When a Press Asks its Writers for Cash, When Readers Ask for Publications for Free

Hello, world. I’m back to the world of the written page, after a wonderful break from teaching and editing. Let’s just say there was sand and warm water. There were giant sea turtles that swam around my ankles. It was very good to take a bit of time off and to spend long days with my husband, and to take an enforced time out from the literary world. Much as I love being engaged with other writers, readers, and editors, sometimes it’s a good idea to remember that literature is a component of life–an important one–but not life itself. One has to breathe from time to time. One has to look up, and look around.

As I was heading back to life, tanned, relaxed, and not a little more portly for all the delicious things I’d eaten on vacation, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the most recent literary kerfuffle. I may have been the last person in the publishing world to hear about the flap over BlazeVox Books’ latest fundraising efforts (if you, too, were living under a rock and had not heard the fuss, here’s a glimpse at the issue, and the high emotions it called up. A short version: BlazeVox is accepting manuscripts, and, upon acceptance, asking authors to make donations to the press. A host of authors are speaking up, arguing that this practice makes BlazeVox, a bastion of small press publishing, a vanity press, up there with concerns like Publish America.)  But as you may have noticed, I can’t help but rattle my two cents around, even if I’m a little late.

I stumbled on the news about BlazeVox on the same day that I got a Los Angeles Review-related email I’d classify in the second of my three categories: “normal mail,” “snippy and strange mail,” and “hate mail” (the last of which we’ve dealt with here in past blog posts). This snippy email was from a writer who chastised me/the magazine for not offering our issues free online (we’re a print-only magazine). He informed me that, while he’d like to send work to us for publication, he he wanted to read what we’ve done before. And he thought he should be able to do that for free.

This guy’s email seemed to be a little encapsulation of everything that’s wrong with trying to run a  small press or trying to publish a literary magazine: people want publication, but they don’t buy books. They want to get something that costs a publisher money–a book deal, a publication credit, and award–but they don’t want to contribute money to that effort.

Okay. I get it. We writers don’t have endless cash to spend on literary journals we send work to. I mean, I’m an ESL teacher. I’m not exactly rolling in giant piles of money. I will be the first to admit that I haven’t subscribed to every publication that’s printed my work, or donated to every press to whom I’ve sent a manuscript. But I do open my wallet for a good number of them. And sometimes, like any journal editor who isn’t financed by a university, I open my wallet for LAR; I think that, if I can back LAR with my own cash when I have to, those who want to publish in LAR might be able to kick in $15 bucks to read the magazine, or at least refrain from demanding that it be given to them for free.

Okay, back to BlazeVox. I don’t know if it’s a great idea to require new authors to donate to the press. It rubs me as much the wrong way as it rubs many other writers. But I don’t think the press is attempting to be predatory. I think they’re trying to do something–maybe an ill-advised something–to ease the extreme financial burden that running a press puts on an individual or a group of individuals who are trying to be good literary citizens by bringing fine writing to market. The issue, as I see it, isn’t that a press is financially strapped enough to try a fundraising method that seems so questionable to many. I see the issue as the fact that a press was allowed–by readers and writers, the people it serves–to get to the point at which it needs to dun authors for money.

Buy books, guys. Buy books.

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5 Replies to “When a Press Asks its Writers for Cash, When Readers Ask for Publications for Free”

  1. Thanks, Kelly —
    I think you make an important point. Most small presses are obliged to read manuscripts only in a contest situation, and most of these make money for the press through entry fees. By insisting on a contribution up-front, these presses find the means to pay at least some of the cost for the eventual publication of the winning book. It gets pretty pricey for the contestants, but I understand the point of view of the press.

    And your final point is crucial; people don’t support the community by buying books, so publishers are in a terrible bind money-wise. We all need to support the indie publishers by BUYING their wares!

  2. I can’t tell you how many people tell me how much they LOVE my lit mag… and then never buy it. How do they love it? I know who I’ve sold it to. Maybe they borrowed a friends copy once or something, great, but come on. If you LOVE IT SO MUCH then cough up ten bucks and buy a frakkin’ issue! If they only knew how much of my own money I’ve invested….

    These are the things I want to say on my own blog, but instead, I leave them here in the comments on yours. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Stephanie, you bring up a great point–how is what BlazeVox is doing that far different from contests, especially when many contests simply fail to declare a winner and keep all the proceeds (or, as many a “reputable” contest has done, declared the winner a student of the final judge)? I can also think of another high-power press, which shall remain nameless, which has picked a winner in a first book contest, then declined to publish the manuscript. I think their main problem is the fact that BlazeVox didn’t state this donation information up front, but left it until (what appears to be) the contracting stage. Frankly, it seems like a more sound strategy than deliberately scamming people in a contest structure.

    Laura, Gah. So frustrating. I often find the same thing to be true–people will tell me they love the magazine, but I can tell from the lack of specificity about exactly *what* they loved that they haven’t even picked up a copy from a subway floor. Maybe it’s gauche of me to say as much, but it’s not like we do this work for our health. We promote authors because we believe in them. I want potential authors to believe in themselves, this work, and this industry enough to pick up a copy of a journal–maybe it’s not LAR, maybe it’s not Weave, but any dang journal–and just read, support, and be a part of this literary organism.

  4. The bigger issue, to me, is how disconnected the creative community has become from the mainstream world. Most art (books, opera, ballet, symphony, plays, etc.) is ignored in favor of faux art (movies, TV, pop music). The result is islands of artists forced to fight among themselves for enough money just to continue existence, to come up with clever contests and semi-scams designed to squeeze a few more pennies from fellow artists, the people they’re supposed to be helping.

    Have we completely lost faith in our ability to communicate with the general public? Do we have nothing to say to them? Nothing that might entice them to read a book, attend a play, visit an exhibition of art?

    This topic really got me going, so I had to write my own blog about it.

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