About Writing, Publishing

Poetry Publishing, BlazeVox Drama, “Vanity,” Internet Discourse

Yesterday, the internet (okay, my internet anyhow, maybe not yours) was lit up with a conversation about BlazeVox soliciting donations/subsidies connected with accepted mss. If you’d like to get caught up, start here, then go here and then probably here. I imagine there will be other posts as well. [Update: Yep. Here’s one with some calm & useful language for various kinds of publishing.] [Update II: Here’s some really great thinking about the roles of publishers and writers and a better articulation of some differences between publishing and printing than I fumbled through below.]

Reading the blog posts and comment threads has me thinking about a couple of things:

1. The handy speed with which we may now respond — off the cuff — to things we read that  frustrate/enrage us often does disservice to discourse. (I know I didn’t discover this or anything — I am just seeing a good example.) Lots of reply-lobbing, lots of dramatic accusation, all nearly instantaneous. Much of it — not all — anonymous, and then there’s the incivility that is sometimes — not always — fostered by anonymity, especially when it is combined with instantaneousness. (Word Press alleges that instantaneousness is not a word. It is okay with simultaneity, but that’s not exactly the word I wanted…) I’m reminded of when I was learning how the telegraph — a speedy new technology being used by folks who were used to diplomacy existing at a whole other, much slower pace — may have been a contributing cause of the Great War.

2. “Vanity Press” used to mean, didn’t it, that if you had the MONEY, you’d pay someone to publish your mss. You were paying (I think) for access to the means of production, and for the (appearance of) “legitimacy” the existence of your mss in book form (with pages/spine/etc) would convey. Therefore, they were called “vanity” presses because they seemed to cater to vanity above literary quality. Am I wrong about that?  That’s a history I need to read up on.  Anyhow, it seems to me that vanity presses were about supplying access to the means of production. Maybe you were paying to be “printed” and maybe there’s some difference between “printed” and “published.”

Nowadays, many (all?) of us have access to the means of production. No typesetting required. Print away. As one commenter at HTMLGIANT suggested,

“If I were being asked to contribute $250 to the publication of my own book I’d do that by learning InDesign, signing up with Lulu and Amazon, and buying Project Wonderful ads myself.”

I was going to link here to Bill Knott’s poetry blog, but it’s down! Anyhow, Bill learned the technology and has been passionate about offering most of his work for free and/or P.O.D. via Lulu.

The commenter continues: “At this point I’m not sure what the difference is unless (of course) you’re trying to get a job in academia—but even then, I’m sure the committees would look askance at a publisher that’s earned this kind of reputation.”

Ah, yes, the “job in academia.” THAT’S who cares about the difference between your book being “printed” and your book being “published.” Because, of course, the academic cv has NOTHING to do with something as lowbrow as “vanity.” 🙂 And maybe because what we think of as “published” (not just “printed”) has traditionally involved an editorial & promotional apparatus, and that is where the “legitimacy,” if you buy that, resides or is created. The promotional/connections piece of traditional publishing is important, I think — just because you have had your book printed doesn’t guarantee that anyone will buy/read/review it. Although the access to those means (social networking, book fairs, book “trailers” on YouTube, etc.) has also shifted, hasn’t it? Anyhow,  my last post (hardly a post, really, when I’m just pasting together what other people post, but I’m doing what I can) linked to an essay about legitimacy and publishing and tenure/promotion in academia. Check it out.

3. An idea that has come up in this conversation in various ways, an idea I’m chewing on, too: poetry in the U.S. doesn’t appear to have the readership to support the traditional publishing biz/model. A painful and scary and exciting moment as publishers (BlazeVox among them?) struggle into new models, or attempt to create hybrid models to keep themselves afloat. I followed an interesting conversation at Brevity last summer about the notion of charging authors to submit work; Ploughshares charges non-subscriber authors $3 to submit electronically (still no charge other than postage to submit via the post). I bought a “subscription” from Pilot Books last year — I like that idea. Recently, I was invited to “pre-order” a friend’s chapbook to help ensure the first print run at a certain number of copies.  I was happy to do both of those things.

So, that’s the news from Surly Acres this Labor Day. That, and, oh yeah, THANK YOU LABOR MOVEMENT for making it possible for me to have weekends and health insurance and safe working conditions.

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