Showing posts with label 1 to 100. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1 to 100. Show all posts

September 07, 2011

Going Dutch

So it seems that the capitalist system is failing small press publishing in America.

Though I'm no economist, the economics of this look pretty straightforward to me. The literary economy is saturated with presses and journals. The consumers in this economy are consuming what they reasonably can. But the revenue is spread so thin that, in general, no press or journal can survive without external cash injections from grants or credit cards.

In the wake of BlazeVOX-gate, lots is coming out about small press publishing. For the first day or so I think I really did read almost every comment, because I'm really interested in what good can come out of this discussion, for writers and publishers alike. I've admittedly fallen behind on my reading but have a bazillion tabs open in Firefox.

The following list is a generalized distillation of some of what's rising to the surface (at least of what I've seen so far):

  • A general consensus that we (writers and publishers) value transparency where (at least) money is involved (and I think we may be starting to admit that money is always involved, even if it's in an "intangible" form like doing one's own book promotion)
  • Professionalism is a pretty good default to stand by
  • A general consensus that there are not enough consumers for the number of presses and journals (or that the level of consumption itself is too low)
  • There are people who believe that the right of publication should be free, and people who believe in shared economic models (for lack of a better term)
  • There are people who believe art and money cannot or should not coexist, and people who believe that they can (or at least have to)
  • Many publishers are experimenting with new business models, or considering them
  • We all at least seem to agree that we wish things were different, or easier, or both
A few months ago I asked on this very blog how we, writers, could improve our participation in the literary economy. I am a writer and an editor, so I include myself in this question. I have thought about this a lot over the past few months; the BlazeVOX discussion has, if anything, helped my vocabulary along so I can grapple with it better.

In a nutshell, answering this question starts with me just being me. In other words, what do I do and what more can I do? (Now I feel like Johannes and the hippie.)

I asked myself what my consumption is in the literary economy (what I take out of it, so to speak. I'll leave out what I put in to the economy for now). In brief, it is, in no particular order:
- Supporting KickStarter campaigns of presses and journals I like
- Subscribing to my favorite literary mags
- Subscribing to one or two "seasons" of presses I love
- Buying a literary journal I haven't seen before but want to submit to
- Buying extra copies of journals in which my work is published
- Registering for AWP
- Buying about a suitcase full of small press books at AWP
- Purchasing gifts for friends and family from small presses and online bookstores like Powell's
- Writing checks for contest fees (which isn't easy, because I really do forget how to write a check)

So let's say all of us are doing roundabout the above. But that's clearly not enough to sustain all those presses and journals out there that we love. What else can we do?

When I saw that 1913 a journal of forms was actually open for submissions, I rushed over to its website. I freakin' love 1913. I saw it has a small reading fee. I didn't hesitate. If anything, I thought, hell, there's no chance my poetry is going to be accepted by 1913 but I'll throw this journal $3 so other people will be and can be and so that 1913 can be a journal.

And that's when it hit me.

I'M A SOCIALIST.

Blame it on Holland. Blame it on my hippie parents or my Montessori preschool. Blame it on my feminism or big Catholic family or the fact that I'm short. Or gay.

I believe in the basic tenants of socialism because I believe in sharing. And I'm starting to see the literary economy like I see my healthcare coverage in Holland:

I pay €135 a month for premium healthcare coverage. On top of that I pay (highish) taxes for healthcare based on my income each year, and a max €175 co-pay (for the whole year). I don't see additional bills once I've hit the yearly co-pay max. And here's the kickers: I have a chronic illness. I take medication daily and see doctors and have blood tests regularly. I also go to a physical therapist once a month for preventative care so that I don't injure myself climbing. Massages are covered. Dentist trips are covered. Hell, until recently, vitamins were covered. Oh yeah, EVERYONE IN HOLLAND IS COVERED.

It ain't perfect, but I don't pay out of pocket for an emergency ambulance ride either.

Imagine we all took a socialist attitude towards publishing, but one of course that didn't rely on "outside" government support. What if we said to ourselves, sure, I'll pay this $3 reading fee or this $20 contest fee or I'll share the costs of my book's publication so that not only I can continue to enjoy the privilege of print but others can as well.

I don't mean to demean the seriousness of our human right to healthcare, but it serves as a good example of where my head's going. It's going away from the economic model I was taught growing up (me! me! me!) to the one I've learned to love in my adopted home (all! all! all!). Johannes Goransson brought up the problematized "Author" in his post and I'd like to take that a step further and complicate the MY WORK IS GREAT AND YOU ARE PRIVILEGED IF YOU GET TO PUBLISH IT idea as being the major contribution any of us make to the world of literature.

Clearly I'm simplifying things. But I hope I'm at least making my point. If we all agree we're committed to seeing writing in print, esp. non-mainstream writing that is not part of the normal capitalist Amazon economy, then does it not follow that we all join in the economics to make that happen? And thus change our minds a bit on what that looks like? The world has changed drastically since I was taught to detest submission fees and vanity presses. Can we not change as well?

I also just want to point out one more thing. In my final post about the help Versal got from some €3000/day strategy consultants, I mentioned that one of the first ideas the consultants had was to charge a fee for submissions. Keep in mind these guys have no idea what's going on over there in the American literary world. They purposefully didn't come into the meeting with much background because we all wanted to see what would come out of the brainstorm if we had a blank page. And the idea came up almost immediately, because they felt that the fee would be a good "channel" to increase writers' participation in the literary economics.

How very socialist of them.

July 26, 2011

Why 1 to 100 was always going to fail

Versal festival armband around a street sign in Prague.

I've come to the grim realization lately that out of all the Versals that leave this house/my hands/our stock/Amsterdam, only about 30% of those are actually sold. The remaining 70% go to all the expected places, free. Contributors, of course, receive a free copy. Review copies, swaps and editorial contacts make up a huge "promotional" percentage of gratis gratis. What's left, at least of issues 5, 6 and 7, are unopened cardboard boxes in my attic.

In other words, I am one crappy sales person.

A lot of editors I know and have spoken with over the years believe deep-down in the purity of this inventory spread. The work we collect must be in the world. In whatever way possible. We'll leave rogue copies on coffee counters. Slip one or two between politico blah blah at the chain bookstore. Swap copies with other editors as a sign of goodwill. Donate them en masse to fairs that raise money for literary organizations or otherwise. Sales run contrary to our bones. We were made to write, to edit, to appreciate. Not to hold it up and ask someone to buy.

This is all great if there's money coming from somewhere. Or if you're in just "in it for fun" at the copy shop. The first model, where money is coming in from some outside source, is a little like European socialism where government funds are (were) used to bolster less capitalist ventures, like healthcare or the arts. So I'm thinking of university journals, mostly. The second model is more like anarchy, squatting. A utopian vision of the world passed from hand to hand without commerce. [Side note: Here in the Netherlands the first is dying a violent death while the second is rising up with new force in the face of also violent government crackdown.] Anyway, for those of us in the middle, which can rely neither on a socialist model nor on the goodwill of celebrated poverty, we seem stuck in a constant feedback loop of frustration. Why? I think I'm starting to think that it's because we're trying to swim in the free (capitalist) market. We have to rely on the crowd for survival, but we're modeled after one of the two above. So we're confused.

Swimming around in the "marketplace" isn't necessarily a bad thing, I'm learning. Everyday I watch fellow editors use the crowd networks of Twitter and Facebook and now + to try to promote their things. I'm developing my own rhythm with it too, trying to extract from vague "impressions" numbers what time of day is best to post about buying
Versal, or when people really just want to be linked to some cool article that they'll then share and I'll see rise up again in my newsfeed. So we're already using the crowd, or trying to.

But what I'm really coming to understand is that I don't know how to sell to that crowd. The problem is clearly a lack of math. Not of math skills, but rather of math not coming anywhere near my understanding of reality. I think a lot of editors feel this way. And even most of the panels I see on it seem to be legions behind most marketing and sales know-how out there. For my journal to survive, though, I need to figure this out.
Versal will not receive funding from the Dutch government or any of the arts funds here, especially not now. And we'd rather end the journal than turn it into a cheaper product or move it entirely online. If we're going to be in the middle, we had better figure out how to be the middle too.

The 1 to 100 by August 1 campaign was set up before most of these realizations started taking form. I had the hunch, I guess, but now I have pie charts. And, typical me, the campaign was set up to fail. I knew we would never reach 100 sales in just 3.5 weeks. That's preposterous.

And that's also really sad. Right?

Last Wednesday, we had the rare opportunity to sit down with 9 upper level strategy consultants to talk about
Versal. They were appalled by some of the cliches we throw around every day. Like, writers are poor. Like, people submit to journals they've never read. Like, bookstores buy the journal at a 40% discount. Like, bookstores don't even buy it, they just take it on consignment.

I was floating after that meeting. I took a breath, got some perspective, confirmation that we navigate somewhat crazy waters here, that we model ourselves after the socialist university mags or the utopian zines but we're actually crashing against regular-old capitalist realities. So of course our survival has become rather freaktified and precarious.

But I'm not going to blame our community on this. It's not anyone else's fault that
Versal's sales numbers aren't high enough to pay for Versal. My failure here is ok. I'm not upset about it. We've survived almost ten years on sheer willpower. TEN YEARS. I'm really proud of us, we have made something truly unique in the literary world, and we're going to keep making it. With the fantastic team of editors and volunteers who support us, and our beautiful local community and greater global community, we're going to sell this f***er. To quote Miss Scarlett in Clue, August 1 is just a red herring.



This post is messy and these thoughts more so, but I'd love to hear your ideas on this if you have them. What do you think your role is as a writer, in terms of the literary world's economy? What would you like to see happen (not just with
Versal but with lit mags in general)? What measures has your journal taken to overcome some of these obstacles? etc. etc.