Yesterday a post with the sensational headline BlazeVOX Goes Vanity Press? appeared at HTLMGIANT. It generated a stream of criticism in the comment field and prompted this explanation from BlazeVOX publisher, Geoffrey Gatza and a few hours later, this announcement stating he will be closing the press at the end of the year. (Update: after this article was posted, Geoffrey Gatza announced he would not be shutting down BlazeVOX.)
Publishing poetry is a thankless job. What begins as a labor of love can often sour rather quickly. Despite technological advances, such as print-on-demand, publishing books still cost money, supporting and promoting books, even creatively and with a shoe-string budget, costs money. Very few people, including poets looking to be published, buy many poetry books. If I sold anywhere near the number of books that I receive as submissions, No Tell Books would be making a small profit. No Tell Books is not making a small profit. When all the costs are put together (including printing, postage, author copies, review copies, design, proofreading, holding reading events, advertising, travel and costs to participate in book fairs and conferences), No Tell Books loses thousands of dollars each year. I lose money on things like bookstores not paying invoices (around half never pay for books ordered and received so now we require all payment up front, which means many bookstores won't order directly from us). When I travel to speak at universities about poetry and publishing, I often loses money, even if I'm being paid. For instance, once I drove 8 hours to speak at a university. They paid me $150, but gas, meals and a modest hotel cost more than that--and I have to claim the $150 on my taxes as income. Yes, I claim my expenses too, but since my expenses are always so much more than my income, every year I taunt an IRS audit.
I do a lot of things knowing I am losing money because I believe it's important to promote the books I publish. I also believe it's important to educate people on diy-publishing and poetry. But it's draining, really draining. I gave a reading and spoke at a classroom at a university. After my reading, I sold one book and had two stolen. Luckily that university paid me $500 and covered my hotel and airfare, so the sting was much less than if I paid my own way. Often I'll travel to give readings at independent reading series. These are almost always on my own dime, but I go because they often bring big crowds. I can't tell you the number of times I'll read to a full room of 50-100 grad students, the girls in their pretty leather boots, the boys with their fancy scarves, all enjoying pricey cocktails and nobody will buy a single book afterward. But many want to know when is my next reading period.
No Tell Books' best selling title broke even after three years and is now earning a very modest profit. This is by an author whose work has appeared in places like Poetry and Best American Poetry. This title has been taught at universities. How many copies does one have to sell to be the best selling title at No Tell Books after four years? 228. That is not a typo. This number doesn't include what the author has sold herself, probably around 200 copies on her own. But the press doesn't earn money on those sales.
So if that's a best seller, what's a flop? 74 sales after five years (again, this number doesn't include what the author sold on his own, which was maybe 50 or so). (UPDATE: Gatza states, "In general, books by new authors sell around 25 - 30 copies." Shocking? Only if you don't know the first thing about poetry publishing.)
This is the reality of poetry publishing. There are certainly presses that sell more copies. A poetry title reviewed in The New York Times can sell 2-4k copies, it is true. But small, independent presses, those small shops, usually run by one or a few people, rarely see those kinds of sales. University presses, for the most part, don't see those kinds of numbers for poetry. I attended a panel by the publisher of Grove/Atlantic and he said his press' poetry sales was around 800 per title. They publish "big-name" poets, their books are often shelved by chain bookstores, they have good distribution, a strong reputation . . . and that's what they sell. Publishing poetry is their charity--their poetry titles are subsidized by their fiction and non-fiction sales.
This is why there are so many poetry contests. Because, in general, poets will spend a lot more money on their desire to be published than they will on poetry itself. Because the readership of poetry by non-poets is ridiculously tiny. When people don't believe me, I ask them how many poetry books did they buy in the past 10 years. Few can come up with one title.
If we're going to talk about ethics, I think giving a donation to a press that's publishing your book and supporting you as a writer is far more ethical than giving money to presses that likely won't read more than a few pages of your manuscript, that likely won't even forward your manuscript to the final judge(s) for consideration, that really have no interest in you or your work at all.
$250 to support a really good press that's going to support you as a writer (if we're going to be all capitalist about it, a press that is going to be give you ALOT more value than $250) or entering 10 contests where your manuscript many never once be seriously considered. If we're going to use terms like "scam" -- what's the scam here? What's not transparent? A publisher wants to publish your work, he asks for a donation--you have the choice to say yes or no. You can walk away, no harm, no foul (except maybe to your precious ego). If you say yes, you know you're getting a book from a press that has a proven track record of publishing good books. When you send that check into a contest--what do you know? Do they tell you who has read your manuscript? How many pages? Do contests ever write back to the folks who enter and say, "Hey, we're never in a million years going to publish this manuscript, so save your money and don't enter next year?" No, those people who never had a chance will get an announcement about next year's contest. And then the contest after that.
I haven't entered a contest in over 7 years, yet a week doesn't go by where I don't receive an announcement imploring me to enter or help promote a book contest. Can we be that critical of these presses? Let's be honest, most poets entering these contests know little to nothing about the presses they hope will publish them. Few have purchased or even seen previous titles published by these presses. The cycle can't exist without participants. Lucky for the cycle there are plenty of participants to go around. Long live the cycle! Oh, it will, it certainly will.
I had a successful money job in the '90s. Because I saved some of my earnings from that job, I was able to put roughly $25k of my own money into No Tell Books over the past 5 year. That's money gone, most of which I'll never get back. Most people aren't able to do that. Most people who are able to do that, would not. They are smarter or more savvy and put that money into their homes or travel or their children's college education or pretty much anything else. I am wildly fortunate and probably have a touch of the crazy. In 12 years when my son goes off to college and I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to pay for it all, I may curse this entire publishing venture. I may wish that I asked for donations. Or maybe even held a contest.
What occurs to me is that it makes less and less sense for poets to seek publishers at all. Since there is no money in poetry publishing, little prestige and perks for publishing poetry, an intense requirement to invest one's own time, energy and often money -- and doing so opens one up oneself up to all kinds of scrutiny and criticism about how one is managing to do the MIRACULOUS TASK OF PUBLISHING POETRY-- why would ANYBODY want to publish someone else's poetry? Aside from having a touch of the crazy?
More poets need to be publishing their own poems, books, projects, etc. We need to get back to focusing on the poetry itself instead of HOW it's being shared and distributed. Truth is readers don't care if the work was subsidized by the author or not, it's not a factor in what they chose to read or buy. It's not something that crosses their minds.
Let us be artists and create art and share it however we can. Let us not worry ourselves with other artists' methods of sharing. Let us save our disdain for the works themselves. Like God wants us to do.
Editor & Publisher of No Tell Books