September 05, 2011

Like correctly spelled words in sentences.

The latest fray in literary America, which like most I am watching from afar, has me thinking a lot about best practices in publishing.

If you haven't been keeping up, start here, where writer Brett Ortler shares his recent but seemingly conditional acceptance from BlazeVOX. Then head over to HTMLGiant, which picked up the story rather quickly and where, true to form, the comments threads exploded. There are some heated responses out there, too. And last but not least, BlazeVOX's own Geoffrey Gatza responds here

I'm following the fray closely because I am interested in what is between the lines of this discussion. There's actually quite a lot between the lines but I'm focusing on where it touches issues of business models and (business) practices, transparency, the changing relationships in the literary economy, what we "should" do, how we're/it's all changing, and the much-discussed "future of publishing".

These are each big discussions in and of themselves, which is probably in part why Mr. Ortler's blog catalyzed such a huge debate.

If you've been following our own blog over the last month, you'll know we're struggling with these very issues. Trying to find and implement a new business model for our journal has been an exciting but scary road, and I've tried to share as much about that road as I can, and will continue to do so. And foremost on my mind has been how to continue to be the honest, transparent and respectful journal that we started as and have grown more into. Which is why I'm thinking so much about best practices.

What are best practices? Wiki has a pretty good summary on them. In short, they are generally accepted things that work. For example, we could study what kinds of rejection letters are the "best" using certain criteria. Once you define what is "best", you can determine what practices will lead to it. So in the case of the rejection letter, we might define "best" as being respectful, non-demeaning, encouraging but honest. We could harness indicators like repeat submissions to determine how effective a letter is at its intended goal (some letters, e.g., may want to discourage a writer from sending work to the journal in the future, while others may want to encourage a writer to try again). The practice of writing such letters will have to do with things like the quality of the writing, the diction of its vocabulary, the signature (i.e. signed by an editor or by "The Editors"), the time lapse between submission and rejection, etc. Hard to imagine, maybe, but these things are actually measurable...

It wasn't too long ago that a situation in publishing led to the establishment of a best practice. Foetry's whistle blowing and the subsequent attention that bad contest practices got prompted CLMP to develop a contest code of ethics, which many contests now employ.

This latest eruption has underscored a lot of things, but for me as Versal's editor while Versal undergoes a change, I am interested in some of the best practices for small publishers that are coming to light. Like:

1. Grammatically correct and well-structured correspondence
2. Transparent business models
3. Transparent and upfront publishing terms

In a way these seem very obvious, and almost stupid to write down. But I think a letter that I write to someone who has entrusted me with her work should be well-written and not have spelling errors. I've spent nearly 10 years now with Versal thinking about these things, and assuming I was just a total nerd, and in an early instance having to argue with a fellow (now gone) Versal editor about why he should write emails that had complete sentences, and feeling then like I just was too uptight and generally not cool while his slightly manic emails were "cool" because they were "natural". 

But this post isn't because I feel vindicated now by the crowd. It's because I want to continue (here and elsewhere) talking with writers and editors and everyone interested in what we can all do to make this better. And sometimes the best place to start is somewhere really simple. Like correctly spelled words in sentences.

Feel free to share what you think are "best practices" in small publishing down there in the comments. And also other thoughts. Already this big debate is starting to move "forward". Part of that can be about how in this major transitional time for publishers, we can be "best" at what we're doing.

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