A week has passed since the initial furor of the BlazeVOX incident. I am trying to continue using the event as a springboard for an analysis (a haphazard one, to be sure). As time goes on this is less about the specifics of what happened and more about the conditions that allowed it to happen (or produced the event), and an attempt to string together something productive in the aftermath. I am trying to pay my attention.

If there’s one consolation that Geoffrey Gatza (the editor/founder of BlazeVOX) can take from the whole controversy about his publishing practices, it’s that people in the small press community care about what BlazeVOX is doing, and that the press has become a major force in the scene (it actually has been for awhile now).

And of course, in the sense of “any publicity is good publicity,” even more people know about the press now.

But in the exchange we saw the cost of that high profile. It raises the bar for what people expect from a press. And it seems like the small press world, whether we like it or not, is becoming more professionalized, and the presses that operate in this world are becoming more institutionalized, more public. Sometimes, they are becoming more business-like—even if that business continues to lose money.

Changing technology has helped to increase the public profile of small presses. Websites and internet publishing and sales have been around for awhile now. Public sites where discussion is an active part, like blogs, are more recent but very widely used. Social networking sites as a means of promotion are also thoroughly integrated into how we work. Another more recent trend has been book trailers—video ads for books meant to be posted and shared. And there are ad spaces on websites as well. All of these things are good things—they help to get more books out into the world and help to bring sales to authors & presses.

Writing is generally thought of as a solitary activity, and for the most part, it is. Publishing has been, historically, always a group/public activity, utilizing different people and businesses with different areas of expertise. A press like NewLights, where I can take a book from initial concept to final distribution, is an exception, not the rule. Publishing is, in one aspect, the construction of a channel through which artworks can be disseminated—publishing is public, both in “intent” and “structure.” But at the same time, the process of bringing together a book, for a small press, is often a very intimate affair, involving a fair amount of work done in solitude, or with a very small group of collaborators. This small group is often just editor and author, as the editor tends to do most jobs at the press. The experience of bringing a book together is not that different from the experience of writing a text—it involves a closeness with the work, it is mediated by technology, the decisions made are aesthetic as well as practical, and it is done with a potential audience in mind. Publishing is a creative act, productive in and of itself, and is not simply, as stated above, “the construction of a channel through which artworks can be disseminated.”

We could say that the identity of the press is constructed within and by the interactions of the object that it produces with its audience. In this formulation the press is an always still-forming social entity. It is social and political.

We could say that the identity of the press is constructed in the process of production (before a publication’s public life), in the interactions of its constituent parts: author, editor, designer, printer, etc. In this formulation the press makes finished things that are then distributed after the fact. It is authorial.

We could say that the identity of the press is constructed in the reach of its publications, in the reputation of its authors, and in the dollar amount of its sales. It is economic.

We could add more. None will be correct.

More soon.


Justin Sirois said...

All great points, Aaron. This is why presses need solid mission statements, and they need to stick to them. Gatza stooped to phishing for manuscripts that he doesn't read, and I have confirmation from a few sources on that one. One of the editors at Dark Sky has a sad example of BlazeVOX’s canned acceptance letter gone wrong where he sent the wrong one to the wrong author.

Of course some of the books Gatza publishes will be great books; he publishes enough so the numbers are in his favor. But this recent scheme is not how a small/indie press operates. It’s how poetry.com operates. That’s why so many notable authors are furious.

Justin Sirois said...

I was thinking that BlazeVOX authors that didn’t pay (like me) to have their books published should have an asterisk in their CVs.

*pre POD phishing scandal

NewLights Press: Et Al. said...

I think that Gatza could definitely have handled things better, but I am hesitant to call what he did a scam. You know me--I'll always give people the benefit of the doubt. The sloppiness of his approach coupled with a practice that could make people uncomfortable has, obviously, generated a lot of blowback. It is, as they say, an "unfortunate" situation. And now it's Gatza's job to sort of all it out--for BlazeVOX, himself, and any current/future authors. And the rest of us in this little world can use what happened as a basis for a productive discussion. Which I'm trying to do, however badly, here.

Furniture Press Books said...

Aaron, great job expressing the problems inherent in the institutionalization of small press practices. I want to skip the BlazeVOX [fiasco] and focus on what Justin stated about missions. In the case of Furniture Press Books, our mission rests on expanding the [concept] called poetry, inviting other sources (philosophy, film, politics, music, etc.) as a means to intermedia. But that's kinda what a lot of good presses are doing, and that is anti-institutional behavior. If I delve any deeper, I can say the sub-mission of the press is to promote and disseminate the work of talented young writers in the hopes that (A) the image/aesthetics of the press will be constantly shifting (my main mission) and (B) keep making enough money to continue working as a promoter, without taking any cuts or negotiating the impetus for working as hard as I do, as both of you gentlemen do, so that in regards to image, the press becomes a shapeshifting aeshtetic-monster, rather than an aesthetics-institutionalizing monster. In the end, if we succumb to this notion of painting our writers with the mark of the press, a pro-sthetic, then we're doing nothing but corporatizing an image, and the press becomes nothing but a logo the writer gets grafted onto his/her skin.