The BlazeVOX kerfuffle (if it is indeed a kerfuffle) has made me—as it has many others—wonder about the state of and the future of literary publishing. Poets and writers around the web have attacked and defended the press’s new practice of asking nicely/insisting that poets help to cover the cost of publishing that poet’s book. As the advisory editor of a small undergraduate journal, I find myself in many ways nodding in agreement with BlazeVOX’s position. However, as a poet and writer who is currently shopping his own manuscript, I find myself gritting my teeth and mumbling under my breath.
The fine folks at Finishing Line Press published my chapbook, A Visible Sign, a couple of years ago. As a part of the publication deal, I agreed to help Finishing Line drum up a certain number of presales. The press run of my chap was based on the number of presales. Of all literary ventures, chapbooks are most certainly a labor of love. I understood Finishing Line’s position on the presales. While many of my friends and family were supportive, a few writers and editors that I knew asked me why I chose to publish with a vanity press. I didn’t think of Finishing Line as a vanity press (and I still don’t). I helped fund the printing of my book by selling copies of it before it was printed. Thus, I contributed to its publication cost. Nonetheless, I didn’t think of my part as “paying out of my own pocket.” I thought that I was helping a wonderful literary press bring my work to a reading public. I saw myself as promoting literary publishing as much as I was selling my own book. As an author, I had a stake in my own publication.
The BlazeVOX decision, however, has less to do with literary publishing than it has to do with publishing at large. The truth is that the printed book is now having to compete with the electronic book. No longer mere novelties, electronic books are cheaper to produce and thus cheaper to sell. I own a Kindle, myself, and I’ve read a lot of novels on it (no poetry as of yet, though I’m not sure why). Like vinyl, printed books are quickly becoming the purview of collectors and specialists. I’m not going to prophesy the death of print (so many others already have), but I will say that in order to survive, printed books have to become more than merely a receptacle for words. Instead, the printed book itself is going to have to become a work of art.
Certainly, the book has a long history as an artifact. Illuminated manuscripts are merely one example. Handmade books in small press runs have been a part of publishing since before Gutenberg, and I believe that the small pressrun/handmade book might be one way that a publisher can distinguish its books and create a market for such books.
I’m impressed with Slash Pine Press, a publisher of small, limited-run handmade chapbooks. Their work makes the book itself as valuable as the text contained within. Their publications are more than a ink printed on a page. Their books are works of art. They design and create books that give value to the printed word in a way that a mass-produced book simply is incapable of doing.
I don’t want to give the impression that I hate large presses or despise large press runs. I’d love for my manuscript to picked up by a major press. I’d love to have a couple of printings of my books. However, I also think that as we move further into the 21st century, literary publishers are going to continue to face funding problems. Capitalistic supply/demand economics isn’t kind to literary publishing because American popular culture doesn’t value the very things that literary publishing champions: individuality, hard-won positions, questions, and writing that challenges more often than it entertains.
Ultimately, I close not knowing how exactly I feel about BlazeVOX. My sympathies are with any literary publisher. I don’t think that BlazeVOX is trying to take advantage of its authors. The press is doing what it can to stay afloat in a tough economy. I do sympathize, though, with those struggling writers trying to cobble together a life out of words. I understand the outrage when a poet finds that she must help fund the publication of her own book while so many seem to navigate the strange waters of literary publishing with ease. Perhaps instead of attacking BlazeVOX, however, writers and those invested in literary publishing might turn the lens back on themselves. If we’re not willing to support our art, who will?
1 I think that the term “vanity press” is loaded ideologically, and I shy away from it, but I use it here to make a point.
The first time I ever went to a poetry reading was on campus when I was an undergraduate student at the University of West Florida. I don’t remember the particulars of the night. I do, however, remember being impressed and cowed by the writers I met that night. They got behind the mic with a confidence that eluded me. They read their work with practiced authority. They became their words.
I’d heard of open-mic readings before that first one I attended, of course. I associated open-mics with hippies and goatees, berets and espresso, vaguely European snobbishness and angst. When I finally read my work at a reading, I donned an over-sized denim shirt (an unsuccessful attempt to hide my girth) and a pageboy cap, a hat I donned because of my love for Stevie Ray Vaughan, who wore one (when he wasn’t wearing his trademark fedora). Reading a chapter of a novel-in-progress, I tried not to let my nerves show, despite the reticence I felt. My insides shook, but somehow, my voice stayed steady.
Afterward, several of my friends and professors congratulated me on the strength of my work. I was quietly elated by their compliments. Saying nice things about a peer’s work is one thing during workshop, a classroom method that by then I was getting used to. This was outside of the classroom. This rug had been ripped away: no classroom niceties, just me, the mic, and a crowd that could have booed me off the stage.
Since that night, I’ve read at countless open mics and benefits, sometimes headlining, usually playing second fiddle to a better, more well-known writer. And since that night, I’ve heard and read all kinds of dismissive commentary about open mic nights. The work is awful, some complain. The writers suck, others say. Open mic nights are magnets for creepy old guys who want to read their racy work to a captive audience. Open mic nights are forums for wanna-bes, poetasters whose work will no other audience.
No doubt, some of these things are true. It would be dishonest for me to say that all the work I’ve heard at open mic nights is good. A lot of it is awful. I’ve seen some young poets stagger up behind the mic and slur out, “I just wrote this on a napkin” before reading some god-awful piece of pseudo-poetry.
Just as often, however, I’ve seen writers blossom during open mic nights. I’ve seen my own students, shy about their work in class, suddenly become another person as they read their work. I’ve seen the boost that their peers’ confidence gives them. The literary magazine I advise, Pegasus, stages monthly open-mics on the campus of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. These events have grown in popularity over the past semester. The house was packed at the August open mic, and I was thoroughly impressed with the literary community at the small state college that pays my bills. Not all the work was high quality, of course. Very little of what I heard was publishable quality. And I don’t think that’s the point.
Instead, at least for me, an open mic gives writers the opportunity to engage with a community of those who value what they value. Let’s face it: writing is a lonely business. The writer sits at a keyboard (or with pencil or pen in hand) and stares at a white page, wrangles with language, seeks the perfect combination of words, and endures all of this alone. What impressed me about my first open mic reading so many years ago back at UWF is what impressed me about our modest readings here at ABAC: the community of writers and artists, all who come together in the name of art. For many beginning writers, just knowing that they’re not alone in their struggle is more of a gift than they ever realized. Even for a veteran open-mic denizen like me, I still enjoy standing behind the mic and reading to a crowd who came not to see me, but to hear another writer's words.
O for a muse of fire,