Yesterday there was an event of no small controversy in the small press world. It all started with a blog post, written by Brett Ortler about BlazeVOX [books] and their submission/publishing policy. After Mr. Ortler’s manuscript had been accepted by BlazeVOX, he was asked to chip in $250 towards the publication of the book. Mr. Ortler was surprised and disappointed by this (it’s best to read his entire post, as I can’t adequately describe his reaction here), and wrote a blog post about it, calling out the questionable practice and publicly calling “for Mr. Gatza to amend his submission guidelines and website to include information about this policy, the amounts he’ll expect of other authors, and the like.”
And so the event began, spreading through blogs and other social media. Some questioning the practice:
Others defending BlazeVOX and the editor/proprietor Geoffrey Gatza:
And some have been reflecting on what this all means:
And the official BlazeVOX response:
And as I get to the Internet this morning I can see that a bunch of people have been writing about this, of course, and already it all feels overwhelming. But I did write (most of) this post already & I feel compelled to participate as well, but probably more in the third category—trying to figure out what can be learned from this, not just in a moral sense, but also as way to investigate the small press world and its growing pains.
But first a disclosure: I do not know Geoffrey Gatza, have never corresponded with him, and have never submitted a manuscript to BlazeVOX. I do, however, have several close friends who have had books published by BlazeVOX. The BlazeVOX and NewLights list of authors overlap slightly. There is a BlazeVOX book that recently arrived in the mail sitting on my desk right beside me as I write this. BlazeVOX has been operating for a long time, and puts out many books every year, and probably just about everybody in the small press world knows someone who has been published by BlazeVOX, if they haven’t themselves. That’s actually important, I think, to this discussion—or at least to this version of it.
All I have to say in terms of an opinion about the BlazeVOX co-op approach is this: In 2006 I borrowed $100 from Justin Sirois in order to complete silver standard. It wasn’t a question of whether or not the book would be published, as I was already in the middle of production. The book was literally half-finished, in pieces all over my studio. I probably needed the money to buy another toner cartridge, or more magnets maybe. Justin is a good friend and we had worked together many times, so I felt comfortable asking him—I was, in essence, reaching out to a friend for help, the one with the most vested interest in the project. I actually don’t remember if I paid him back. But he did get lots of copies of the book, and they sold quickly. That was the only time that I have ever asked an author for money. Will it be the last? (I hope so.)
Whenever I find myself working with a new author/artist, I always tell them up front, in the first letter detailing the publication process, that there is no money to be made and that I can’t pay them. (Hopefully that will change in the future.) But I do give them copies of the book (so many for free, plus more at a discount) to do with what they choose—give them away, sell them, burn them, whatever. This approach has worked so far, probably because the NewLights books are different and exist/circulate under different circumstances than most books. But this very informal, contingent approach might not work all the time.
Because I think that one thing that we are seeing with this BlazeVOX incident is that the small press world has gotten perhaps uncomfortably public, and that small presses that have been successful (in the sense of longevity & profile, not money) are becoming institutions in the eyes of their writing/reading public. And people are now, naturally, demanding accountability and transparency in the operation of these institutions. Wait a second are we—gulp—asking ourselves to professionalize?
Other than the immediate controversy around this controversy, it seems that there is more to be talked about here. To be continued.