So, there has been a great flapping of fingers about BlazeVOX Books and their “requiring” poets to pony up $250 toward the publication costs of their book. I don’t have the energy (and really see no need, since you can go right to the source) to explain the whole happenings, but the skinny of the thing is that BlazeVOX lost some funding, and was asking writers to put up some cash towards the production costs. The first question I would have, indeed, much like the original writer, is if everybody has to do this. Picking and choosing who has to give money is definitely vanity-press-ish to sustain non-vanity-press operations.
Though I disagree with that model for a number of reasons, I’d like to put all of the pros and cons of that aside for a moment. I think those questions are important, and I might return to them, but for now I’d like to talk about how in the comments about these issues I keep noticing writers saying houses “should” or “shouldn’t” do something. Yes, I think houses should be clear about their practices, but that’s what we have contracts for. Read yours carefully. But beyond what it says contractually, houses or “shouldn’t” do anything they don’t want to do.
There seems to be a misunderstanding that small publishers are here to “serve” writers. That publishers are like waiters, whose job it is to convey the product from the kitchen to the consumer. That’s not the case. Publishers are (and should be and once were even more) the ones that get to decide what goes out into the world, what is ready, what needs an edit, what should be sent back over the transom. It is not a publisher’s job to serve writers, it is a publisher’s job to serve the vision of the publishing house.
That service to the house can take on a lot of different facets. Ultimately, it’s a question of the goal of the publishing house. Does the house want to publish a certain type of book? Does the house want to make money more of a priority than quality? Does the house only want to publish indo-european chant lyrics? All of those are viable goals for a publisher. And if the writer wants their work to be a reflection of what the publisher is doing, great, if they don’t, the writer AND publisher have the right (or, I’d posit, obligation) to find someone who will.
This sounds, I’m sure, like I’m totally siding against the writer, but I’m not. This type of thinking is something I wish writers understood. When I was a young editor I too often had people ask me when I would speak on panels (and this was as annoying as it sounds) why I felt I was qualified to be judging other people’s work. The answer I gave and will always give is I’m qualified because the people who were responsible for the presses I’ve worked for hired me. That’s all the qualification I need. If you don’t like that I’m an editor, don’t send me your work. If you feel I’m too young, don’t send me your work. If you feel that I have awful taste and am functionally illiterate, don’t send me your work. That’s your power. And if enough people feel like you, I’ll lose my job or the press will fold. That’s it.
Putting on my writer’s hat for a moment—because poetry is a small community and the presses are usually run by a couple of people and we might even know them personally, we think they are there with our best interests at heart. Usually their interests align with ours, because if they have taken our work they believe in the work. But most published writers will tell you that at some point an editor has said “no” to them. No to a change, no to nominating your book for the national book award (because it costs $150 and you’re not going to win anyway) no to you making your own book cover. They say no because they have become invested in the work as a representation of their press, and you’re trying to make it worse, or different. They say no not because they love you, but because they love the work and what it says about them.
Just as we as writers have the option of making our manuscript in any way we want, a publisher can make his/her house any way they want. And just as we can fuck up our work, they can fuck up theirs. I think it’s right to call out publishers when the decisions they are making seem wrong or disingenuous, and might be hurting their reputation and thus, their press, but it’s naive to think they should or shouldn’t do anything.