Monday, September 5, 2011

On Blazevox' Publishing Model, Or Fuck You You Fucking Fucks!

Geoffrey Gatza by Michael_Kelleher
Geoffrey Gatza, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Earlier this evening, as I was settling into my recently purchased Ikea Pöang chair to watch my favorite TV series, "Breaking Bad," my partner, Lori, nine months pregnant, said, Uh oh, something is going on with Geoffrey and Blazevox Books, and it doesn't look good.

I went to Geoffrey's Facebook page and saw that Evan Lavender Smith, an author who Blazevox discovered, had accused Geoffrey of "unethical" publishing practices, and was therefore leaving the press. Mr. Lavender Smith said he would soon write an open letter to Geoffrey, but in the meantime substituted a link to a blog post by a disgruntled author who felt like he'd been cheated because Geoffrey had asked him to cover a portion of the cost of the publication of his book.

This author, Brett Ortler, wrote a hysterical denunciation of Geoffrey's business practices, accusing him of scamming unsuspecting young authors into paying for publication and -- horror of horrors -- subjecting them to the demoralizing stigma of vanity publishing. In a later post, the blood still dripping from his mouth, he announced that he had begun an investigation into their finances and that he'd discovered that  Blazevox was not even a not-for-profit organization!

Hysteria aside, the implicit threat in this announcement was heard loud and clear. Within a short period of time, Geoffrey announced that he had had enough and that he would shut down his press.

After gloating over this, Mr. Ortler then went on to say that he never intended to close the press down, that he only wanted transparent submissions guidelines. Well, Brett, the damage is done. I hope you feel better. I am sure the university presses will be lining up to make you a poetry star. And if not, there's always the comment section of your blog to keep your poetry company.

Before Mr. Lavender Smith publishes his open letter, it should be noted that the successful discovery and publication of his book led him to, shall we say, seek higher ground and sell off the rights to his book to another small press. When Geoffrey objected, loudly, about this, Smith backed down. Seems he was looking for an excuse to pack his bags and conveniently found one in Brett Ortler.

But that is not what I came to talk to you about...I came to talk about Geoffrey Gatza and Blazevox Books and why their visionary (if poorly articulated) business model is important to poetry.

Let me begin by saying that Blazevox was the first small press publisher that I am aware of to have embraced the possibilities of print-on-demand. Geoffrey recognized two things that many in the poetry world have still not accepted:

1. No one reads poetry and it is too damned expensive to publish.
2. Many people write good poetry despite number 1 and wouldn't it be nice to find a cost effective way to usher their work into the world.

Now, when this technology came online more than ten years ago, the first thing out of every literary mouth was something like the following: O, that's just vanity publishing. Now everyone can have their own book and the quality of literary production will go down the toilet. There will be no more gatekeepers! How will we know if it is any good?

The answer to the last question is simple: READ THE FUCKING BOOK! If you like it, then it is good. If not, not.

Which brings me to the point. Geoffrey made the bold step of saying that the point of publishing is not to give authority or legitimacy to writers and their work, but to bring work that HE likes into the world. If the world likes it, then Hurray, as he would say. If not, well, there's always tomorrow.

The work that he does in producing and distributing these books is a gift to the authors he publishes. Authors like Ortler think it is the other way around: that their work is a gift to the world and that publishers should get down on their knees and thank them for writing it. Well, go fuck yourself.

The great crime that Geoffrey has committed in the eyes of these people is not a lack of concern for their work or a desire to scam young authors out of their money (both false charges), it is that they thought he was going to give them legitimacy and authority and all he gave them was a lousy, beautiful book, a worldwide distribution network and some marketing support. He even gave them his logo, telling the whole world that he personally liked their work and thought others should read it, too.

How dare he?

I would like all of the Brett Ortlers and Lavender Smiths of the world, before they go fuck themselves, to understand the following. Geoffrey Gatza has devoted his life to publishing them. He has no job. No source of income. He lives entirely on the very, very modest amount of money he has leftover after he publishes their books. He has no health insurance, no dental insurance, and no independent income. He is not a non-profit, which means he cannot receive grants. He is dependent for his meagre livelihood on book sales and the small fees he charges to offset costs to publish them.

And he publishes more quality books per year than most other presses in the country.

As a two-time Blazevox author, I am proud to be a part of this vain endeavor. I am proud to market my own books. I am proud to contribute what I can to their publication and distribution. Geoffrey is not my servant, he is my collaborator.

I owe him a lot and I refuse to sit quietly by as some MFA's hissy fit puts him out of business.

We love you Geoffrey -- don't stop!


Alan Bigelow said...


Aaron Lowinger said...

Let 10,000 poets (or whatever the number is) who BlazeVox published, who otherwise wouldn't have never been published (ISBN #, amazon distribution) pass the verdict.

Anonymous said...

in a way, the big players in the book industry have always been right: why should there be charity organizations involved with a profit driven industry. the not for profit art world has never made its intentions clear and i continue to be convinced that the growing number of not for profit art institutions small and large are not what will yield any meaningful or adept relation to native creative impulses. they continue to support wishy washy thinking in terms of what they promote. they are proto-democratic instead of really understanding the nature of an already functioning capitalist democracy.

The POD model has been used by larger publishers since it was
feasible via the new machinery. it wasn't publicized, however. [the publisher i work for] has
been doing it for more than a dozen years with all of their backlist and
it's getting even bigger. I point this out to show that kelleher himself buys into the wrong sub-point here, also.

if you look at the history of publishing, you'll find many many different models. it wasn't until the american industrial gilded age that large warehouses filled with cheap goods showed a dynamic within publishing that isn't tenable when a playing field is enlarged beyond a handful of imprints. before that, publishing was a motley of many shared monies and interests on various relatively small scales.

every several years this same 'controversy' is brought up. it's a dead fish and has nothing to do with boots on the ground.

semper fi, T.T.

Donna said...

I am not a poet but as Geoff's partner, I feel my take on this matter should be aired. When I first met Geoff ten years ago, BlazeVox was a tiny online magazine. At a time when most people didn't even own computers, he saw the digital future of publishing and began offering e-books. When he began publishing books, he used environmentally savvy print-on-demand services, cutting down on excessive use of paper and printing chemicals. This was way before the current trend to reduce resource waste. Geoff's vision was always to benefit poetry, giving fledgling writers as well as veterans equal opportunities. His generosity extends to supporting local and international poetry communities, to whom he has given his time and talent without recompense of any kind. I have watched him work tirelessly for over a decade to this end, around the clock, with no time off.

BlazeVox is not, and never has been a vanity press. God knows, my life would be easier if it was. Geoff reads each and every manuscript he receives, and only takes on those with merit. Yet, even those he rejects are encouraged to keep at it and become the best they can be. As the press makes no money, this has truly been a labor of love, a gift to all lovers of poetry. That BlazeVox books are so beautiful and innovative comes down to Geoff's vision, creativity, and hard work. He is at once an editor, graphic designer, web master, marketer, and even technology tutor to less than tech-savvy writers. Years ago, these skills would have been handled by different individuals, each being paid for their services.

These days it is all too common to see mediocrity upheld as excellence. To attempt to silence the voice of someone who has dedicated his life to challenging that is disgraceful, in my opinion. Those who seek to damage the reputation of the press should be ashamed of themselves for the part they played in extinguishing one of the few lights in a creative environment that is dimming with alarming frequency. We all lose in the end.

florine melnyk said...

No matter what any detractors of Geoffrey Gatza and/or BlazeVox books say, the fact is that Geoffrey's energy, dedication and love of poetry is nothing short of amazing. BlazeVox is indeed a labor of love, and he has given many deserving authors a louder voice. He is one of a kind and has created a history with all the titles and authors he has published. Poetry is happy to call him a friend and so am I.

Paul T. Hogan said...

Gatza's model is innovative, messy, quirky, probably unsustainable without change, and wonderful. It is decidedly not academic, thank gods, but it is incredibly curious. I find half the stuff he publishes unreadable, which is great. Because the other half more than makes up for it.
I was surprised that he wanted to publish some of my work in a Buffalo Focus, since I protested that I wasn't 'innovative' enough. But he said 'he liked my work,' which is, of course, like the court's definition of porn. The other press that published my first book is a non-profit, did a great job, and undoubtedly didn't make a penny. I don't know what it cost them to put it out, I don't know how much they actually did make or lose. If they'd asked, I would have put up some money to be published by them.
It would be absolutely tragic if Gatza closes down BVox. I will do whatever I can to convince him to continue. And these authors who have the luxury of unstructured time to whine about how they were poorly treated can -- as Mr. Kelleher so rightly put it -- fuck themselves. There are about 16 million other presses that are absolutely meaningless except to their editors/publishers/friends that would, I'm sure, fall all over themselves to publish their crap (as judged by irrelevant idiots, of course).

Jacob Russell said...

Well shit. This stinks. The BlazeVox answer to the $ problem is way more straigtforward and transparent than the ubiquitous contests, which ONLY work by attracting in a sufficient volume of impossibly bad submissions to cover the costs, which no one seems to mind.

poet CAConrad said...

I'm going to THROW UP with sadness! SERIOUSLY! I feel like I'm going to VOMIT because Geoffrey and BLAZEVOX are so important! DON'T GO! DON'T GO! WE LOVE YOU! NO NO NO NO NO NO!

tyrone said...

Bravo, Mike.

Dan Coffey said...

Thanks, Michael.

Kent Johnson said...

Great post, Mike.

I've written to Chris Higgs at HTML Giant, suggesting that it would be only fair and appropriate for there to be a follow-up informational post with link to Geoffrey's statement, just put up at the BlazeVOX blog. Let's hope that happens.

In a funny way, I think all this is only going to spur GG's eccentric and great project forward. The range of support and admiration expressed in the past few days (even by many of those criticizing the handling of payment arrangements!) has really been something.


Anne-Adele Wight said...

I'm astounded at the selfishness evident in Mr. Lavendaer Smith's destructive diatribe. The closing of BlazeVOX was averted, thank goodness, after the initial announcement. Sometimes kicking a wall can bring down the entire house -- people should think twice before drawing back the booted foot.

Anonymous said...

Though not commonly used in the same sentence; "Amen and yes, do go fuck yourself." Mr. Geoffrey Gatza, we fully understand the financial difficulties of running a small, independent press, you have our respect and admiration sir.

Debra Marlar, EIC
Goldfish Press

Sanilac County Historic Village & Museum said...

These two sour grapes poets seem like prime examples of immature authors who weren't ready to be published. Regardless of whether you self-publish, get published by Norton, or something in between, promoting a book is hard work and requires a commitment far beyond mere money. It takes time and a willingness to travel, to perform, to make appearances and do interviews. Not from the comfort of your den or on the computer, but out on the road, across the country, in small bars, libraries, book stores, coffee shops, schools, etc. If you can't, or won't, do that, you're pretty much resigned to selling a few copies to your friends and neighbors, online and locally. Then you can sit back and feel bitter that the world didn't embrace you with it's open arms and fat wallet.

Kent Johnson said...

Hey, this is sort of fun. Look who's on the same side as the Anti-BlazeVOX finger-waggers:

Michael Kelleher, North Haven, CT said...

I know! Are you surprised?

Jacob Russell said...

Victoria Brockmeirer? What happened to these people to make them so EVIL? ... that piece could have been written by
Anne Coulter... maybe it was, cept there woulda been no money in it. Victoria just does it for free... or does she?

eccolinguistics said...

thank goodness for responses like these. i suspect it will all prove good press in the end. provided blazevox is able / motivated to keep going, past the stink.

Anonymous said...

I'm of two minds about this post. On one hand: Bravo, Michael, for coming to Jeffrey's defense, even if you engaged in needless profanity while doing so.

And yet ... if you stop to think about Just Buffalo -- and Michael's work for Just Buffalo, there's a perverse irony in the post.

The poetry scene in Buffalo, like the larger community of poetry, is dominated by a clear hierarchy, by self-appointed "gatekeepers" who decide which poets other people should or should not hear. Through his work at Just Buffalo, Michael reinforces that hierarchy.

Take, for instance, the Just Buffalo Literary Cafe, a monthly reading. For years, the reading has been hosted by one person, Perry Nicholas. Perry is also the co-host of another regular reading, and the co-editor of a yearly anthology of Buffalo poets. In each of those roles, he functions as gatekeeper --The way that the readings are conducted, and the choice of poets invited to read, are dominated by his personal biases. In some cases, personal friendships count for more than the quality of the poetry.

Just Buffalo's Big Night series suffers from the same disease -- but so far as I know, it's Michael himself who functions as gatekeeper, in his capacity as "artistic director."

If Michael and the folks at Just Buffalo were serious about bringing poetry to a larger audience in Buffalo, they'd install a system of rotating hosts for both events. Instead, they're perfectly happy to reinforce a system of hierarchy that stifles creativity.

The part that makes this most troubling is that Just Buffalo does this with other people's money. The members of Just Buffalo pay Michaels' salary. We -- and the larger Buffalo community -- deserve better.

So, how about it Michael? Do you TRULY believe in what Jeffrey is doing? If you do, then you need to make some changes to the way Just Buffalo works.

Michael Kelleher, North Haven, CT said...

Hey Anonymous --

People like Perry Nicholas make poetry communities vital because they devote themselves to making things happen.

If Perry is "self-appointed," it is only because he had the vision to start something himself and to put in the hundreds of hours of (unpaid) work required to bring it to life.

You are welcome and encouraged to do likewise.

And how about signing your post? Hiding behind your anonymity makes conversation impossible.

Michael Kelleher, North Haven, CT said...

Anonymous --

I received your two comments, which I am not going to publish. If you want to have a conversation about how I do my job, you are welcome to contact me at my Just Buffalo email address.

Lee Ann Brown said...

Oh Dear - Blaze Vox Please don't go and Michael thanks for publishing this

Steve said...


As honorable as writing can be, this note of your supporting Geoff! Count me in, of course! Hank's Original and theenk Books, we're there with Geoff and BlazeVOX.

Steve Tills,
theenk Books
and Hank's Original Loose Gravel Press

Brett said...

By way of a belated response:

Brett Ortler

Anonymous said...

I fail to see the difference between paying reading fees to small presses and being asked to contribute to the cost of publication. Before my first poetry book won an award and was published by Bright Hill Press, I had entered my manuscript in 30-some book competitions, at the cost of $15 - $25 per contest. It's like playing the lottery; poets have no guarantee that their manuscript will be published, yet they must pay an entry fee before the editors and judges will even read the manuscript. At least BlazeVOX offers publication in exchange for a donation. That's a much better arrangement!