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.


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.


  1. When you pay your taxes and co-pays, you are getting something in return. You are not paying for someone to consider taking you as a patient. You are not paying someone to read your chart for a chance at an appointment. In a socialist system, I get something for my payment. (I buy my Versal at City Lights to support an independent bookstore as well.) I understand that I need to contribute - that is why I buy the journal. I think there are too many journals out there already that offer "contests" and reading fees. I avoid them because I suspect their motives for publishing. I really can't believe that a journal that is advertising in Poets & Writers month after month about their latest contest is taking that money and investing it in staff time for carefully reading submissions. It is as shoddy as the TV evangelists' prayer request and donation schemes. I am not saying that you would necessarily be tainted with that but I don't know if it is the solution you are really looking for.

  2. What solution(s) would you suggest, Geoff?

  3. Also, just to add, I think I was clear in my post that "in a socialist system" I get something back. Including the knowledge that I'm part of what is making the whole system work at all.

    I would really be curious to hear what you think *is* the solution I/we am/are looking for.

  4. Hi Megan,

    I want it to be really clear here that I think that Versal is a very important literary journal, for its content as well as the physical object itself. I would suggest that

    1. Publish a "Versal-lite" electronic version and sell it for 4 or 5 bucks on Amazon. Include half the content and point readers to an easy way to subscribe to the print journal.

    2. Create poetry videos that promote the journal (and the writers) and give readers a feel for what Versal is doing.

    3. Start an online reading series featuring poets published in Versal. If you are already doing poetry readings, get them streamed or on video.

    4. You do not have to sell advertising in your journal or even on your blogs BUT if there is a place that folks are picking up electronic media from you, those pages should have some advertising.

    5. Grants. Lannan Foundation for instance:

    6. If you are a non-profit, how can my estate endow your journal? That information should be somewhere.

    7. I would support this journal on Kickstarter.

    8. I would buy a Versal t-shirt.

    9. I would buy a Versal anthology. (Sell it by subscription - after so many orders, print off a run.)

    So any of the above may or may not be to your liking (or at least, your style) but I think they point to the idea that folks are consuming media in different ways and your journal can take advantage of some of this. You already do with a blog and Facebook.

  5. Geoff, thank you for clarifying, and of course for your support! Sometimes in these blogs and comments we can't always tell where people's starting positions are. These are all great ideas, many of which we'd love to implement in the coming years.

    Grants and endowments are odd territory for us because we're not located in the USA, and don't have any legal status there. Our legal status in NL qualifies us for things here, of course, but NL does not have the philanthropic traditions America has. And we have applied for local funding for years, but we fall outside the lines of any grants here because we're not just Dutch, not just translations, not just this or that enough...Also, NL has just cut all of its cultural funding as part of austerity measures.

    Our local community-oriented business model worked for us for about a decade, to the benefit of all involved. But for many reasons that I won't go into right now, this model has become unsustainable. Organizations must adapt to changed circumstances, as you also imply in your last paragraph above, and for us it has not so much been about adapting to the digital revolution (though we plan to work on that too) as it has been about adapting to a changed local community and local resources.

    Rather than put additional pressure on a model that is no longer applicable, we are exploring all other options - without previous bias, with fresh eyes, and with the knowledge that those first who step outside of a paradigm are often alone in the cold for a time.