Monday, September 5, 2011

The bizarre apparent demise of an important publisher

Excuse me while I bury the lead: Two years ago, Jessy Randall and I received an acceptance letter from BlazeVOX [books] for our manuscript, Interruptions. The letter offered us a "situation," in which we were to pay Geoffrey Gatza, the editor and publisher, $250 "due to the recent economic upheaval." Gatza went on to assure us these financial woes were only temporary: "No joke, not participating in this will not mean we will not publish your work in the future!"

At the time, Jessy and I discussed the odd feeling we got from this letter. Here was a significant publisher of experimental literature, a publisher with books by people whom we admired greatly. And yet Gatza's letter forced us to question whether or not we were desperate to get our book published. We ended up passing on the "situation."

I hadn't thought about BlazeVOX again until a couple of months ago, when I was engaged in one of my time-consuming hobbies: looking through Duotrope--a website for authors looking for places to submit their work and editors who want submissions. A key criterion of being listed on Duotrope is that a magazine or journal must not require reading fees. Each time you access the website, you're shown a "random market"; it could be any journal or magazine. Anyhow, when I went onto the site, BlazeVOX popped up as the random market. Naturally, I was curious about what had happened to them in the last couple of years, so I went to the entry. At the top of the page was a note: "Please contact us if this publisher has ever asked you for large amounts of money."

Well... As a Duotrope addict and a supporter of fee-free submissions, I dug up our "situation" letter and forwarded it to the Duotrope folks. I received a short, polite response thanking me for my help. I don't know what Duotrope did, other than to change its listing, which now says, "DNQ. Reason for disqualification: They request a donation of hundreds of dollars to help with publishing costs after accepting a book."

Two days ago, I learned of another person who had received the same "situation" letter Jessy and I had gotten. Brett Ortler, co-founder of Knockout literary magazine, wrote a blog about his exchanges with Gatza. His post created an occasionally ugly series of dialogues among Ortler and people leaving comments. I believe Ortler was trying to share information with other writers who might be interested in submitting to BlazeVOX; he seemed to be giving people a heads up about fees that aren't upfront. Nonetheless, a few people who feel strongly about the past merits of BlazeVOX and its editor/publisher suggested Ortler was, at best, being a whiner and, at worst, starting a campaign against the publisher.

Then yesterday, Gatza announced he'll shut down the press at the end of the year. Some people want to blame Ortler for this, but it's absurd to suggest someone could blog about something controversial--not everyone believes the $250 fee is unethical--and cause the press to shut down the next day. It's clear the press has been in trouble for at least a couple of years--when the "recent economic upheaval" might've begun--so it's possible Gatza has finally grown weary of asking for help. Ortler's blog probably just magnified Gatza's desperation, rather than blowing the whistle on a "scam," as some blog commentators want to call it.

My overall feeling is that it's sad to see a vibrant small press sink and fall apart. Art and business have always made strange bedfellows. People who really love literature have founded presses and had to shut them down because they couldn't afford to keep them running. The big question doesn't seem to be, "Does a publisher care about his authors?" or "Is the publisher a good person?" It seems to be more about downsizing, cutbacks, and other business jargon. Writing a book might be magical, pure love, etc., etc., but getting someone to sell it for you might be something else entirely. It's difficult to go from pouring your emotions into your writing and then having to shrug and say business is business. BlazeVOX is only the latest press to prove this, though its previous track record makes the truth sting a bit more.

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