Poets Going Gentle Into the Good Night: Thoughts On BlazeVOX

7 Sep

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.

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52 Responses to “Poets Going Gentle Into the Good Night: Thoughts On BlazeVOX”

  1. daniel bailey September 7, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    word. gatza needs to talk to mike young about poetry publishing/promotion.

    • ce. September 7, 2011 at 9:27 am #

      too right, man. adam robinson, too.

  2. Andrew Clark September 7, 2011 at 9:46 am #

    So very well said. I love the way you’ve gotten to the real issue here, instead of rehashing one of the two points that everyone seems to be making. People from every sect of the poetry community are stunted by the lack of confidence you’re talking about and it’s a damn shame, especially since people like you are proving that it doesn’t have to be that way.

    • ce. September 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

      To be fair, this is a thick conversation, and there are plenty of real issues being discussed. Transparency, editorial ethics, shifting models and paradigms in the publishing industry, etc. are all very important topics, and I’ve seen some really good conversation about these topics happening amid the noise of the rest of it.

      This was just part of the issue that I thought I was most qualified to comment on, and felt it was getting overshadowed, or perhaps some people were mincing words because emotions are already so high. So, I wanted to create a space for this part of the conversation here.

  3. Amber Sparks September 7, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    I AM SO GLAD YOU WROTE THIS. Seriously. I have been reading these posts with the same thought. I remember I was going to send my manuscript to a small press I really like, and I was talking to another author they’d recently published, and when I asked how sales were going she shrugged and said, “You know, probably 20 copies max. What can you expect?” WE CAN EXPECT MORE THAN THIS. Jesus Christ. If you don’t put any effort into it, if your press doesn’t have a clue how to promote anything and by the way disdains social media as a lot of them seem to, if they don’t even bother to promote what they’re trying to print, then what the fuck? What else can you expect?

    That is why the work that Vouched does, that YOU do, Chris, is so important. You’ve gotten creative and you’ve put yourself out there and said, I love this and so will you. Buy it. And people do! I’ve gotten friends of mine who hate poetry (my husband included) to read and love Matthias Svalina, Mike Young, Adam Robinson, The Dirty Poet, Molly Gaudry, and lots of others. I have seen people who said they didn’t “get” experimental writing fall in love with Sasha Fletcher’s book, or a Ben Marcus story. No, we will never have a huge gigantic audience, no, we will never make millions, but we can be passionate about our work and sell it like we mean it, like we believe that other people should read it because if we don’t believe it then what are we publishing it for in the first place? If the editor and writer/poet don’t care then why should anyone else? Blar.

    • ce. September 7, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words, Amber. And I agree. I think Meginnis really hits the nail on the head when he says a lot of people don’t seem to consider the role a publisher plays in the industry, and Victoria makes a good point below.

      A publisher can’t just be a person who produces a book; they must also be its champion. If you as a publisher aren’t up for the hard work of championing, then you should recognize your personal limitations and bring someone on board who is.

  4. Carrie Murphy (@carriemurph) September 7, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    great post. i am one of the poets that kind of shrugs and says “no one really cares about poetry (outside of the poetry world)” but your post is helping me to realize how defeatist, shallow and dangerous that attitude is. you’re right on.

    • ce. September 7, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

      I’m glad this post can give you something of a renewed vigor. I think it’s easy to be defeatist in the face of it all, but there is a community out there who isn’t happy being marginalized and is trying to do something about it instead of simply expecting said marginalization.

  5. Victoria Barrett September 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    Thank you for this. There’s poetry in stock at Target, for shit’s sake. Selling things is hard work. If you’re not inclined to do that hard work, as a publisher, you should be willing to hire a PR flack who will.

    • ce. September 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm #

      Yes, yes, yes. Part of being a good business is recognizing your limitations and bringing in people to make up where you are without.

  6. Mike Young September 7, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    bravo, c. newg. i have things to say about this too, and i think i’m going to post about them on HTMLG, but i think one good, simple direction for this conversation to go in is for small press publishers to be helpful and upfront about their financial realities and their techniques.

    #1, i don’t buy the publisher/writer false dichotomy anymore than i buy the writer/poet false dichotomy, so i think this is something all of us need to talk about, and there needs to be less “you writers just don’t know how hard being a publisher is!” this ground has been trod and trod around places like Vouched, but as R. Creeley said: “Poetry is a team sport; you can’t play it all by yourself. It’s like gypsies. You know each other in the world.” if you have a relationship with poetry where you’re interested in poetry—rather than just writing poems for yourself (nothing wrong with that, but if you want others to read your poems, you’re on team gypsy, whether you like it or not)—you’re automatically a member of the larger poetry community, and i think everybody (publishers, poets) alike needs to respect that we’re on common ground. joey or josephina blow at 7-11 doesn’t give a squint about petty turf sniffing over a poet who formats a book in inDesign and a poet who doesn’t. it’s all team gypsy.

    so i feel like a good tone for here on out would be something non-condescending where people start honestly explaining “well this is how i sell 40-50 copies with x amount of money, this is how i sell 20-30 copies with x amount of money, this is how i sell 300 copies with x amount of money,” so there is actual simple economic cooperative learning going on. now that most of the relevant philosophical stuff seems pretty much out of the way. (which, i know, is kind of a loaded thing to say, and no disrespect to anybody who wants to squeeze some more philosophy out, especially if it’s as apt and inspiring as yours, sir newg). also, again, i know that folks like GG have been putting out amazing poetry for a long time, so no disrespect/patronizing implications anywhere is intended. but let’s just talk about the money on the ground and our subjective experiences of it, because i don’t think anyone can really say with a straight face “$250 isn’t that much money.” that’s like assuming everyone in america has a car. or “the number of books i sell is how all of avant garde poetry works.” which is like assuming that everyone has the same acne technique. we need to recognize our subjective ideologies and experiences and work cooperatively outwards, embracing our ignorance of others instead of collapsing into stances and assumptions.

    anyway, i’ll have more to say on HTMLG soon, i hope!

    • ce. September 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

      Mike, awesome. That’s a conversation I’d really, really love to have, and of course, I’d be willing to share any and all knowledge I’ve gained doing Vouched with people. I agree, I think now that problems have been pretty thoroughly philosophized, it’s time to get practical with our conversation.

      I’ll keep my eye out for your post.

    • Roxane September 7, 2011 at 9:01 pm #

      Hi Mike, I think financial transparency is key too. I’m thinking about doing a post discussing numbers because there’s no need to have all this mystery about what it costs to publish a book and move copies. Or we should do something together! These aren’t state secrets.

      • Mike Young September 7, 2011 at 9:40 pm #

        roxane, i would be into doing something together. email me or i will email you, whichever comes first

      • ce. September 8, 2011 at 7:45 am #

        I plan on crunching some numbers over the next couple days and making a financial transparency post here regrading how much it cost to start my table and keep it running. Figured I’d get some figures from Laura now that her table is full swing, too.

  7. Collin Kelley (@CollinKelley) September 7, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    Money and number of books sold have always been a touchy subject with poets. So has being actively involved in the promotion of your own work. I agree that 20 or 30 copies is not good enough, and I’ve been very lucky to have presses and my own “moxie” to be unashamed in pushing my own work.

    However, there’s some oversimplification happening in this post. I was curious as to how much money you spent getting a table at those fairs and shows? Doesn’t 26 tables eat into the profits from the 400 books you’ve sold?

    Sadly, many presses — like No Tell — are a one (wo)man operation. There isn’t time or money to get to 26 shows in a year. That’s not an excuse, it’s a fact, so should that publisher close shop? And should a publisher drop a poet who won’t actively promote their own work?

    I’d also be curious as to what others ideas of “better ways” are to sell books these days? I’m always looking for a new idea.

    • ce. September 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

      Hey Collin,

      I appreciate you commenting, and you’re right–there was some over-simplifying, mainly so I could keep my word count down. I probably could have been a bit more detailed about my numbers. To clarify, I’ve actually only ever taken part in 2 shows where table fees were required, 1 of which the fee was waived because it wasn’t attended as well as the organizer had hoped due to a blizzard. So, in a year, I’ve spent exactly $25 on table fees. And, with some of the out of town tables I’ve done, I could probably add another $100 for gas total for the year. I’ve passed up tabling at events where the fee is so much that I know I would not be able to at least recoup the fee in profits. I’m happy enough breaking even knowing that I’ve gotten a couple dozen books out there. But generally, I’ve found events where I can set up for free, like my monthly table outside Big Car Gallery (an art collective with whom I’ve partnered here in Indy) during the city-wide First Friday art event.

      As for your questions, I would say that if you don’t think you have the time, energy, or money to do justice by your authors, then yes, the hard truth (or at least what I believe), if that you should close up shop. Of course, “do justice by your authors” is such a gray term–some authors might feel fine with 20-30 copies sold, but to me, that just seems sad. But, if you’ve set those expectations with your author, and they’re still on board, then go for it. That’s where you cross over into transparency issues.

      And re: dropping a poet who won’t actively promote their own work, again, it’s tricky, and I think to answer it at all is to over-simplify, and again, I think it’s a matter of set expectations. If a publisher is willing to pick up the admitted lack of a poet’s ability or willingness to push their own book, and that poet is willing to accept what could be the inability for the publisher to properly promote their book, then okay. It seems everyone will be happy. Likewise, there seem to be a good portion of authors on BlazeVOX who’ve put their own work into promoting and selling, and are very happy with their experience publishing there, and that’s to their credit. So again, it’s a matter of transparency, and set expectations. I just know that personally, if I was a publisher, and a poet was for some reason refusing to champion their own work, I’d have a hard time working with them, because I’d expect them to love their work so much that they’d be right there in the trenches with me.

      • ce. September 8, 2011 at 7:55 am #

        I guess the only question I didn’t answer was re: “better ways” to sell poetry, and again, it’s hard to answer that without over-simplifying, but part of what I’ve found works best is by selling books in unexpected places, places where books aren’t already. Selling at book fairs is tough when everyone around you is also selling stacks of books. Selling at a craft show where you’re the only person there with a table of beautiful books amid tables of pottery and jewelry and organic hand creams automatically draws people to look.

        Like I said, my primary table spot is a monthly table at an art gallery during Indy’s city-wide First Friday art celebration. The gallery is located in a repurposed warehouse along with dozens of other galleries, and hundreds of people pass through each month during First Friday. The environment itself generates an audience interested in new, artful endeavors, and being the only person there selling books, I get a lot of people stopping to check out my table and ask questions and so on.

        Also, I don’t know if you’re going to be at AWP this year, but there’s what looks to be a pretty incredible panel happening that I plan on attending:

        “The Bookstore Is Not Your Best Friend: Effective Small Press Marketing Strategies.

        Colleen McKee, C.J. Kearns, Erin Wiles, Behnam Riahi, Winnie Sullivan

        Many publishers and authors starting out mistakenly assume that the first (or even only) place they should market their books and journals are bookstores. While bookstores should be their friends—and often are—they are not necessarily their best friends. In this panel, publishers and PR people from young yet successful small presses discuss alternative venues for readings and book sales, from anarchist bakeries to punk bars, galleries to outdoor fairs, burlesque nights to feminist groups.”

    • ce. September 7, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

      Collin, sorry to not completely answer all your questions. I had to get home, and now I’ve to get to a meeting, but I’ll try to answer your questions further when I get home later tonight. Hope this gives you something worthwhile to chew on while I’m away. Thanks again for your thoughts and questions!

  8. Mather Schneider September 7, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    Great little spirit lifter, here. Thank you.

    • ce. September 8, 2011 at 7:56 am #

      Thank you, man.

  9. Jeremy Bauer September 7, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    I agree with Dan up there. I’m pretty sure his DRUNK SONNETS has sold more than 25-30 copies, and there was some cool promotion done with that, like the can cozies and such.

    I think B’s right about the guts & moxie part as well.

    I’m going to paste a section from an NY Times article written in 2010 titled “Does Poetry Matter?” by Gregory Cowles. Here’s what David Foster Wallace had to say about poetry in an interview of sorts in 1996:

    “…Put it this way, there are a few really good poets who suffered because of the desiccation and involution of poetry, but for the most part I think American poetry has gotten what it’s deserved. And, uh, it’ll come awake again when poets start speaking to people who have to pay the rent.”

    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/11/does-poetry-matter/?scp=1&sq=does%20poetry%20matter?&st=cse

    • daniel bailey September 7, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

      not to mention chris selling a bunch of copies at the vouched table. the drunk sonnets had just as much potential to go unread. i was just fortunate enough to have a publisher (and to have it read by chris) who knows how to sell books.

  10. Damian September 7, 2011 at 5:42 pm #

    BlazeVOX is a labor of love not a business.

  11. Sam Ligon September 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    Great post, Chris. Your enthusiasm serves the larger literary community in a lot of ways. Getting the work out there, believing in its value, infecting other people with that excitement — that stuff is really energizing.

    • ce. September 8, 2011 at 7:58 am #

      Appreciate the kind words, Sam, and your help spreading this post.

  12. Reb Livingston September 7, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    Hi. I’ve been publishing books for 5 years and I expected a lot better sales when I started. I’m not saying I’m a promotional expert, but I’ve done a great deal of promotion for the books that I publish–as much as I’ve been able to do with my resources. I’ve organized reading tours for authors, hold reading parties, arrange readings and events, send out review copies (to both reviews and college poetry teachers in hopes they’ll assign them for classes), regularly speak at universities and conferences about the press and books, get tables at bookfairs, offer promotions and sales, write about the books at a variety of literary websites, encourage others to write about the books, sparingly pay for advertising, lobby for our books to be selected for book clubs (like the Rumpus), etc. Once a year I spend several weeks doing free tarot readings for customers who purchase books. I really try to be creative. Many publishers do this (and other things) so I think it’s not really cool to blame publishers for poetry sales. I’m doing the best I have with the resources I have as are most others. The truth is that I’ve made peace and accepted these are the numbers. I would love to sell more books and am always trying to figure out ways to sell more books (and really appreciate other publishers publicly sharing what works and don’t work for them). But it’s not how I measure success and saying a poetry book that sells only a few copies shouldn’t be published completely misses why poetry exists. Every book I’ve published is really strong and deserved to be published and deserves to exist, no matter what the sales numbers are. And it’s not like these books expire, they’ll still be really good and worth reading in 10, 20, 100 years from now. A lot of books published by these small presses are by authors in their early and mid-careers — and it often takes a great deal of time to build up even a modest readership base. I would really love to know what the sales were in 1988 for Billy Collin’s first book, The Apple That Astonished Paris (University of Arkansas Press), before he won the poet lottery. I think I’ll eat my own ass if somebody can produce proof that more than 300 copies sold in its first year. I’m troubled that so many writers equate business/financial success=legitimacy and worthiness. Gatza is probably not a very good business person. It’s probably close to impossible for him to give all the books he publishes a lot of promotion and marketing. I wouldn’t run my press the way he does, but that’s OK. He runs his press the way he sees fit, according to his own vision–and if that’s not your bag, well that’s OK too, don’t publish with him. Over the years people have offered me all kinds of advice about how I should run my press, but I’m the one doing the work and volunteering my time. There are suggestions that I’m simply not interested in taking. Like I’m not interested in running a contest, even though it would certainly be a way I could generate funds. When someone is especially pushy about my implementing their suggestion, I reply “That’s a really good idea, you should do that.” And I sincerely mean that. Follow your vision instead of telling others how to do their job. It’s pretty gross how some people went straight to trashing Gatza, using words like scam–that’s what really bothered me because anyone who’d say or infer that knows nothing about poetry publishing. Publishing 30+ poetry titles a year takes quite a bit of enthusiasm, if you ask me. It might not be your brand of enthusiasm. It may not be how you would funnel your enthusiasm. It’s certainly not how I channel mine. But Gatza hardly lacks enthusiasm. Lazy people don’t do that much work for others.

    • Collin Kelley (@CollinKelley) September 7, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

      Great post, Reb. As you know, I own a fair number of No Tell books and they are all excellent — both in look and content. It’s a thankless job, but you my thanks for producing great poetry collections.

  13. Reb Livingston September 7, 2011 at 8:00 pm #

    And I hope this doesn’t come off the wrong way, but you mention that you sold 100 poetry books (which I respect) and I understand Vouched is newer and has fewer poetry titles, but over the past 5 years NTB has sold 2213 books (this number doesn’t include the 150+ books that were ordered but not paid for or stolen or what authors sold on their own which is at least an additional 1500). NTB has also distributed or donated an additional 1000+ books (review & complimentary copies, library & school donations, etc.). Do you really think you’re in a position of experience to tell other poetry presses that they’re not trying hard enough, don’t know what they’re doing or have the wrong attitude?

    • Roxane September 7, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

      Reb, I really respect the wisdom and experience you bring but being new doesn’t mean you can’t have a good perspective. I think Chris is offering a valid perspective. Maybe this is the best we can do when it comes to selling poetry, though there are many examples of poetry selling quite well. Typecast does well as does Magic Helicopter. No matter what the realities of selling poetry are, I don’t think there is anything wrong with striving to do better and maybe approaching the selling of poetry with less defeatism. Hope tempered with pragmatism never costs much.

      • Reb Livingston September 7, 2011 at 9:22 pm #

        Roxane, I agree that striving to do better is important as is having hope. I’m so very glad that there are presses that sell many books (and so very wish they would share their models and numbers publicly). What is frustrating is to read posts like this that suggest the poetry presses that aren’t selling lots of copies aren’t striving or trying. That they’re somehow doing it wrong and need to change and work more within what’s expected in our capitalism-based society. That if a press isn’t able to sell high numbers (due to financial, personal obligations, vision, or whatever) that it’s a failure, that if a press states its sales-reality it’s being defeatist. If I focused primarily on sales, I would be publishing very different books — which isn’t what I want to be doing. I have a lot of enthusiasm about the books I put out or would I never bother in the first place. I mean, I could just stay quiet and let people continue to believe NTB is selling many thousands of copies, which is what people seem to think we were doing all along. But why should I? Why shouldn’t people know the truth?

        • Roxane September 7, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

          I definitely agree that the transparency is important. People should know that these are the numbers. But I don’t think saying, let’s try new things is synonymous with saying, “You’re not even trying,” to established presses who aren’t putting up big numbers. You run your press the way you want. No one would doubt No Tell Books. Your reputation speaks for itself. This conversation is just not personal. I also don’t think that it’s slavery to capitalism to say, 20-30 copies of a book is not the best we can do. I mean we’re not aiming for the NY Times Besteller list here. It’s… dismissive to imply that this is all about being rabid capitalists. In the small press world, we’re just trying to put great art in the world. As a publisher, one of the things I feel I bring to the table is a dedication to putting my authors books into as many hands as possible because I want everyone to know about these writers. Maybe that makes me a capitalist but it’s not about the money. It’s about the reach. I also don’t think that capitalism, when negotiated ethically, is a bad thing. I need money to pay my rent, insurance, eat, and so on. I cannot print books on idealism, so yes, I will say that making money is also a goal–money to publish more books and money to pay my authors the royalties they deserve. I personally find that poets, in general, seem to consistently work with the attitude that no one cares about poetry. That troubles me. And you know, maybe that has been true but, I guess I cannot imagine making art with a defeatist attitude. Even if the world stopped buying books tonight, I would still be excited to write.

          • Reb Livingston September 7, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

            I can’t speak for all poets, but while I agree few people care about poetry — I don’t consider believing that to be defeatist. It can be incredibly freeing to write and not have to worry about your target market. It’s one of the reasons I write poetry. Maybe the main reason. And yes, we need money to make certain things happen and sales can be one way to reach that goal, but there are other ways too. Obviously in my case, it’s personal funds from non-poetry jobs. There’s also things like grants, university support, and other publishing models, like what BlazeVOX does. I’m sure BV could sell more books if he published fewer titles and spent more time marketing what he was publishing. But he has a vision that involves publishing many titles. And those who share his vision participate in the cooperative publishing model and those who don’t, don’t. I can’t say that I share that vision, but I don’t think he’s being defeatist by doing it his way. And knowing how much work it takes to sell poetry books, I’m not surprised by his sales numbers. Maybe he doesn’t put the same importance on sales as most other people would. I don’t know him personally, I heard he’s a chef and an ex-marine. I own 15-20 BlazeVox titles. My impression is that he’s a rare bird that flies his own path. Good for him.

            It’s hard not to take personally comments like following:

            “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.”

            If the “champions” of poetry would just work harder! Do something more than create websites, twitter accounts and then sit on our rumps waiting for the sales to happen. Is that what poetry publishers are doing? Really?

          • Roxane September 7, 2011 at 10:01 pm #

            Reb, I just don’t know what to say other than I will respectfully agree to disagree. I absolutely hear what you’re saying and I am much newer to being a publisher so my experience is different. Having seen Chris work many times, I have to agree that selling books in relatively good quantities is very possible and not hard. I don’t know how to account for that but I’ve seen it with my own eyes. As for money, I fund my own press out of my monthly paycheck and sales, and thankfully the balance is tipping to sales. PANK books are not university or grant supported. We fund the books strictly through sales and, yes, a reading fee though what we make from that fee does not begin to cover the cost of printing. Gatza’s vision is what it is, but selling 20-30 copies is unacceptable to me. I think it’s a disservice to the ART and the artist. Finally, I think you’re reading insult in Chris’s words because… I don’t know, but given what I know of him, and yes he is a friend but I would say this regardless, he doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. Like it or not, there are publishers, like BlazeVox (I too own many titles), who just throw up a website, mention a book on FB and call it a day. You can’t sell much under those circumstances. There’s nothing wrong in saying that. And I know most writers would prefer to sell 100-200 or 300 than 20-30 so let’s not act like that’s ideal for anyone.

          • Reb Livingston September 7, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

            I’m not saying Chris is being malicious and I think it’s wonderful that he’s an awesome book seller and I hope he keeps on doing what he’s doing. Likewise, I have only a positive perception of your own publishing contributions which is really quite impressive.

            What I’m saying is that it’s really frustrating and yes, it feels insulting, to have those kinds of blanket statements made about poetry publishers being the “problem.” It’s not like we’re stopping or making it more difficult for anyone else to step up and sell a fuckton of poetry books.

            Selling 100 poetry titles is nothing to sneeze at and I think that it’s really helping the presses they’re promoting. I would certainly appreciate an organization like Vouched to help sell NTB titles. But that figure doesn’t exactly wow me or make me want to rethink my own model.

    • ce. September 8, 2011 at 10:20 am #

      Hey Reb,

      Roxane has already said a lot of what crossed my mind as I read through your discussion from last night, so I would just echo her to response to many of your concerns with my post. Sorry I wasn’t able to be here last night to respond to you sooner, and thanks much to Roxane for her kind, supportive comments.

      Firstly, I want to say I was a bit worried you’d read this and take personally some of my concerns. I’m really sorry that’s what happened, and I should’ve been clearer to state that your work with NTB is not what I was critiquing in this post. To the contrary, I’ve always felt your work with NTB is nothing short of tireless, and I think that’s proven well enough in that your average sales per title based on your numbers are around 150 copies, which I think is a bit more in line with what poets (especially first-bookers) can and should expect. Also, I appreciate your post today at No Tell Blog clarifying what you meant by my quoted passage, but allow me to clarify, too.

      I didn’t mean to imply that all blame is to fall on publishers. Like you mention in your post, a lot of poets don’t seem to understand the importance or logistics of self-promotion. And like I say in my post, I don’t think the fault for the current state of poetry falls on the poetry like Bukowski says. There’s some pretty fucking great poetry out there right now. The fault lies on its champions, all of us. I highlighted the publishers in this post because this current issue surrounding BV is very publisher-centric, and again, in retrospect, I could have done a better job saying how we are all involved in this.

      I think Mike really gets to it in his comment up there–we are all a part of this, all a part of team gypsy–when I say the fault lies with the champions, I count myself in that number along with the poets and along with the publishers, and even along with lovers of poetry with no ambitions to publish. We need to start acting like it. We need to stop going to AWP with the intention of scoring as many free or deeply discounted books as possible. We need to stop thinking book fairs/stores/reviews/etc. are the only and best way to sell books. And you know, as much as I respect DFW, I don’t totally agree with his idea that poetry will wake up when poets start speaking to people who have to pay the rent. I think there is some really incredible, very awake poetry out there speaking to someone other than “the everyman.” That’s the point I’m trying to make in my post. Not that any 1 person is to blame, but that we are all to blame for being so resigned with the so called “reality of poetry publishing.”

      And lastly, I want to address your point that because I’ve sold only about 4% the number of poetry books you’ve sold, and for only 20% of the time you have been doing it, I’m somehow less (or un-) qualified to share my opinion on the state of poetry today, and what I see as a sad resignation to that state. When I looked around this past week, and saw so many of my fellow poets saying, “This is just how it is,” I had to stand up and say something. Even had I not sold a single book, had I not started Vouched at all, I would feel compelled to speak out as a poet about this, because I have to believe it can be better than it is. I’ve lived my entire fucking life believing it can be better than it is–whether that’s the state of poetry, my life, the world–and I’m not about to stop now. I couldn’t live with myself–I couldn’t live at all–if I believed this was as good as it can be. I would have no purpose if I believed that. So, please don’t try to convince me that my hope for the future of poetry and poetry publishing is any less valid because I’ve only sold so many books.

  14. Bill Knott September 8, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    why is the most important art the one which is least funded?—

    i’ve been haranguing about this for years on my blog—

    the systematic societal underfunding of poetry is an injustice, an evil

    which tragically is taken for granted by poets, who seem unable to rise up and seize the reparations they’re due—

    in the class system of the arts, poets are the proles, the slaves—

    why can’t poets organize and engage in the same tactics of civil disobedience and protest

    which antiwar/civilrights groups use in trying to redress their grievances—

  15. Reb Livingston September 8, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    Chris, thank you for responding. I think Vouched is truly a wonderful idea that has great potential — and I don’t want you to lose hope or your vision for a better poetry future. I have similar visions. It was difficult, in the context of your post, not to read champions as mainly publishers–or to parse the intended context of the quotes you used. Or at least it was for me. I don’t mean to imply that your vision or experience isn’t valid, or that you shouldn’t speak to it. I appreciate and greatly respect your commitment and do not want to discourage you. I apologize for questioning your experience, but my eyebrow is raised when you make a statement that “Take it from me, it’s not that hard to sell a book.” after you note that you sold 100 poetry books in your first year. That doesn’t sound like it was so easy to me. I bet you put and lot time, energy and hard work into selling those books (which I greatly appreciate!). And it was a lot smaller number than the fiction titles you were able to sell. And, correct me if I’m wrong, Vouched isn’t a press, but an organization that solely promotes and markets books, right? Is it true that your organization’s primary role is to promote books while a press has multiple roles ranging from selecting, editing, designing, fundraising, proofreading, printing, as well as promotion and marketing etc.?

    • ce. September 8, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

      That line was a bit snarky, I know, but I guess the point I’m trying to make is I feel there’s this overarching feeling that these things are hard to do. I don’t feel like I have a natural proclivity to what I’m doing with Vouched. It started simply as an idea (selling books at art fairs and flea markets), and I hopped on WordPress, created a free site, emailed some publishers, and started writing and selling books. I gathered some contributors to help me with the blog and now with tabling and support at readings and word-spreading.

      When I look back on the past year, none of it feels especially “hard,” (time and energy consuming, yes, but not “hard”) And, I’ve never felt it hard to talk to someone and hand them a book I think they’ll like. Of all the things I do with Vouched, that’s the easiest, because all I have to do is be excited about the books I’m excited about, and people respond to that. It’s hard to put on successful readings. It’s hard to decide which books I want on the table–to reject someone who sent me a book in hopes I’ll sell it, to decide which book have to stop selling to make way for a new title I want to sell. There is a lot of work that goes into making Vouched successful, while perhaps not as multiply roled as that of a publisher. But, it’s never been hard for me to go where the people are and sell a book.

      Again, I don’t mean that to be offensive to you in any way, nor do I mean to trivialize the work you’ve put into NTB. As I said before, I have a lot of respect for your efforts and the obvious passion you have for poetry and the books you’ve published. That line, along with every other line in the post, was meant for everyone here on team gypsy.

  16. Reb Livingston September 8, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    Well, let’s put aside words like hard and a difficult and say that it takes a tremendous amount of work and commitment to sell poetry books (and I think your natural talent at sales is something you perhaps take for granted, lots of people, poets even more so, don’t have that talent and it’s really not “easy” for them). When you do your own transparency post, maybe you should include the number of hours you put into selling books. If you break it down, with all the work you do behind and infront of the scenes — how many sales does that break down an hour? How many just for poetry books? I don’t really know, but let’s say you spent an average of 10 hours a week for one year working on Vouched. That’s 520 hours, or 1.3 books sold per hour of just your work alone (not including your partners’). Or 5.2 hours of work per poetry title sold. Some people might consider that a serious challenge. I think you should be enthusiastic and hopeful and from what I hear, you’re very good at what do and that thrills me to know that someone like you is selling poetry books and I, again, think 100 poetry sales in a year is a fabulous contribution and believe that’s real experience selling poetry books and I do think you have lots of valuable ideas to share. But I think your post was rather misleading and while it may have been done in the spirit to rouse up the troops, I think it also misinforms.

    Anyhow, no hard feelings on this end, hope it’s mutual.

    • ce. September 8, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

      Of course not. You’d have to do a hell of a lot more than take umbrage at a blog post for me to have any hard feelings toward you. A former band mate once slandered me among a circle of our friends and on facebook, and we remain friends to this day. I think respectfully disagreeing is pretty light-weight in comparison. 🙂

      As for your request for the transparency post, it’s tricky to parse my time spent working on Vouched in direct relation to how many books I sell per work hour, as book selling accounts for only a portion of what we do. Honestly, the guerrilla bookstore is perhaps the least time consuming thing we do here at Vouched, spending perhaps 10-12hrs a month on it (including ordering, stocking, and tabling [And of course, how do we figure in the hours spent reading the books we are considering stocking, since we would be reading them ourselves for pleasure anyway? Should we try to quantify it similar to how you figure a home office in your taxes, e.g. 10% of the square footage of my house is a home office, thus 10% of my housing expenses are tax-deductible?]).

      I put in a good portion more of hours working on Vouched, sure, but it’s mostly blogging/vouching for online works (which is a more community based effort that doesn’t have the goal of translating into sales, but clicks to the online works we enjoy) and organizing/promoting the reading series (which does translate into sales to a degree. But again, how do we quantify it, as the reading series is meant more as a community effort than a sales effort, i.e. I actually conceived the reading series as a way to bolster the Indianapolis literary community long before Vouched and thoughts of being a bookseller, but Vouched provided the catalyst and branding for it?).

      So, anyway. That’s just me thinking out loud. You can feel free to ignore all that. But if I can wrap my head around a good set of assumptions to parse my work time in ratio to books sold, I’d be happy to provide that info in the post.

      • Reb Livingston September 8, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

        I would think anything that that has to be done so x, y , or z can happen and everything that’s done to support the sales would need to be included. If it’s contributing towards the end goal of promoting/selling books, it’s part of your investment. Enjoying it is great, but that doesn’t diminish the work and time.

  17. SB July 4, 2013 at 6:01 am #

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    BlazeVOX is not listed in CLMP’s directory.

    A minor edit, correction. Not major like $250.

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