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Small Presses & Self-Publishers: Enemies? Or Half-Siblings?


[clock] 15-MINUTE READ PUBLISHED: October 15, 2012

Gmail Ads for Self-Publishing

Help me out with a little experiment, ye avid consumers of the fine arts: open up your Gmail account (if you have one) and take a look at that one-line ad at the top of your inbox. Is it a self-publishing link? If not, refresh the browser. How about now? Still no?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll get a self-publishing advertisement within five reloads. That translates to a hell of a lot of ads! The evidence greets us every day: self-publishing is a booming business. And these companies—or at least Google—view us as part of the potential market.

Or do they? Clearly Google’s algorithms just aren’t up to snuff, right? Obviously they can’t distinguish between you—a connoisseur with literary taste—and your grandmother who occasionally sends you her latest masterpiece of rhymed verse about her cat, and who lost five thousand dollars last year when she happened upon an investment opportunity with a Nigerian prince.

Except we’re talking about Google here, which is the closest not-imaginary entity there is to God. Since Google ads only collect fees when a link is clicked, that means you can bet your ass that the advertisement is, indeed, intended for you. You—can you believe it?!?—who got that nice note that one time from an editorial assistant at the New Yorker, which when you’re drunk or downhearted enough you claim was a note from the editor him/herself (haha, just kidding: obviously himself). How insulting.

It’s easy to regard these companies as snake oil salesmen who—unlike literary and trade publishers, of course—have no interest in quality and are just out to make a buck by preying on ignorant or delusional self-proclaimed geniuses. But it’s way more complicated than that. Publishers, writers, and readers alike really need to sit down and take this trend seriously, rather than using the poetry.coms and AuthorHouses of the world as straw-men, scapegoats, piñatas, or other bludgeonable what-have-yous in the same tired and ineffectual arguments about how the Internet is ruining the publishing industry.

For the same reasons that web developers often look to porn sites (uh, well okay, there are other reasons web developers look at porn sites) because the porn industry pioneers some of the most successful web-development and marketing techniques, we should all take a good look at these companies—not to “lower ourselves to their level,” but because these companies indicate irreversible changes in publishing. And if publishers play their cards right, these changes could result in a renaissance of literature, rather than its oft-oracled destruction.

The Causes of the Publishing Apocalypse
The causes you’ve heard before go like this:

  1. Nobody reads anymore.
  2. Big publishing houses ate themselves alive by buying out the smaller publishers that were the lifeblood of literature, and then enslaving those imprints to the whims of the marketplace.
  3. Big Bad Amazon came along and destroyed the small bookstores that were vital to publishers’ distribution networks, and then double-screwed them by attempting to cut out the publishers as middlemen.

Point one is patently untrue. More people read than ever before, just not books per se, so we need to redefine or repackage “the book.” Points two and three aren’t wrong—they’re right in many respects—but they don’t constitute the full story. Besides, point three is essentially irrelevant: publishers aren’t victims of big-business capitalism, they simply haven’t adapted very well to technological change. They failed to present a more literary-minded alternative that could hold its own against Amazon, which is part of what allowed Amazon to take over.

Back in the day, it literally paid for a writer to get his or her book picked up by a big-name press. It still does, to some extent. But six-figure (or at least high five-figure) book deals aren’t nearly as common now, even with inflation. Furthermore, writers needed those publishers to successfully advertise and distribute their work. Not so, anymore. And indeed the Internet is to blame, though “blame” isn’t the right word.

First, desktop publishing software and digital printing have made it possible for anyone to start a press, while e-books have begun to make literal “presses” irrelevant. Suddenly big-name publishers can’t control the marketplace in the way they once could—there are so many new competitors!—so they can’t offer as many huge advances because their ability to force a book’s popularity has disappeared. (The music industry, as I’ve written about elsewhere, is a good corollary for this.) Publishers also can’t afford to pay for an author’s reading tour, in the way they once could, nor to do as much advertising and marketing as before: it just isn’t as likely to pay off. Publishing has become a riskier business, for all parties involved.

The Internet also makes advertising more cost-effective, democratizing the marketplace even further: no more need for expensive mass-mailings or print advertisements that often require an inside connection at a trade journal’s ad department. E-mail, Google Ads, Facebook Ads, etc. don’t discriminate between small and large publishers, and their costs are extremely low. So anyone now has the means to advertise effectively, using demographics data that far surpasses that of the major publishing houses in its exactitude and effectiveness. The amount of capital required, up front, to publish a book has taken a serious (and awesome) nosedive.

And then there’s the doozey: because of the Internet, distribution doesn’t matter as much anymore, either. Nobody needs to go to a bookstore to purchase a book; anyone can buy it directly from a publisher, online, or from a third-party site like Amazon. So those networks and contact lists that publishers once cherished and guarded have become increasingly irrelevant.

But let’s reiterate: Amazon is just the face of a change that was, and is, inevitable. While it might be cool to go back to an era where urgent communiqués were distributed by pneumatic tube, it’s not practical and it’s just not going to happen. By which I mean, we can’t erase the changes brought about by the Internet, either. Publishing houses might complain about Amazon because it’s the most visible and immediate actor in this change, but when they gripe and groan about hard times caused by the online marketplace, they’re essentially complaining that not enough people hand-write letters or own fax machines anymore. And that argument should be offensive to most small presses and journals, which have benefited immensely from the rise of online publishing and distribution.

Oops, Just Kidding: Not the Apocalypse
Fervent and educated scholars of the Mayan civilization be damned, the world will not end this December. Nor is literary publishing doomed; it’s just fine. In fact, it could be better than ever, if small and large publishers make a greater effort to scout tech-savvy editors and publicists, in the same way that some small presses and newer magazines already have.

Actually, literary publishing already is doing better than ever. As I mentioned in my last VQR post, the number of literary presses and magazines has exploded in recent years. In that previous context, I was playing the devil’s curmudgeonly advocate, but I’ll flip my rhetoric here to say that the publishing world is now full of nonprofit (or no-profit) presses who just want to put good work into the world. And that’s a great thing, despite my prior nay-saying.

Yeah, it’s true, writers don’t get paid like they used to. And yeah, they have to do a lot of marketing themselves, and finance their own book tours. Both of these developments are sad, and we should all support publishers who make it a goal to fund their writers as much as possible; I’m not suggesting otherwise.

But let’s take note, too: this profitlessness and dedication to quality publishing has had positive effects, not just negative ones. Amazon is a near-monopoly (not to mention, as Charlie Stross has argued, a near-“monopsony”), but an equal or almost-equal cause of the big-publishing-houses’ recent struggles has been these small, profitless presses who are reclaiming the space that the big houses absorbed and destroyed back in the mid-to-late nineties and early oughts. This wouldn’t have been possible without the same technological advances that led to the rise of Amazon—the two just can’t be separated.

We might scoff at the self-publishing companies I mentioned at the start of this post, but here’s the reality: many small presses resemble those companies in more ways than they’d like to admit. I don’t mean this as a criticism of those small presses; I just think we’d all benefit from a more honest understanding of our current moment in publishing.

When self-publishers ask for money up-front from an author, as a prerequisite for publication, they’re not doing anything so different from what most small, respected literary publishers already do. How many presses and magazines fund themselves through contest fees, for instance? If you don’t already know the answer, I’ll tell you: almost all of them. Is collecting smaller amounts of money from potential contributors (and then denying 99.5% of them publication) really so much more honorable than asking authors to pay for their production costs in full?

Consider, too, how many of those contest entrants have no chance whatsoever at winning. If you’ve ever screened entries for a book prize then you know just how large this number is. These individuals submit to many, many prizes, year after year, and they likely spend more money doing so than they would have spent by going through a self-publisher in the first place. Eventually, some of these individuals do self-publish, but only after they’ve been milked for cash by small literary presses for a few years.

As e-publishing begins to dominate the literary marketplace, it will become more and more difficult to distinguish between self-publishers and literary presses, in terms of their funding structures. Literary presses will find it harder to justify contest fees, because a book’s “production costs” will be close to nothing. If presses maintain those fees, there will be no denying that a significant portion of contest proceeds go to the editors’ salaries, unless a lion’s share of those production savings are flipped into contributor payments.

Of course, I don’t mean to gloss over some of the more obvious distinctions between self-publishing and small-press publishing. Self-publishers don’t screen submissions, whereas literary publishers do, and this is a crucial difference of philosophy that we should maintain, at all costs. But we should also acknowledge that the distinction can get mighty blurry.

Slightly more than a year ago, a press called BlazeVox found itself at the uncomfortable edge between self-publishing and small-press publishing. The press was “cash-poor,” and while they screened submissions in a way that self-publishing presses don’t—by definition—they also asked for money from accepted authors in the same way that self-publishing presses do, to finance the production of each book. The size of the press’s annual catalog was also suspiciously large for an emerging publisher, leading many to wonder if the press’s screening process might be so loose that BlazeVox effectively was a self-publisher.

When the news broke, it was a total scandal; the whole literary community was pissed. And the online brouhaha which followed was a clear illustration that the majority of writers still perceive a massive gulf—both in philosophy and in business practices—between self-publishers and small-press publishers. In philosophy, they may be right. But in business practices? Sorry, not so much.

BlazeVox’s intentions, I believe, were good. They were hard-up, is all. They had poor business skills (a trait most literary-minded people share, let’s be honest), and they attempted to grow the size of their catalog before they had the money or quality of submissions they needed to do so. But should BlazeVox have folded, then and there, when they didn’t have the money to print the following year’s titles? Is that what we want? Really? If you say “yes,” then think long and hard about a world where the only books that get published are those whose editors feel confident about recouping their production costs from sales. Because that’s essentially what you’re asking for. And most literature of significance doesn’t do so well when it’s first released: it takes years. Decades, even.

The Post-Apocalyptic Future of Literary Publishing
Okay, let’s wrap this up before I get totally off-topic. How does literary publishing rally in such a way that self-publishing presses and their Amazon-sponsored look-alikes don’t pose a threat to the visibility and success of Good Writing?

1. They make better use of the technology that supposedly killed literary publishing in the first place.
Google ads. Facebook ads. Mail-blast software. Easy online ordering. E-editions. They have to maintain active and engaged social networking profiles, too. They need to make themselves as visible as those self-publishers and Amazon imprints.

Small publishers already have the means to do all of this, and many of them are already doing it, though they could stand to do more. Even this past week, a very reputable literary publisher (whom I love… please don’t hate me, unnamed reputable literary publisher) wrote to the CLMP listserv asking whether email-blast marketing might be more effective than mass postal mailings. And I thought, seriously? You have to ask this question, in 2012?

2. There is still a contingent of presses and publishers who bristle at the idea of “branding,” “marketing,” and the lot. Stop it.
This is especially true of university presses, and English departments in general (though that’s another post). They (you) need to get over that. I mean, seriously: you’re a publisher, not a religion. This notion that literary publishers should be “above” basic business practices is honorable insofar that it’s an extension of a commitment to quality at all costs. But in every other way, the notion is absurd, and it turns a blind eye to the outdated marketing efforts that literary presses already perform, without thinking much about them. (i.e. press releases and postal mass-mailings.)

3. Just get your heads out of the book.
I mean this in two ways. Marketing has moved online, and books themselves are beginning to become electronic, so publishers need to stop thinking so much about paper and glue, which are expensive and often not worth the cost.

But I also mean, get your heads out of “The Book.” The rules of publishing have gone out the window in the past decade, and if you look to past publishers for answers to your financial and marketing woes, you’re going to fail. Look at other cultural producers instead. Music. Television. Film. Podcasts. Standup Comedy. Change the game. Because if you don’t, it will change without you. It already has.

Next Year’s Model
New models for publishing have already been born, and in a few years’ time, we may feel silly for our fears about the death of literary publishing. I invite you all to posit examples of these new models in the comments section of this post, but in closing I’ll leave you with three that I’ve recently stumbled upon myself, while doing marketing research for my own literary startup (ahem, yes, I know: shameless self-promotion):

Plympton is a publishing company that is trying to bring back the idea of serialized fiction, appealing both to the new-media idea of online-only content, and the old idea of the “serial novel” that strikes a chord with the more traditional-minded literary set. If the success of their Kickstarter campaign is any indication, they’re going to make a big splash that might redefine the medium.

Foxing Quarterly is a print-only journal that is using the conventions of social networking to gain traction. They show that, despite my tech-minded proclamations in this post, New Publishing (Can I coin that? Am I coining that?) doesn’t have to look so different than Old Publishing, in terms of its product.

Writers Bloq isn’t a press or publisher (though they could easily move that way, if they wanted). Rather, they are trying to create a social network for writers, and to overhaul or replace the (frankly antiquated) “agent”-system in fiction. They are doing, in a sense, what the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses should have done a long time ago: fostering and enabling a network of young writers who can serve as an audience, a test-market, an advertising team, and a contributor base simultaneously.

The future of small-press and literary publishing is a hell of a lot brighter than many would have us believe. We’ll get there, but to get there we need to let go of our antiquated notions about what it means to publish literature, and what separates us (or should separate us) from the self-publishers, the big evil publishing houses, and the bigger, eviler Amazons.

Answer: not a whole lot.

———

Sean BishopSean Bishop (@SB_Bishop) teaches in the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin. He is the founding editor of Better: Culture & Lit and the former managing editor of Gulf Coast. His poems have appeared in AQR, Best New Poets, Boston Review, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Salt Hill, and elsewhere.

31 Comments

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Brett Ortler's picture
Great piece. I agree that the future (and present) of literary publishing is quite bright. Even though I was in the middle of the Blazevox fiasco, I’m quite glad they didn’t fold and that they got themselves on better financial footing. An unrelated question: What do you think about literary magazines that charge reading fees?
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Sean Bishop's picture
Hi Brett. Glad you like it! I think literary magazines and presses should avoid reading fees, whenever possible. But “possible” is the key word there, and “possible” looks very different depending on the angle from which you view it. I actually don’t think it’s so terrible for presses and magazines to charge reading fees and contest fees—most editors work their butts off for nothing or next-to-nothing, so I think it’s reasonable for them to charge reading fees if the purpose is to offset the overhead costs of publishing in the first place. Which is why I don’t think the BlazeVox fiasco should have been a fiasco. It wasn’t the greatest business model (to put it kindly), but neither was it unethical, to my mind. In my own editorial work, the major priorities are (1) covering basic overhead and production costs (including marketing and advertising costs), (2) paying contributors, and then (3) providing stipends, however small, to editors and submissions screeners. If a press has no other means of covering overhead, then I think it’s okay to charge reading fees until the press finds another way to break even (although, for the record, my own current publishing venture doesn’t charge reading fees even though we have to pay all of our production, hosting, and advertising costs out of pocket). I even think it’s okay, up to a point, for a press to charge contest/reading fees if that’s the only way a press can pay contributors. But I draw the line at priority three—I would never consider charging general reading fees if I or my editors collected stipends or salaries. But even that last point is just a personal choice, really. The sad truth is that most presses have to choose between undervaluing their editors and undervaluing the people who submit work to them. I don’t think it’s fair to prioritize one over the other, though the general expectation/assumption is that writers deserve to be paid before editors.
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CrabbyAbby's picture
CrabbyAbby · 3 years ago
What I object to in this is that it removes the possibility that writers can be writers without also being “businesspeople.” One of the beauties of being a writer–a beauty that even my undergraduate students appreciate, seemingly instinctively–is that it allows us to put at least a little distance between ourselves and the constant drone of capitalism in the background. If you ask me, that’s the “religion,” a damn sight more than anything that goes on in English departments–and this article insists that we accept its god as our personal lord and savior.
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SoMuchforArt's picture
SoMuchforArt · 3 years ago
I think Sean Bishop ought to consider teaching in an MBA program instead of an MFA program. Thanks to articles like this one, this blossoming online start-up market you describe with so much optimism will lose its “independence” in about five seconds: we’re all bloggers now, and no, we’re not readers so much as self-promoters and readers of self-promotion. This cozy little scene you imagine as consisting of writers getting on board the choo-choo train of technological progress is more accurately described as emptying our pockets and lying on the tracks.
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Sean Bishop's picture
CrabbyAbby and SoMuchforArt: I think you’re misreading the audience here. By which I mean, you think I’m talking to you, when I’m not (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQZmCJUSC6g#t=00m52s). I can’t say for certain that I’m NOT talking to you, of course, since you’ve chosen to remain anonymous, but the “you” and the “we” to which I’m referring in this essay are PUBLISHERS, not writers. And this is a post about the publishing industry, not about how writers should prioritize their lives. For the record, yes, I agree: writers should care first and foremost about good writing. And it should not be necessary to be businessy and to self-promote (though that’s increasingly the world we live in, let’s be honest). I’m pretty unclear about the mechanism by which my article leads to publishers “losing their independence,” SoMuchforArt. I mean, I’m flattered that you think I have such immense influence, but even if that were the case, I’m advocating that small publishers get more business-smart so that they can fund themselves in ways that will make them MORE independent, put LESS financial burden on contributors, and that will make them more able to publicize their authors, while potentially paying their authors more. This notion that understanding and making use of basic business practices will make us all slaves to capitalism is frankly asinine, and makes me suspect that you are both fifteen-year-old boys who think spray-painting an Anarchy symbol on the window of the Poetry Foundation is somehow a respectable and subversive act. I mean, is This American Life just a capitalist pawn? Are any of the many, many successful podcasts and arts organizations that have benefited from services like Kickstarter? No. They’re not. But they understand fundraising and advertising a hell of a lot better than most literary publishers, which is what lets them pay their contributors and their producers/founders/editors what they deserve. Also, exactly how am I advocating that writers “empty their pockets” and commit suicide? I feel like I’m responding to criticisms of an essay I didn’t write—an essay that nobody has written.
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Stephen Tiano's picture
As a freelance book designer, I’ve seen my business march away from traditional publishers and straight into the arms of self-publishers. I’m not naive. I realize a lot of that is what a tightly run business traditional publishers are sticking to nowadays, not taking chances with virgin authors. But I’m also mindful of the old saw, The power of the press belongs to those who own the press. I really do see authors in growing numbers who have a more complete picture of what they want their books to be, who don’t end their work once the book is written.
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SoMuchforArt's picture
SoMuchforArt · 3 years ago
I guess it was the “Self” in “Small Presses & Self Publishers: Enemies or Half-Siblings” that made me think your audience included writers and not just publishers. If “good business practices” and self-promotion are increasingly the world we live in—and I agree that they are—you’re not making that world any more hospitable for writers by endorsing a business model that increasingly relies on money-from-writers’-pockets to succeed. (If that’s *not* what you’re endorsing you could have fooled me).To say that “publishers need to stop thinking so much about paper and glue, which are expensive and often not worth the cost,” is not just about publishers, not just about business practices, but also about writers and readers, no matter how much you try to equivocate or separate the artists from their patrons, even as, I’m sure you know, a great number of editors, especially in the world of small presses, literary magazines, and online start-ups, are writers themselves. I think it’s fine for you to talk about fundraising, fine for you to talk about the many exciting ways in which the small presses are just small Amazons or vanity presses dressed up for a party—really, have a ball—but to pretend that you’re writing for an exclusive country club of well-intentioned, but too-idealistic publishers seems to me disingenuous at best and corrupt at worst. Whatever set of “business practices” publishers choose to endorse directly affects individual writers, their artistic lives, the measure of their success, and their ability—or inability—to write outside of market forces. But that’s obvious. You knew that, or you wouldn’t have written this article to begin with. What I object to in this piece is not so much the accuracy of its description of the publishing landscape—you’re right: the boundaries between literary publishing and self-publishing are increasingly blurred—but its insistence on celebrating those changes as inevitable, exciting, or even “sound.” I mean, fine: toss those moldy old books in the fire pit and kickstart your kickstarter and post your photo online and admire yourself in the mirror of your own computer screen and make a bunch of money and pass it all around to all those fine artists out there everywhere and market and trademark and brand your fool head off: just don’t pretend the overall project of literacy is better off as a result.
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Sean Bishop's picture
Sean Bishop · 3 years ago
Hi Stephen: yeah, freelancers always seem to get the short end of the stick, huh? But designers could potentially benefit from these changes, too. Part of my implied argument here (a part I’m beginning to see was misunderstood or didn’t come through very clearly) is that if literary publishers were better at marketing themselves, and were able to offer something that self-publishers don’t, then literary publishers would lose fewer writers to self-publishing. Especially as production costs begin to disappear, literary publishers will need to strengthen their marketing and advertising in order to offer something that self-publishers don’t. And as all designers know, one of the best ways to sell more books is to make them good-looking. Self-publishers (I know you know) don’t put a lot of effort into their covers, and typically require authors to make their own covers. So while it’s too early to say, we might see literary publishers put a higher premium on professional design, and divert the funds no longer spent on the physical production of a journal to hire designers like yourself who can make gorgeous, interactive and readable e-books.
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J Newton's picture
A helpful column. Thanks! She Writes Press is a brand new hybrid. It screens submissions (one of the editors, Brooke Warner, was a former editor at Seal Press) and it charges for services. Check it out: shewritespress.com/
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Sean Bishop's picture
Sean Bishop · 3 years ago
SoMuchForArt: I’m really confused about where you’re getting this stuff… I can’t help but feel that your reaction to the notion of publicity in general is so great that you weren’t able to get beyond it to hear what I was actually saying. I mean, I’m just guessing on that, based in part on your implication that a person interested in the business of writing can’t possibly also be interested in (or good at) the art of writing, and therefore shouldn’t be teaching in an MFA program. The two don’t exclude one another. Let’s not forget that T. S. Eliot was a banker, and Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. And Ezra Pound was both an artistic genius AND a networker and a marketing genius. And if you think that literature didn’t benefit from Pound’s networking and business-sense, then you should probably brush up on your Modernism. Regardless of whether you believe artistic and business minds are antithetical to one another, though, I imagine we can agree that publishers shouldn’t be afraid of learning how to better publicize their presses and authors, right? To suggest otherwise would mean ignoring the etymologies of “publisher” and “publicity” (which I should point out, to take another snarky stab at you, would be a very unwriterly and unartistic thing to do). I guess I’ll take your claims one by one and point to where I clarified myself to the contrary, in the essay itself? I don’t know what else to do. Maybe I’ll elaborate further, too, in case others have similarly misunderstood me. By “self-publisher” I meant the companies who put out ads like the ones VQR sampled at the top of the post, which I made even clearer in the first paragraph of my essay. I even gave two examples of what I meant by “self-publisher” (poetry.com and AuthorHouse). Individuals who pay “self-publishers” aren’t actually PUBLISHING the book themselves, after all, so the term “self-publisher” itself is kind of a misnomer. Those companies usually do the book layout, the printing, etc—not the author. I mean, that’s the whole point of those companies, right? But as more and more publishers rely on contest fees and reading fees, and as the world transitions to e-books, and as distribution becomes just as easy for individuals as self-publishers as literary publishers, the distinction between literary publishers and self-publishers does get a lot blurrier. My intention, in asking people to give self-publishers more serious consideration, and to actually sit down and compare the practices of self-publishers to those of literary publishers, was not at all to suggest that we abandon literary publishing for self-publishing. Rather, part of my point was to say “Danger! Danger! Literary publishing is veering toward self-publishing!” That’s why I said emphatically, in the essay itself, that “Self-publishers don’t screen submissions, whereas literary publishers do, and this is a crucial difference of philosophy that we should maintain, at all costs.” It’s also why I stated, “we should all support publishers who make it a goal to fund their writers as much as possible.” In other words: the reason we need to take a really close look at self publishers, rather than just brushing them off as insignificant snake oil salesman, is twofold: 1) to make sure literary publishers don’t effectively BECOME self-publishers, and 2) to take some of the strategies of self-publishers (Google Ads, Facebook Ads, branding and marketing language, etc.) and use them to literary publishers’ advantage. Wouldn’t it be nice to see an ad from Copper Canyon at the top of your Gmail, instead of for poetry.com? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that your book, picked up by a literary press, was being promoted and advertised to people whom Copper Canyon might not know, but whom Facebook and Google know about because those people regularly discuss “poetry” or “fiction” online? What’s so unacceptable about using those technologies to our advantage? Is it because you think it distracts from time-spent-writing? Because you couldn’t be more wrong—Google’s and Facebook’s algorithms make it so you DON’T need to think as much about marketing, and publishers DON’T need to obsessively look for new potential demographics. If literary presses became better marketers, and used the self-publishers’ methods in order to sell their AUTHORS, rather than just the press itself (which is all self-publishers do), then it would actually take pressure OFF authors to self-promote… which seems like something that you, SoMuchforArt, could really get behind. I made a list of three strategies that literary publishers can learn from self-publishers (see the second-to-last section), but none of those strategies translated to less financial support for authors, or anything that would seem to throw writers under the bus. So I really just don’t understand how you misread the ways in which I think literary publishers can learn from self-publishers, if you actually read the essay. I numbered them, and put them in bold. I couldn’t have been clearer. I also pointed out one area where writers will probably benefit directly from e-publishing. When production costs disappear, that money can go elsewhere, and a good deal of it might go to the writers themselves. That, at least, is what I meant to imply when I said, “If presses maintain [their contest/reading] fees, there will be no denying that a significant portion of contest proceeds go to the editors’ salaries, unless a lion’s share of those production savings are flipped into contributor payments.” … I am not writing for an “exclusive country-club”, and never said I was. The only reason I published this essay on VQR, and the only reason VQR wanted to run it, is because we VQR’s editors and myself already know that a huge portion of writers are also editors, or are involved in some other way in publishing. I am talking to those writer/editors, about EDITING. If it’s an exclusive country club, then somebody owes a whole lot of us a lot of fancy cocktails. Which brings me to your final points, where I think we may just disagree, but I’ll try to explain my reasoning further just in case you (or some other skeptic reading this) can be convinced. You’re right, I think that a lot of these changes are inevitable, because like most people I believe in supply and demand. To believe in supply and demand is not to be some kind of awful capitalist—Marx believed in supply and demand, too. It exists. It’s real… E-books are cheaper than paper books, both to buy and to produce, and they are increasingly just as easy as (if not easier than) paper-and-ink books to obtain and to carry around. There’s no fighting that, and there’s no way to make paper-and-glue books cheaper than e-books; they require more resources. The same goes for online marketing and online sales: they are cheaper, faster, and easier for all parties involved, and they make more efficient use of physical space in an increasingly crowded world. You can’t change that, and you can’t rewind the tape. If you can tell me one technological advancement that made everyday life cheaper, quicker, and easier for the majority of people, and did not infringe upon anyone’s human rights or personal liberties, but was permanently shot down because of some kind of philosophical principal, then I’m all ears. Finally, can you really not see how resources like Kickstarter, online advertising, and online distribution have helped literature? They’ve democratized publishing in a way that’s completely unprecedented. They’ve given a community of educated, dedicated writers the means to stand behind, promote, and make available to the world works that otherwise never would have been published. Fewer Shakespeares are unsung now. And while in another VQR blog post I’ve already written about some of the ways that these developments are dangerous, they’re not dangerous for the reasons you seem to be citing.
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SoMuchforArt's picture
SoMuchforArt · 3 years ago
I wrote this–below–before I read your latest reply–above–so I’m sure I’ll have more to say later on, not that this is necessarily a worthwhile or useful conversation. It seems to me sort of like shouting into the wind, in any case. But I’m sure after I’ve had a chance to re-read and digest what you’ve written–above–I’ll have some additional comments. And for the record, I did read your original blog post, twice, though maybe I shouldn’t have, I don’t know. For me, it’s impossible not to see all these wonderful cultural forces you lump into the category “good business practices” as a drastic and impoverished devaluation of artistic writing. Put another way, your argument here reminds me too much of all those students who complain their textbooks cost too much and then don’t read them. (This is not to say you don’t read; I’m quite sure that you do). What’s happened to the publishing landscape seems to me in many ways a direct and unfortunate outgrowth of writers having to use the same tool—computers—to try to carve out a separate, autonomous space for turning language into some kind of powerful “experience” at the exact same time those same tools—computers—became spaces for mass-connection and mass-production. (Imagine if a painter working on a large and ambitious project ended up, whether she wanted to or not, taking periodic breaks to look inside the handle of her paintbrush only to see all the other struggling painters out there, not painting, really, but shouting their own names to anyone who would listen). I think what each of us has in mind as an ultimate goal for writers AND publishers—artistic freedom coupled with financial solvency—is the place where we agree; it’s just that you’re willing and in fact happy to swallow what I consider poison to get there. A book—or a print magazine—is an artifact, one that requires a great deal of care (and yes, expense) to produce and distribute. What, exactly, is wrong with that? If, as you suggest, the internet has allowed for all this wonderful money-saving in terms of the cost of production, where, exactly, is all that money going? Not into the pockets of writers, or at least not that I can tell. (If it were, in fact, going into writers’ pockets, we wouldn’t have to pay $3 every time we wanted the pleasure of having our work “read” by god-knows-who, often a staff of unpaid and extremely anxious graduate students). If a downloaded icon from CoolGuyPress costs nothing save the internet connection—or maybe something like $1.50 so as to “put more money into publicity”—consumers, or readers whoever-they-are, have the impression the work contained therein is only worth about a dollar fifty, less than a loaf of bread, the cost of a second-run movie, who-the-fuck cares. Click. Look. Appraise. This is junk. This guy’s a genius. Who cares. Next. If a book costs $20 to buy—and here I don’t even care how much it costs to produce—maybe the consumer, the reader, can tear herself away from electricity long enough to think, long enough to have some kind of (possibly meaningful) experience, long enough to admire the writer, long enough to tell other people the writer’s work has value beyond the quick fix.
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SoMuchforArt's picture
SoMuchforArt · 3 years ago
In honor of the great wonders of The Internet, I’m going to write the following comment(s) in the manner of smart-ass Internet-posters everywhere–that is to say, I’m going to try to be brief, clever, and vaguely hostile, an experiment, I guess, though I’m perfectly willing to concede it will fail. How do you know fewer Shakespeares are unsung now-? You don’t know. That’s what it means to be unsung: no one is singing. I didn’t understand–or you didn’t make clear–that you, in some ways at least, were were warning literary publishers *against* many of the business practices we generally deplore when self-publishers use them. In other words, I can get behind the “danger! danger!” part of your argument, at least as long as I think that’s what you really meant. The country club thing was just a turn of phrase. I was trying to get at the very obvious notion that you really cannot write to an audience of publishers without the knowledge writers are by definition part of that audience. I’m sure you and the entire staff of VQR all, are, in your own ways, down with the people. I think it’s only a matter of time before I see ads for Copper Canyon and VQR and Super-Duper-Cool-Guy-Press in my Gmail account; I just don’t know that I’ll be all that happy about it, especially if the only way I can read the books involves a laptop or a Kindle or a Nook or a Kindle2 or a Nook2 or a “micro-payment” meant to defray the cost of publicizing the author, not her work but the author-as-persona, a flat image on a screen who looks really-really smart and/or sexy, someone I’d like to emulate or at least kiss up to, maybe he/she has his/her own online litmag, somewhere I’d like to publish, another networking opportunity, just like Pound would do, only faster and with more moving images. (See, I don’t need to brush up on my Modernism after all; Me and Modernism are BFFs). I agree publishers should publicize writers. More and more of that publicity is moving online, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. That migration was happening and will continue to happen whether or not you espouse its virtues or I denounce the way it cheapens the artistic process for writers and readers. I guess that’s why this conversation seems to me more or less useless, depressing, a dead end. That you think online publishing is so democratic only depresses me more. Hello, hello out there, Internet-? Anybody out there-? Can you heeeeear me-e-e?? Not a chance.
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Sean Bishop's picture
Sean Bishop · 3 years ago
SoMuchforArt: I think I’m nearing the end of my patience with much of this, but you’ve made a couple comments here that do deserve a response. I’m most interested in this question: “If, as you suggest, the internet has allowed for all this wonderful money-saving in terms of the cost of production, where, exactly, is all that money going? Not into the pockets of writers, or at least not that I can tell.” It’s a fair point, and one that I probably should have addressed in the essay itself (although 3,000 words is already epicly long for a blog post, and I can only anticipate/address so many counter-arguments before my actual argument gets lost… as apparently it did anyway). Part of the answer to your question, actually, is what prompted me to write this essay in the first place: the Internet DOES provide the means for literary publishers to save (and make) more money, but most literary publishers are very very bad at taking advantage of those resources. They continue to pay for mass-mailings when email blasts would be cheaper and just as effective, for example. And very few of them take advantage of the online ads that could secure them more subscribers, etc. It’s a situation where the technology is there, but the people who stand to benefit the most from it are not taking advantage of it, because they remain ignorant about it or because they feel above it somehow. The other answer to your question isn’t very satisfying, but I do think it’s true: these cost-saving technologies and resources became widely available at roughly the same moment that the entire economy went into the shitter. A lot of magazines (TriQuarterly being the one that immediately springs to mind) have gone bankrupt in the past few years, but were able to switch to an online format rather than disappearing entirely. By which I mean, writers aren’t making more money than they were ten years ago because NOBODY is—we’re in the middle of a near-economic-collapse that these technologies have reduced the impact of, but can’t be expected to correct. As for some of your other points: my understanding of the phrase “unsung Shakespeare” is that it refers to individuals who have talent, but do not have the education to foster that talent or the means to make it available to the public. More people have access to an education in creative writing now, and more people are able to publish. The Shakespeares are singing. Whether or not anyone is listening, you’re right, is more difficult to discern. But I think they are. The notion that readers need to make a sacrifice—to pay enough money that it hurts— in order to take sincere and engaged interest in a piece of writing is truly sad and I don’t think it can be backed up. At all. Certainly I’m not making the claim that my essay is a work of longstanding significance, but let’s not gloss over the fact that you got to read it for free, you apparently read it twice, and then you spent a good chunk of the day in an active discussion with its author about its implications and underlying philosophies. That seems pretty engaged to me. Also: do you think it was EASIER to be heard, as an emerging writer like (I’m fairly certain) yourself, before the Internet? Really? And how did that work, exactly? If it’s true that it was easier to be heard as a writer back then (and I don’t think it is), I’d guess it had more to do with there being fewer people who’d chosen to dedicate their lives to writing in the first place. And if technology is making everyone care less about reading and writing, and more about self-marketing, then how come people are applying to MFA programs in unprecedented numbers, and then going into debt and living in poverty to pursue a degree that will win them nothing in terms of job-security, just to have a couple years to devote to reading and writing? And finally, this idea of yours that being a successful writer these days has more to do with being attractive and good at self-promotion than being a good writer. The latter might be a little true, though only in the short-term. Good writing wins in the end. And as for the former—sorry, I don’t see it. One small example: the most popular poems featured in the first issue of my magazine have been Graham Foust’s… and no offense to Graham but I don’t think it’s because everyone’s dying to jump his bones. The poems aren’t sexy, and in the video he recorded he’s very clearly uncomfortable with the camera. But the poems are good. And good readers respond to good writing, first and foremost.
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CrabbyAbby's picture
CrabbyAbby · 3 years ago
“Publishers, writers, and readers alike really need to sit down and take this trend seriously …” There’s where I got the idea that you were not just talking about–and certainly not exclusively to–publishers. The first few paragraphs of the original post characterize, mockingly, a certain kind of “connoisseur with literary taste” who might also be packing a rejection slip or two–a writer. You seem to be exhorting that straw man to give up thinking himself above Google, “the closest not-imaginary entity there is to God” for its skillfulness at determining via algorithm that we do deserve those ads for self-publishing companies. That is an invitation to rearrange one’s priorities as well. But if you didn’t mean any of that, that’s fine with me. I hope you also don’t mean that you are encouraging a culture that drips with even more advertising than it currently does, if that’s possible, and it surely is; unfortunately I don’t see how you can possibly back out of that one.
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Stephen Tiano's picture
Sean, I’m afraid I rushed and spoke inelegantly and inaccurately (ultimately). I didn’t mean I lost business to self-publishers. I meant that my business from traditional publishers has been replaced by business from self-publishing authors … almost exclusively, aside from a few books from academic/university presses the past three or four years. Part of the confusion, I think, is that–correct me if I need it–it sounds like you use the phrase “self-publishers” to mean the companies that provide baskets of services (editorial, design, etc.) to self-publishing authors to get their books into print. But the real self-publishers are the authors publishing their own work, hence “self”. So I’m not saying freelancers–at least in my experience–are getting the short end of the stick. As with anything, quality at reasonable prices will out.
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Sean Bishop's picture
CrabbyAbby: well sure, I’m talking to readers and writers too in the sense that writers and readers should be informed employees/consumers of literature. Don’t you think writers should have some sense of what they do and don’t want in a publisher? Shouldn’t readers have some understanding of whom they order books from? But insofar as I’m giving advice in the essay, it’s advice to publishers. I think that’s pretty clear, and I’ve reiterated it to your friend in the comments above. If you can read a sentence like “Google is the closest not-imaginary entity there is to God” and think I’m wholeheartedly and sincerely behind all of the implications in that statement then your sarcasm detectors are seriously broken. I was speaking, specifically, of omniscience: Google can listen to everything being said online at once, and it uses self-improving algorithms that are able to make more and more sense of that info-flood every day. But it’s a tool. And aside from the very obviously sarcastic sentence you’re using against me, all I’m advocating as regards to Google is that publishers make better use of those tools, as a means of helping their authors. I think you just don’t like the jokey tone of my essay. God forbid (oops, wait, I meant Google forbid) that I try to have a little fun, to lighten the mood, to give a little ribbing to my readership while also trying to make a point. That “connoisseur with literary taste” to which you refer is as much ME as it is anyone else. And my comment about the New Yorker rejection is very literally aimed at myself, actually. I mean, I know others who’ve had similar experiences, but I literally did that exact scenario, once: got a nice note from a NYer personal assistant, got drunk at a party full of writers, and acted like it had been a bigger deal than it actually was. What writer hasn’t? Which is to say, I think you and SoMuchforArt both need to take yourselves—and probably everyone else—a lot less seriously. You are both astonishingly easy to offend. As for your advertising comment, I have several responses. One is that online ads are a hell of a lot less intrusive than TV ads or radio ads or billboards were/are—this imaginary scenario where soon we will all be plastered head-to-toe with logos like NASCAR drivers is a dystopic fantasy of the 1980s that has not—and will not—come to pass. Advertisers know better than anyone that a world “dripping with advertising” as you say is a world where nobody sells a goddamn thing because there’s too much noise. So it won’t happen. If you want to talk about straw men, then THAT scenario is the hay-glutted mother of them all. Second, a knee-jerk reaction against “advertising” in general becomes silly when those advertisements are increasingly tailored to your individual interests, based on actual conversations you’re having online. If you mention in a status update, “I can’t forget to apply to the Dorothy Prizes this year” and then the next day an ad reminding you of the Dorothy Prize deadline is sitting in a (fairly ignorable) column to the right of your Facebook page, it’s hard for me to imagine you’d have any right to be pissed off about that. That is to say, I don’t think advertising is just going to become haphazardly ubiquitous the way we imagined it in the 80s and 90s, it’s going to become more precise and targeted… in other words, more tuned to individuals’ actual interests. And I don’t see what’s to complain about there, unless… (Point Three) …unless you believe you are some kind of passive and helpless consumer who won’t be able to resist the wiles of an advertisement in which you don’t, in fact, have much interest or need. In which case I feel sorry for you. When you see a Miller Light billboard do you feel compelled to pull over and buy a sixer for the road, even though you don’t like beer? And just to reiterate: that billboard, like television ads and other technologies of the past, is a hell of a lot more intrusive than any of the advertising I advocated in this post.
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Brett Ortler's picture
“Which is to say, I think you and SoMuchforArt both need to take yourselves—and probably everyone else—a lot less seriously. You are both astonishingly easy to offend.” Yep. Hilariously so. Only in the poetry world does a level-headed and reasonable piece about the business of books immediately bring about all sorts of unfounded charges and dastardly intimations. Will respond to Mr. Bishop’s point/response about reading fees later this evening after the 9-5.
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SoMuchforArt's picture
SoMuchforArt · 3 years ago
I wasn’t at Northwestern when TriQuarterly went online, but something tells me you probably weren’t either—so maybe each of our opinions here are equally valid—but to suggest the Great Democratic Internet swooped in to rescue the magazine from oblivion seems to me ludicrous at best. Moving the magazine online was more likely a case of “best of bad options,” more to do with tight-fisted and unimaginative administrators than the economic downtown in general. I have similar misgivings about your suggestion that this same Wonderful-Wide-Web is responsible for the increase in MFA enrollment; here it seems to me much more likely a shrinking and less-profitable workforce meant more people wanted to go to school, not to mention the fact that writing is—or used to be—a way to avoid the slavery of “good business practices.” I wanted, too, to address your question about whether or not I “feel more heard” than I did before the mass migration from typeface to cyberspace began in earnest. (In other words, “are you better off now than you were ten years ago?”) As a writer, I seek out print magazines in favor of online venues, and I will continue to do so as long as it’s viable. I don’t make any claims to a “career trajectory,” not yet anyway—and I suppose part of what you’re doing here is trying to carve out one for yourself, and, truthfully, I don’t blame you for that; I mean, it’s a rough world out there—but I can say I feel more or less the same as I did ten years ago when it comes to how well I’m “heard;” that is to say, no one is (much) listening, just as they weren’t listening before, though, like you, I’m sure, I continue to cling to the sometimes untenable notion my talent will help me transcend all the silence/noise. As a reader though, I’ve suffered. And since the two are so intimately connected—or at least they’re supposed to be—my writing doubtless has suffered as well. I’m not offended by your essay any more than I’m offended by walking around in twenty-first century America, which is to say: I participate in it, I recoil from it, I think about it, and ultimately I just deal with it in the best way I can, much the same way you do, I’m sure. The difference—or at least one important difference—is I miss much of the (ad-free) silence I used to enjoy in the privacy of my own home, and all the exciting new online literary magazines and their good business practices won’t change that. Had this essay appeared in print and not online, I would not have spent all day yesterday arguing with you, and I would have been a lot better off for it. Maybe—probably—I would have talked about it (half an hour, tops) with some people I know, but I would not have been—as I was for much of the day yesterday—shackled to my computer. In any case, I’ll try not to begrudge you your more or less hollow cyber-renaissance, but maybe you could let me off the hook here and allow me to have the rest of the day—the rest of my life!—in boring old print media peace.
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CrabbyAbby's picture
CrabbyAbby · 3 years ago
I write one paragraph and I get back seven, at least two insinuations that I’m either stupid or insane, and one pretense of pity for da fool I am. Quite a return on my investment, ha. I got your “sarcasm.” I got it about the omniscience of Google. I have no idea why you thought (or hoped) I didn’t; it’s not difficult. Is your assumption that anyone who disagrees with you stupid or insane? It is not that I am “easily offended” (not a Victorian you may automatically disregard), but I am concerned about a too-muchness that is not in the future but has already happened and a marketing rhetoric that blasts through that relentlessly without noticing. The internet has been a part of my life for as long as it’s been a part of everyone’s; I had no choice but to dive in as required by the demands of the workplace and of “keeping up with the times,” which we all do, badly or well, whatever we think of it. I have even done my share of pooh-poohing those who didn’t even want to get on email (which meant I had to pooh-pooh some writers I would never have been able to criticize any other way), couldn’t figure out how to open an attachment, couldn’t figure out this and that because I usually could. This whole drama has been, in my estimation, neither pleasurable nor worthwhile. Most of the new stuff gets old fast, and it all causes a “speed-up”–everyone expected to do more all the time because It’s All So Easy Now! Two hours a day answering emails now used to be two hours I might’ve been writing instead and not worrying much about the requests I’d gotten on paper because nobody had very high expectations for immediate reply to those. Now sometimes I read blogs when I ought to be reading books; the social quality is too tempting to resist, but I feel smarter when I read work that someone actually worked on long enough to publish it the hard way. That is not the post-blog experience. But more and more I think maybe I should be writing one too–self-promotion, “let’s be honest,” is everywhere, and hey, why not? It’s not like I’m living the way I once could anyway. Just chain me to this keyboard, and make it all go really fast in a little window, so that I say things that aren’t quite right or that I have to take back, and other people can chime in and it will be a grand little party of non-literature. Why not? It’s only the one life you have, why not spend it like this? The techno-world has generated a very particular set of calls and responses. Every latest thing is announced with great excitement by its believers; they are enthusiasts, nonetheless assigning to themselves all the more modest qualities–like being “level-headed and reasonable”–and assigning the feminized, overemotional ones to the critics–too sensitive! Hilariously so! Likely to mistake a beer ad for a command that must be obeyed! (I know, “jokey.”) These waves of advertisement occur constantly now, with the release of every new model of every new device. Millions of people rush out to acquire them, some people get rich, some people feel fashionable, and the grocery stores put up talking billboards that shout at you when you pass that you need Tyson Chicken for Your Family. At the same time we are exhorted to “use less stuff” and not exploit other nations in our haste to supply ourselves; and add “sort your recycling” to the list of daily tasks that you can complete right after you’re done emailing (or blogging!), another price in wasted time we pay for our conveniences. You have heard some of that too, I’m sure. You said somewhere that you don’t know of any technological advances that made people’s lives cheaper etc. and didn’t infringe on personal liberties that have been undone; I can think of some that DO infringe on personal liberties that have not been undone. Personal liberties have become narrowly defined in this culture, partly due to capitalism, which has more or less replaced “personal liberties,” whatever they were, with personal marketing; just for instance, don’t try to take a week off of the “device” with its ads JUST FOR YOU or you’ll regret it when you return to all that spam it will take an hour (or more) to delete, and it wants to know where you are, too, with its appetite for data, all the more reason for it to pour it on so you dare not stay away long. But if you want technological advances that turned out to be really horrible mistakes-“cheap” or “convenient” or not–and were put on the back burner–there have been some of those too. Pharmaceutical inventions that kill more than cure; nuclear weapons, sort of; fossil fuel is going to have to join them at some point; the curtailment driven by the animal rights movement of experimentation on animals. So some technology-driven problems are stoppable after all; first somebody has to give up talking about how purely great they are, and that alone is so difficult that, as with all the examples I named, it helps to have some dead bodies to show. Damage that does not result in corpses may indeed be impossible to prove to the extent necessary to push back the ceaseless waves of marketing rhetoric; but absence of stiffs does not mean absence of trouble. Clearly those who take the full-on it’s-all-good-and-you-can’t-stop-it-anyway marketing approach believe they have something very valuable to gain that far outweighs the dismissible laments of those still capable of making them. Usually it’s money, or power over other people; in this case it’s neither of those, exactly. What happens if we “get our heads out of The Book”? I assume publication becomes a lot easier–not just for publishers but for writers too. Cheaper, easier, open the doors, that’s the whole idea, right? Who doesn’t want that? Maybe I stand alone in thinking that’s not really the best way to improve the literary world, but I’ve always thought it a fine thing to be forbidden from publishing my own work on my own dime, and though I have done my time suffering with the effort to publish the hard way, that generally has seemed to result in a stronger art overall, for me and everybody else. Nobody likes reading fees, and they do blur a certain distinction–but only the financial one, and even that is a bit of a stretch in that it’s significantly different to put some money into a common pursuit that is going to benefit someone who might not be you than to put it into one’s OWN pursuit with a predetermined outcome. I buy a lot of books in an attempt to support the industry so that it might support me and all my little friends in turn; is that suspect too? I thought it was a pretty good way to participate in what I care about without trying to change it so that it becomes smaller, cheaper, lesser. So there we have it, another chunk of time gone forever. It’s a good thing we’re immortal.
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Monette Bebow-Reinhard's picture
I’ve written a blog about this and am preparing a book fest on the topic, so I am going to study this in earnest. But I have to speak out now, that there is a very simple answer to this seemingly pointless question. It is still an honor to be accepted by any publisher who accepts a small ratio of total submissions, regardless of how much they offer in terms of promotion. It is still an honor to be accepted by ANY publisher who doesn’t accept everyone, or charge you anything. Contests aside, if you have to pay to publish and no one cares about the quality of your work, you are self-publishing, even if you’ve had 50 editors make sure the piece is brilliant. In contests, you still don’t win if you’re not good enough. ‘Nuff said.
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Sean Bishop's picture
Monette: wait, which question is that? There’s no real either/or posed in this blog post, just a compare and contrast.
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Monette Bebow-Reinhard's picture
The question is perhaps one I read into it - but I do believe there is this distinct difference between traditional and self-publishing, and as you say, comparison and contrast. I think perhaps we try to muddy the waters too much by comparing apples to oranges. The distinct difference remains. Right?
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Sean Bishop's picture
Monette: I’m not sure the difference is so distinct, actually. Especially when you consider how many presses out there publish friends or friends of friends of the editors, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but is yet another indicator that there just isn’t a black and white, apples and oranges distinction. Even at most respected literary publishers, some portion of the authors get through the door without being vetted through any (hypothetically) democratic process. I feel that your certainty of a clear distinction between self-publishers and literary presses might be based on your imagination of how the two work, rather than an actual familiarity with the practices of each. Or to consider how the lines blur from the other direction—even many self-publishers screen some authors in the sense that they often don’t publish egregiously racist or excessively pornographic works. So there’s a gray area of selectivity between self-publishers and literary publishers… it’s not just an issue of “self-publishers publish anything, while literary publishers evaluate everything in an unbiased way based on literary merit.” The point of this essay was in part to show how, in terms of business practices, self-publishers and literary presses aren’t so distinct. At a certain point you have to wonder: if it looks, swims, and quacks like a duck, but has the heart or brain of a swan… does that make it a swan? At the moment, we’re not in immediate danger of mistaking ducks for swans, but the industry has been moving toward a situation where that might come to pass. Or to look at it metaphorically from another, more timely angle: extreme leftists (anarchists) and extreme, uh, rightists(?) (libertarians) arrive at near-identical political models from polar-opposite philosophies and ways of thinking. Here again: if the underlying philosophy or inner workings of a system are opposite, but the results are identical, how much does the underlying principal really matter? I’m not sure that it does. The hearts of self-publishers and literary presses may be in totally different places, but in many other ways they are increasingly difficult to distinguish from one another. And that’s significant. It’s not something that can or should be brushed off so lightly, as “nuff said,” in my opinion.
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Monette Bebow-Reinhard's picture
I got a response on my email but don’t see it here. I know that there are all kinds of different presses today. But I’m looking at a cut and dry definition - self-publishing, you pay and nothing is turned away; and then there are the rest of them. I will not post here again until I’ve had time to read the article. Thanks. I really am trying to learn. I put up a short story at Amazon and consider that self-publishing, too - because everything is accepted and no editing is offered - the pay is in the cut they get for just having it out there. A different kind of self-publishing where nothing is paid in advance. What I think weakens our writing endeavors is the ability to put out first or second low quality drafts and call ourselves authors.
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Cynthia Hartwig's picture
Cynthia Hartwig · 3 years ago
Well written and well argued piece, Sean. Could you weigh in on an issue relating to contests that bugs me? I don’t object to contests and fees as a source for revenue for lit mags and presses. But I see a lot of “contest deadline extended!” notices which is just a bald way of saying “we didn’t make our revenue numbers.” Writer’s Digest just announced an extension and Summer Literary Festivals does this regularly. Thoughts (on this side issue to your main point?)
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Kristopher Monroe's picture
The comparison to the music industry is incredibly apt I think. It’s always funny to hear the arguments against any artist who would dare put out their material on their own. It always falls back on the quality, oh how the quality will suffer if we don’t have these institutions in place who will act as arbiters of taste and save the reading public from the dreck that will surely follow any self-publishing effort. Or how morally wrong it is to sully yourself by having to stoop to getting your work out there on your own. Sure, there’s plenty of horrible rot in the vanity presses, but I’d argue there’s plenty published by the large publishing houses as well. How is spending your own money to get your work out there any different than a band putting up their own money to record a demo or EP to shop around and let people hear? For a writer like myself, self-publishing a first collection of short stories is akin to putting out a mix-tape while I work on my full-length album. I have 400+ bylines to my credit, both fiction and non-fiction. Some are large, international magazines, some are smaller. But at the end of the day, I don’t have any book credits to my name and the time I could spend shopping my manuscript to “regular” publishers would be enormous. Not to mention the fact that very few publishers are going to take a chance on a first-time story collection by an author at my career stage regardless of merit. If I do happen to find an interest, there’s no telling how long it will be before it sees print, and I have to cede all control to that publisher. I feel like my time (and money) would be better spent finding a quality self-publisher and working with them to get the representation of my work out there exactly how I want (for good or ill). That way I have something to show agents and publishers (and maybe even recoup some costs on) while I work on my novel and go on to seek out other publishers. This model may not work for everyone, but it’s very heartening to see an article like this express a very rational view of the way things are and the way they’re going, especially in a place like Virginia Quarterly. Like the music industry, the publishing industry is changing and there’s no going back. Kudos for this piece!
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Sean Bishop's picture
Hi Cynthia. Yeah, it bugs me too. But I’ve also been that editor who extends the deadline, in the past, and am likely to be that editor again in the future. It’s not something any magazine or other press/prize committee should do as a pre-planned strategy because editors enter into an implicit contract with prize entrants, which they bend (if not break) when they allow more entrants through the door after the deadline. But, by and large, editors extend deadlines when they are unable to recoup the immediate costs of the prizes, judge honorariums, and the production costs of anything else promised as part of the contest entry ( a one-year magazine subscription, for instance.) And in those cases, I don’t think writers can or should be too mad at editors when all they’re trying to do is break even, so they can offer those prizes again in the future, you know?
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Stephen Tiano's picture
Kristopher, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Primarily because a lot of the romance of being a writer is now accompanied by the realization that publishing (and writing to publish) is a business. Nothing wrong with that. I think it should be liberating in a sense to be able to recognize writing and publishing is work that one deserves the opportunity to earn money with. The issue shifts to writing and making books that encourage people, readers, to pay for the privilege of reading them. And I think it behooves author-publishers to do everything possible to make the business decision to write and publish their own work profitable. To my way of thinking, this means writing well about something people want to read about, having it properly edited by objective eyes, and then having a book designed and typeset that presents the author’s work the best way possible. That’s al part of the publishing-as-business end of things.
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Sean Bishop's picture
Hi Kristofer, thanks for your comment! There is a part of me that worries about the likely shift to a literary culture driven by self-publishing, as I mentioned in that Ploughshares post several months ago, and as I expressed in my first VQR post two months back. But my hope is there will continue to be a canon that unites writers and readers under an overlapping vocabulary, and that the literary equivalent of–for example– Pitchfork will emerge to help make sense of the self-publishing flood. It’s too early to say, of course. But in the end I have to trust that a dedicated readership will always seek out quality writing, and that the best writing will continue to “rise to the top” even as “top” becomes a more complicated and inaccurate metaphor.
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Kristopher Monroe's picture
Stephen, I totally agree. Maybe I’m also just a writer who actually enjoys the idea of being involved in other aspects of the production and marketing of my work. At least at this stage anyway. Like I said, it’s like a mix-tape that I’ll be able to have a large amount of control over and be able to use it as a far better marketing tool (and possible revenue generator) than if I just got some small book deal with a publisher I may or may not enjoy working with.
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