The other day I got some good news, or so I thought. My poetry manuscript, which I’ve been shaping ever since I graduated from Eastern Washington’s MFA program in 2007, was accepted by BlazeVOX Books. Nevertheless, as I delved into the long letter, it became apparent that the publication offer was contingent on a monetary donation ($250, to be exact). This took me by complete surprise; over the course of the next day and a half (and a handful of emails), my initial elation turned to discontent, and then to near despair. Here’s what happened.
Let’s start with the initial letter.
Subject: Re: Submission, Brett Ortler, 12/12/10
From: Geoffrey Gatza
To: Brett Ortler (both email addresses redacted)
Date: Thursday, September 1, 2011 1:09 PM
I have read your manuscript and I am really taken with this text. I would like to offer you a situation with our upcoming Fall/Winter 2011 schedule. However we are still recovering from our recent crisis and working towards being better than ever. Due to the recent economic upheaval, most of our funding sources collapsed. But this does not mean we plan to stop publishing.
In the spirit of cooperation, we are asking you to help fund the production of your book. We have done this for the past two years and it seems to be working out very positively. Over $2000 goes into the production of a book with BlazeVOX and we are hoping you will donate $250 to the press to help meet the costs of our budgeted year. To briefly explain, we just lost another major donor this year and I want to publish books, but it takes some money to do so. It takes $2000 to make a book and I am asking a few folks whose books are very, very good to help in the publication cost of that book. So I am asking folks to help out in the publication costs. Of the 928 manuscripts I received I choose 30 books to publish to finish out the year. There was a real system in choosing these texts and in my opinion this is better than holding a contest. I have been in that room before and I am not fond of people paying $40 to have a fist year grad student pick through a box of manuscripts to find something they like. This way, we choose good books and if they can help pay 12% of the total cost it takes to get a title into print. I am sure that there are better ways to do this but in our turbulent times it is hard to get people to fund poetry and experimental fiction. I am sorry if this upsetting and I understand completely. But this is in the spirit of a co-op and without money nothing can be done.
I will be happy to publish this as an ebook / Kindle book should you wish to skip the donation :-)
This donation would give you a book with BlazeVOX [books], this includes ISBN, barcode, full color cover, sales at SPD and Amazon.com; a BlazeVOX [books] webpage and listing catalog. Our books are consistently reviewed by the finest publications, including The Nation TriQuarterly, The Believer and events at the Poetry and Literature Center @ Library of Congress, and we have a standing order from the Iowa Review and Jacket2. You can make your donation here,
Thank you again for sending your work to BlazeVOX [books]. Our goal is to publish great poetry and this fits that category. If you can help that is wonderful, if not no worries and we’ll be back up and together in the future.
Holy Cats! A new webpage
The request for a donation immediately took me by surprise, as I do quite a bit of research about each press where I send my work. I acquaint myself with their catalog, the writers they publish, the styles they prefer, and their respective editors, and I take pains to make sure my work fits in with the style.
I also obsess over the submission guidelines in order to make sure I’m sending what I think the editors want and in the format they want it. If they want me to hum the theme to the Peanuts while I click the “submit” button, I do it. (Plus, it’s great music for dancing wildly, which is a hobby of mine.)
Most importantly, I never submit to presses that charge reading fees or require financial contributions from authors, as both tend to be hallmarks of vanity presses and because I simply don’t want to pay to have my own work published. Call it vanity, ego, stubbornness, whatever you want; in my mind, paying to publish simply seems less legitimate. As far as I knew, BlazeVOX didn’t charge prospective authors. But it’d been over a year since I submitted, so I went to double-check the submission guidelines; maybe I’d made a mistake.
I hadn’t. As of this writing, the submission guidelines didn’t mention requiring authors to donate; if anything, the guidelines indicated that the press was quite generous towards authors, as they gave them a sizable discount when purchasing copies of their own work.
This all struck me as quite strange, as it was out of keeping with what I knew about BlazeVOX, and its reputation as a press. To be sure, BlazeVOX’s editor, Geoffrey Gatza, publishes some fine poetry, including work by Tom Holmes and Stacia Fleegal, both writers whom I admire. The books are absolutely beautiful. It’s quite clear he knows what he’s doing. And I really wanted my book to be issued by BlazeVOX.
So I went back to the letter and read it again. It looked like a form letter. My manuscript title wasn’t mentioned, though my first name was, and I immediately began to suspect a mail merge or something to that effect. After that, I clicked on the “donate” link, as I wanted to see what it had to say. The text was quite familiar, as it was a reworked version of the letter I’d received.
The more times I read the letter, the more questions I had. The original letter noted that he was asking “a few folks whose books are very, very good to help in the publication cost of that book,” so it seemed that not all authors were being asked to contribute. That seemed unfair, as it meant there were two classes of books he’d accepted; books he was willing to publish for free—let’s call them Freebies—and those he was willing to publish if the authors contributed—let’s call them Me-bies.
And if that were the case, I wanted to know how many Freebies and Me-bies existed, and I wanted to know if publication was absolutely contingent on a donation. I therefore sent along the following note.
On 9/1/11 3:44 PM, “brett ortler” wrote:
Dear Mr. Gatza,
Thank you for your interest in my manuscript, and for your offer. I’m going to have to give it some thought, as I don’t quite know how I feel about the compulsory donation policy. I certainly understand the impact of the lousy economy (and of selling/producing literature generally), so I’m not dismissing this idea out of hand. Nonetheless, it’s a rather new idea, and to be frank, one that seems somewhat unsettling, at least at first blush.
Before I decide, I’d like more information. I have a few questions about the policy.
(1) Am I correct in assuming that not every book you publish is subject to this policy? If so, can you tell me what percentage of authors are asked to donate?
(2) Also, if you don’t mind, how many such offers have you made?
(3) In addition, is this offer open to everyone who finds the link on your site, or is publication contingent upon your acceptance of the manuscript beforehand?
Thanks, and take care,
I received this response:
I did send this letter to a 30 folk with the hopes of getting 15 people. No scams at all.
To briefly explain, we just lost a major donor this year and I want to publish these books, but it takes some money to do so. It takes $2000 to make a book and I am asking a few folks who’s books are very very good to help in the publication cost of that book. Please know that I do like your book and I do like a lot of other books. This week, I sent out mailings to authors for the upcoming season. So far a lot have taken me up on this deal, as this is a fine way of doing things. As I said, our major funder could not help us this year due to a recent financial scandal, their money is gone. So I am asking folks to help out in the publication costs. Of the 423 manuscripts I received I choose 30 books to publish from this lot. There was a real system in choosing these texts and in my opinion this is better than me holding a contest. I have been in that room before and I am not fond of people paying $40 to have a first year grad student pick through a box of manuscripts to find something they like. This way, we choose good books and if they can help pay 12% of the total $2000 it takes to get a title into print. I am sure that there are better ways to do this but in our turbulent times it is hard to get people to fund poetry and experimental fiction. I am sorry if this upsetting and I understand completely. But this is in the spirit of a co-op and without money nothing can be done.
Also, we chose this way as opposed to having authors pay have the cover prince for their own books as my own books are published. Each book is sold to the author for about $3 where at other presses, like the ones who publish me, ask for $8 per copy. So in the long run the amount of $250 in the beginning is a lot less than the author ordering books at a higher rate than they are produced. Example,
100 x 3 = $300
100 x 8 = $800
So in this model the other press makes five hundred more on the same book than we are asking. So this is how we are justifying things. I hope this also helps!
His response was surprisingly slapdash, full of typos and vague assurances that he was only asking “a few folks who’s [sic] books are very very good” to contribute. While I’m sure Mr. Gatza was simply busy, this didn’t inspire confidence. And I couldn’t shake the impression that the letters bore a superficial resemblance to a 419 scam (the email confidence scams that are perpetually flying around.) All that was missing was a far-flung princess ready to wire me millions of Euros.
Worse yet, he didn’t directly address all of my questions. While he let me know how many folks he’d asked for donations (30), confirmed my suspicions that I’d received a form letter, and implied that not all of the authors had to pay for their work, he’d also never answered the big question—whether my work would be rejected if I opted not to donate.
While I pondered this strange situation, I did the math. He sent his letter to 30 writers, hoping to land 15 donations. If he did so, that’d produce $3,750 in donations. Now this may be a coincidence, but I noticed that his donations page is talking up his press’s need for a new computer, one that runs about $1,300. If one does the math and assumes 75 percent of folks will turn him down, which seems more realistic, those 7 or so acceptances will take care of it.
I also considered his economic argument. I can certainly understand it. I’ve spent a good deal of my life in literary land, and money’s always been tight. That’s doubly or triply true now, and good presses need things like computers and software and the like. And yes, when donors disappear, one needs to come up with other ways to generate revenue, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a business model based upon a cooperative, or even BlazeVOX’s specific ($250 bucks for a book) policy.
Nevertheless, I didn’t intend to send my work to a press with such a business model. On the contrary, I sent my work to presses that operate under a few widely held principles:
(1) Generally speaking, literary presses do not charge for reviewing submissions unless we’re talking about a contest, in which case an entry fee is justifiable due to the necessity to drum up prize money and pay for a judge’s honorarium. (Full disclosure: I’ve run two contests at Knockout, one with an entry fee of $5 and one with $12; for both contests we awarded a good deal of prize money. The rest went to funding Knockout. We are not a 501(c) but we are an unincorporated nonprofit association under Minnesota law.)
(2) If literary presses do charge a fee for anything (contests, reading submissions, etc.), they should be upfront about it and this information should be included in submission guidelines and FAQ pages so the reader knows what to expect and whether they still want to submit.
(3) Most importantly, when a writer sends their work along, they
always operate on the assumption that presses choose the best work, and only the best work, to publish.
From all outward appearances, BlazeVOX shares these assumptions, but when I asked directly if my work would still be published if I didn’t donate, I received a brusk, and disheartening response:
Subject: Re: Submission, Brett Ortler, 12/12/10
From: Geoffrey Gatza
To: Brett Ortler
Date: Thursday, September 1, 2011 2:16 PM
No of course not. I know this situation is awful. it’s hard on me so I can only image how you feel. But your work is wonderful and I really do dig on it. We will keep your work on file, and do send it out. There are presses who are not so hit by this crisis. Hurray on you and your writing, keep up the great work.
At this point it became clear that my book wouldn’t be released by BlazeVOX; nevertheless, there was no way in hell I was going to “donate” money in such a manner, as it felt like a variety of coercion. Even if I did it’d be hardly fair to call it a donation at all; if a monetary contribution is required for publication, it’s not a donation, it’s a payment.
Worse than that, it’s quite clear that he doesn’t publish only the best work he gets; there’s a group of second-class work that he relies upon for his donations. And that’s the hardest part to stomach. It seems he wanted my money more than my work. If he didn’t, he would have accepted the work despite the lack of donation.
All of this amounts to a serious violation of trust, as Mr. Gatza withheld crucial information from would-be authors. Instead of letting writers know what to expect in advance, Mr. Gatza springs this arrangement on the would-be author suddenly. From the prospective author’s point of view, it feels like a sleight of hand; now you see yourself being a BlazeVOX author, now you don’t.
All of this is disingenous and unethical, as it preys upon writers in perhaps their most vulnerable state (on the cusp of acceptance). To rectify this, I asked Mr. Gatza to at least “include a mention of this policy on your website, including the donation amounts and point out that not all acceptances are subject to ‘donations,’ outlining pertinent statistics.”
Unfortunately, he didn’t address my calls for a change to a website, but he did respond with:
Your work is very good and I choose it not because you are on some tier but because it is good. Your manuscript will do just fine at another press with better funding situations. I understand your concerns and admire how you worked this all out. I didn’t realize you would be so upset by this in such a way. I have had several spots taken by this method and it has worked out well. You are correct that this is a bad option but we are trying to survive in a world that does not support poetry, either readers buying books or communities that support presses. Something must be done to keep poetry alive and well and this is how we have managed to do this. In this offer I also offered to publish the work as an ebook which gets about 6000 readers and costs nothing to make except the work in designing a book. A printed book gets about 300 readers if lucky. I believe that you are misinformed about how well a book of poetry does in the markets today and what it costs to get a book into production. This is not a rejection on you or your work, but a critique on what the world values on our art form.
While I found that his response tempered some of my initial anger; I was a bit puzzled, because in my previous emails I’d never claimed that poetry sells well, or anything to that effect. (Belive me, I know it doesn’t. I run a literary magazine; when you get a sale, you’re so happy you feel compelled to do a little dance.)
And while I again sympathized with his economic argument, he’s still withholding important information from writers and he’s doing it for one hell of a spurious reason: to get money from some of them.
Of course, I can hypothesize about why he wouldn’t want to let writers know about this policy, and none of them reflect particularly well on the policy or its current implementation. First, it seems likes it’s a relatively easy way to raise funds. In addition, I’m sure that if this policy were made public he’d get fewer submissions, as many writers would opt not to submit their work. (I wouldn’t have submitted my work there had I know about this policy.) More than that, if writers were aware that some were required to paid while others were not, he might have something of a rebellion on his hands, and the paying writers may take umbrage. There’s also the likelihood that BlazeVOX would lose credibility in the literary world if it were common knowledge that they charge for publication. (Duotrope removed their listing for BlazeVOX Books because of the payment policy.)
With all that said, if he were upfront and open about his policy, I’d have no real problem with any of this; it may be even be a valuable contribution to the literary community. It just wouldn’t be for me. Unfortunately, I found that out the hard way; a half-hearted acceptance is one hell of a wrenching rejection.
While I may seem ungrateful or simply stubborn, I view this as an instance of applied ethics. (I teach ethics as part of of my critical thinking courses.) In its current form, Mr. Gatza’s policy isn’t fair, and what he’s doing is wrong, as he’s using writers as a mere means to an end: to get money.
Needless to say, I also don’t want anyone else to go through this unawares. I’d therefore like to make a public call for Mr. Gatza to amend his submission guidelines and website to include information about this policy, the amounts he’ll expect of other authors, and the like.
So far, he’s ignored my requests. I just checked his website again, on the offchance that he’s had a change of heart.
Unfortunately, I’m still waiting.