I’ve been kind of skirting the edges of this whole BlazeVOX controversy, watching from the bench, letting people more eloquent than me sound off with thoughts similar enough to my own that for me to say my peace would be just unnecessary repetition.
But I have this to say, something that I haven’t been seeing said as much, where others have focused more on issues of transparency and ethics.
Poets, why do you (read “we” as I’m a poet, too) all seem so defeated and downtrodden in this conversation?
First off, let me say that I appreciate all those who’ve come to BlazeVOX’s defense in this, as it shows that despite their practices that have come into question BV has made an impact, has gathered a certain community to itself, and I don’t think that’s to be discredited in this discussion. Nor do I believe any of the authors published by BV are or should be discredited at all because of this controversy–to the contrary, BV is home to quite a few great writers, and you should support them by buying their books. To a degree, I appreciate what BV is trying to do, even if I don’t particularly agree with how or why or how well they do it.
Now, all that aside, I want to say this: Gatza, the editor of BV, has gone on record to say that for titles by new authors, he averages 20-30 copies sold, and throughout this conversation, this has been accepted as something of a norm for avant garde poetry. Reb Livingston at No Tell cited some of her numbers and seems to find an average title selling somewhere around 100-150 copies, and has this to say:
Gatza states, “In general, books by new authors sell around 25 – 30 copies.” Shocking? Only if you don’t know the first thing about poetry publishing.
What saddens me the most is that people coming forward to defend BlazeVOX seem resigned to this. The consensus seems to be that no one cares about poetry, no one buys it, and anyone out there putting time and energy into the production and distribution of poetry, even with such abysmal numbers as 20-30 copies sold on average per title, should be lauded. Livingston says very plainly, “This is the reality of poetry publishing.”
I want to say, “Frankly, if the state of poetry in America is such that people think it’s a fair deal for a poet to pay someone $250 to help them sell 20-30 copies of their book, if the resounding gong of poetry publishing rings the word “thankless,” then it’s time to pack it in, ladies and gentlemen.”
But more than that, I want to say this: “No. No it’s not.”
You see, here’s the thing: I started taking Vouched Books really seriously last October, which means I (and now Laura in Atlanta) have been selling books at readings and art fairs and craft shows for almost exactly a year now. Having crunched some sales numbers today, we’ve held 26 tables, and we’ve sold approximately 400 small press books. Of those 400, a little over 100 have been books of poetry. Sure, the majority still rests heavily on prose, but 25% is not a paltry number, most definitely not so paltry as to resign ourselves to the dark corners of the literary world.
What’s more, many of these books of poetry were sold to people who admittedly “didn’t like poetry,” until I put a book of poetry in their hand that I thought they might like. (NB: I watched Vouched contributor and recent tabler-mate Tyler Gobble sell a copy of Sasha Fletcher’s When All Our Days Are Numbered to someone who said they didn’t like poetry just last Friday.)
Listen. Poetry is not tired, and it sure as hell isn’t dead. It’s misunderstood at best. I’ll grant that there isn’t as much a market for it as for prose, but I love what Mike Meginnis says here:
If you are a writer who writes things nobody will pay for [speaking about avant garde poetry], you need to remember that the size of the world’s population means that a book that only appealed to 1 in 1000 people could still be a bestseller with the right promotion.
Love him or hate him, Bukowski was almost right when he said, “Poetry is always been said to be a private hidden heart not appreciated. The reason it’s not appreciated is it hasn’t shown any guts, hasn’t shown any dance, hasn’t shown any moxie.”
I say almost, because at this point, poetry doesn’t seem to be the problem, but its champions. Take it from me, it’s not that hard to sell a book. But it does take some work. It does take more than a website and a newsletter and some social media accounts. You have to believe in your books enough to come up with other ways. Better ways. You have to believe that 20-30 copies is not good enough.
You have to stop believing that this is “the reality of poetry publishing.” Because it’s not. Because even if it is, it doesn’t have to be. Stand up.