly you can’t read every book out there). You have to make your own way through the “plague ground” of poetry.

* “Plague Ground” is a reference to Joyelle’s notorious “Future of Poetry” talk:

Poetry’s present tense rejects the future in favour of an inflorating and decaying omnipresence, festive and overblown as a funeral garland, flimsy and odiforous, generating excess without the orderliness of generations. It rejects genre. It rejects “a” language. Rejects form for formlessness. It doesn’t exist in one state, but is always making corrupt copies of itself. “Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.

* But for this model to work, people need to write reviews and blog posts. People need to alert others to good things you’ve read or things that have interested you or whatever. Way too many people are still stuck in their “I want to be an Author, not a reviewer” MFA model of author (or maybe they just don’t think about it?). Most people who run presses will tell you how hard it is to get people to read one’s books, to write about them, to engage with them, much less buy them. (And if everyone who liked Blazevox’s books enough to want to be published by them bought a few of their books, Geoffrey wouldn’t have had to ask for contributions.)

* Also, before the current proliferation of small presses, I didn’t like any poetry published in book form. I knew of a lot of great poetry being written but barely any became books. So perhaps it’s harder to find the books you like, but at least some interesting stuff is being published!

OK, that’s all I’ve got to say for now. I hope this will develop into a good discussion (here and elsewhere). It’s a much needed discussion. I don’t know how much I’ve contributed.

The Angry Hippie

27 comments for this entry:
  1. Jared

    Quite interesting, and after reading the HTML Giant post and some of its attendant comments, seems like very few of the right questions are being asked. Apparently a lot of young writers have taken the “don’t send to any publisher who asks you for money” in a legalistic way rather than understanding the meaning behind the warning.

    My questions:

    Does BlazeVox pocket the $250, or does all of that go to publishing and promoting the work?

    How much additional cash does BlazeVox put into putting out a particular work?

    Is BlazeVox accepting work at random or of a low quality, just fishing for dupes, or does the press look for the work it wants to publish and ask for the writer to help carry the financial load?

    Without knowing the answer to these, how can one say that BlazeVox is an illegitimate publisher? Certainly a red flag is thrown, but what really is the difference? Big time publishers only shell out six figure advances for books they think are going to make them significantly more than that, so that the advance is just a small percentage in the end. Isn’t that just as exploitive, or even more exploitive, since they won’t even look at publishing anyone who doesn’t put dollar signs in their eyes?

  2. Kent Johnson

    Terrific post, Johannes, glad you wrote this. It adds some sanity to the discussion. I hope lots of those who’ve been so indignantly shouting and jumping up and down read it. And amazing how this controversy has gone viral. Harriet has now posted on it, though they clearly weren’t aware that Gatza has just put out the following statement today. Anyway, the good news is that BlazeVOX continues to live:

    I’ve written to Chris Higgs at HTML Giant (under whose post on this there are 150 comments!), suggesting that it would be only fair and appropriate for him to do a follow-up informational post with link to Geoffrey’s statement.

    You know, I think all this is only going to spur GG’s eccentric, messy, and great project forward. I know I sure want to do my next book with him! BlazeVOX: probably the strangest and most famous poetry press in America, right now… The range of support and admiration towards the press expressed in the past few days (even by many of those criticizing the handling of payment arrangements!) has really been something.

  3. David Need

    good post, save I cannot agree with evocation of “death of author” riff–its enough to critique ego/immature desire for power etc without appeal to barthes, etc, seems to me; appeal to “death of an author” replaces a useful point with a new pass-go card—the problem is our refusal to restrain desire, not that we touch each other

  4. Johannes

    I thought it was funny…

  5. adam strauss

    I am one of those people who has a book arriving via BlazeVox and have contributed the 250; my understanding is that roughly 12 percent of pruduction costs is asked for. I don’t think GG pockets the bucks. I didn’t/dont find it offputting because he explained that a lot of funding he used to rely on simply ain’t here anymore–and this seems very plausible. And he told me he has no interest in reading fees/contests.

  6. BlazeVOX Update | HTMLGIANT

    […] abounds: Johannes Göransson, Shanna Compton, Michael Kelleher, Craig Santos Perez, and Christopher Janke are among the voices […]

  7. Raewyn Alexander

    Thanks for this well informed, thoughtful piece and yes, writers write about all kinds of things and take part in many aspects of literary life. We may review, write all genre, some or only one, publish books ourselves and make them too for that matter, do speaking tours and take part in workshops, forums and critiquing.

    If more people knew what a writer often does and what extremely hard work it is to keep on being published, making sure work is edited and produced properly while also developing one’s own work to the extent it stays vital and interesting, most would steer well clear of this activity. Too many people seem to think being able to put one word after another makes a writer appear, (anyone can do it if they want to) and the rest is swanning about in cafes or talking at literary festivals. That’s the real vanity, right there.

    I agree anyone may try to write nevertheless and also, that a publisher can ask for a donation, or some of the costs to be paid by the author for a book. Having published some books myself for others, I know it is an expensive business and the point is we want to get good work read by others. Sometimes we need to find funds elsewhere. The audience however needs to rely on their own judgement and careful reading of the work and of reviews, as you say, to decide what they like, what is good and worthwhile. No quick fix exists to show what poetry (in particular) is fine literature, except through one’s own application to the work, discovering on-going enjoyment and rewarding study.

  8. Joe Bratcher

    Poets and economy are not strange bedfellows. One must eat, even if one is a poet. How then to differentiate one poem from another in the market. The editorial/ review process works for the reader. The size of the press may yet be another factor. Whatever one chooses as a filter will determine the poetic economy. One such filter has always been whether an author has contributed to the cost of production. This has generally been a filter that has kept a book out my library as it smells of economic influence playing a part where only art belongs. I, of course, am a fool for thinking this. Well, perhaps not a fool but lazy. My indolence craves whatever filter it can get. I want reviews and blogs and economic rules to make my reading list for me. Don’t make me develop cancer digging through the pile of ore to find a single radiating bit of poetry. I don’t want to choke on sewerage to find the ring I swallowed. There always has been too much poetry. Stop writing NOW so I can finish the “Canterbury Tales” and “The Ring and the Book”. But no, don’t stop. Write on.

  9. Maria Damon

    Geoffrey is a gem, and the work he has done is selfless and tireless on behalf of emerging interesting writing.
    You are right about the continued narcissism of the “great Author” syndrome, and it is a syndrome, i.e. a kind of illness born of an ideological hangover from the early 19th century, when such heroics actually accomplished something. But no longer.
    I am so glad Geoffrey has bounced back.

  10. Big Wonderful Press

    I have run a press for 10 years, and I am now on a team starting up a new one under a new model because there are no grants for nonprofits anymore. I can tell you that I personally put way too much of my own money and time to a book to not be terribly offended by an author who feels they shouldn’t contribute anything to the effort because their words are so magical they will sell themselves. No writer is good enough to sell if no one actually opens the book or has heard of them — and getting someone to open the book takes money. The new press is not asking authors for donations, but we do expect they at least put in some promotion time.

    For all those who don’t know, it does take a LOT of money to keep a press running. Overhead divided by the number of books produced can push the cost of a book way over what most authors imagine.

  11. Johannes

    But isn’t there a difference between having writers act like primadonnas and asking them to pay for their books in order to get them published?/Johannes

  12. J. Karl Bogartte

    For example:

    As a virtual press one might choose to have their publications printed by, for example Lulu, having the option (as a virtual press) of using their own name/logo as the publisher, it costs about $100., supplying their own ISBN # and Barcode (together usually less than $50.) If they do their own setup, converting to PDF and creating their own cover, then it costs nothing to have the book printed. Zero cost if no name, other than as publisher.

    Once the book is completed, one needs to purchase a copy to proof. Depending on the price of a book retail, say being sold for $12., one pays the cost, at about $6. per book. From that point on, it depends upon how one chooses to market it. Lulu will automatically submit it to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Books In Print for free.

    Presently, SPD, Small Press Distributer, is THE place to have your book placed. Recently, it has been the policy to inquire and sign-up at SPD, for a Lulu book, and if accepted, one must stock them with 20 copies of the book, and consistently restocked. If one purchases their books from Lulu at $6., that comes to about $120.

    Most bookstores will not order POD books, but may carry them if you keep them stocked. Unless they are distributed by SPD.

    So, without figuring in what you have to pay, or to what extent you promote your book, and considering the time and effort into preparing a workable PDF, working with Lulu costs about $6. to have a book printed.

    BUT, as a virtual press, a lot of time and work can go into promoting a book, getting it reviewed, pushing it… And, bookstores will order from small presses, which is the advantage.

    It might be of some comfort here, to say that not only a lot of virtual small presses use POD to print their books, a good portion of the really big name publishing houses also use companies like Lulu, Virtual Bookworm and Amazon to print their books. University presses also avail themselves to Print On Demand.

    BlazeVOX is not alone in asking writers to pay for the cost of publishing their books, or a portion of the cost. Some of the bigger ones do just that.
    In this case, I think, a true vanity press is not doing it yourself, but having someone tell you how “great” you are as a writer, and they will publish your “great” book, and even pay you for it.

    Also, taking into consideration, some of the great classics were self-published, like, for example, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

  13. Chiming in on the BlazeVox Situation « BIG OTHER

    […] anybody else say that I would like to put out there. In particular, I’d like to respond to Johannes Goransson’s post at Montevidayo, because I admire Johannes’s support for collective, community-based approaches to sharing […]

  14. marcus slease

    When I published my book with BlazeVOX a few years ago, Geoffrey asked if it were possible to help with the funding but IT WAS NOT A REQUIREMENT for being published with the press. He also explained he chooses the work carefully among many manuscripts. I do know some people who have submitted good manuscripts and Geoffrey chose not to publish them. So there is some selection going on as well. This has already been said methinks. Just thought I would add. Love live BlazeVOX!!

    Publishers can brand as well. Publishing with a press and becoming legit!

    Hm . . . but it can also allow a poet to enter a community. I am interested in community. O.K. maybe that term is batted about a bit too much but I do think community is what makes this whole writing poetry worthwhile. Not getting that perfect uni gig or reading to crowds of student admirers at AWP (ack!)

    And I also agree that a lot of the most interesting work is either 1) not published 2) published by small small presses (chapbooks etc.)

    Blazevox is one of the rare large small presses that I enjoy. Ha!

  15. Jake Levine

    My only chapbook was published on the press I run. Lots of people asked if that made me feel bad. I don’t feel bad. We made it because I was doing a reading and wanted something to sell at the reading and I had this chapbook manuscript. I paid for the printing. I made the book. Now we have a chapbook series. Is that wrong? I think people put too much value on the words and not the thing. Are we talking about an object with only metaphysical value or an object with both metaphysical and physical value? I don’t know if BlazeVox sends their work offsite or does print on demand. Their books look more like Print on Demand…. which generally feels cheaper and looks lousier than offset. Anyway, 250 bones is nothing to ask… it’s a pittance. and the guy does take editorial control of the press. so really no wrong done. but i have read some great and some (most) really terrible Blaze books.

  16. Kent Johnson

    Hey, this is sort of fun. Look who’s on the same side as the Anti-BlazeVOX finger-waggers:

  17. Kent Johnson

    The impetus for the Tea Party’s position on the matter might have been this, actually:

  18. Kent Johnson

    Sorry, that second link is incorrect. Here is what I meant regarding the possible impetus for Tea Party venom:

  19. Andy Farkas

    In an ideal situation I would submit to presses based on the work they put out. But since I know that I would die of starvation if I only wrote, since I do not write best-sellers, I have to have a job. The job I have selected is professor. In order to be a tenured professor, one pretty much needs to be published by “legitimate” presses. I am therefore reminded of what Larry McCaffery told me. He said that before he was tenured, he wrote “normal” critical works. After he was tenured, he began writing critifiction (a type of work, he told me, that never would’ve gotten him tenured). Whereas I don’t have to write different types of works, I do have to take in which presses are considered “legitimate” by the academy so I can get a job and get tenured. The academy tends to frown on places that operate anything like “vanity” presses. Once I’m tenured, however, I can do like McCaffery and get published wherever I want. It seems then that legitimacy is only important for those of us still in the hunt.

  20. Michael Peverett

    Well, that’s funny. What must Victoria Brockmeier, winner of the 2008 T.S. Eliot Prize (no, UK readers, not THAT prize) have thought?
    The Tea Party courier site is evidently one of those unattended auto-sites that you can easily purchase in order to generate online income; it works by screening the blogosphere for keywords. I suppose the mention of parties in her second para had something to do with the false positive.

    Well, back on topic, there’s an ambiguity about “publishing” (=printing) and “publishing” (=making public). Lulu does the first but it doesn’t do the second, i.e. you have a book but no-one knows about it. I don’t know Johannes how your idea about reviewing would be received by schools of creation that explicitly exclude critique (I’m thinking of London’s Writers Forum). I haven’t managed to resolve that one; I empathize with the rejection of the trappings of literary approbation, but I also want to talk about the books I care about.

  21. jw

    You need to read Brett Ortler’s original post. Geoffrey didn’t “make people feel like they had to give money in order to be published.” He stated it outright as a fact.

    When the accepted author asked whether his work would be published if he didn’t provide a donation, he was told “No of course not.”

  22. A D Jameson

    What’s needed more than anything are more posts about poetry that embed photos of Jack Smith.

    I love you, Johannes!


  23. Jeffrey

    Fantastic. Your comments, Johannes, seem to be right on target. You are right about the need to proliferate discourse about poetry, in all of its forms, as a way of helping people to sort out some of the work in the masses of books published each year. We cannot just be writers; we must also always be critics as well.

  24. Daniel

    There are some issues that are being glossed over here:

    Firstly, this is an issue of disclosure. BlazeVox should have been straight forward about their business model from the beginning. They are right about publishing costs, especially for a one-man outfit – but that is no excuse to be misleading. Secondly, it has become accepted in the US that all one needs to be a poet is simply to write poetry. The “just do it” mentality supersedes the need for voice, craft, skill, and vision. Quite frankly, BlazeVox takes on too many mediocre poets and perpetuates this mass dilution that has devalued poetry over a generation. Instead of asking poets for production donations, publish less of them and demand excellence in what you do accept. Perhaps an editorial team of enlightened minds is preferable to a one-man show in this regard..