Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Publishing question from student

I'm answering some questions from a student in a publishing class. Here are the first few answers:


Here are some answers (more to come later):
> 1. In my Small Press Publishing class, there seems to be a stigma against
> major publishing houses. What is your experience with this?

Of course I can't speak for your class, but I can speak more generally about attitudes in the poetry world. In the general American culture, major publishing houses have a huge advantage. They have the money to advertise the books; they have promotional crews; and most importantly, the big majority of American poetry readers/writers still confer a high level of prestige on books published by major publishers. That is to say, a book published by a major publisher become "major" in the eyes of many people.

This is strange to me for many reasons. For one, I don't know who the editors are of most of these presses (and here I include university presses) or why their taste should be considered more important than those editors who have proven themselves as interesting poets and critics. The answer is to a large extent: money. Money confers prestige in American poetry. This has all kinds of problems.

Some people prefer small presses to large presses for inherently ethical reasons: the feeling that there is something less estranged, more immediate about small press publishing; people are interacting with each other on a smaller, less mass-media level. This goes hand in hand with the ethicalization of "the community," this too having to do with a desire to undo the alienation of modern mass society.

The reason I prefer small press publishing is that it has proven itself much more open to new and foreign poetry than the regular presses. Very few of the books I have loved over the past 10-15 years have been published by major publishers, or even prominent indies like Graywolf or Coffeehouse. A lot of them have been published by Fence: my wife Joyelle McSweeney, Chelsey Minnis, Catherine Wagner, Ariana Reines. A lot of them by Ugly Duckling Presse: Ivan Blatny’s The Drug of War, Alexsander Skidan, Tomaz Salamun etc. Zephyr Press has published a bunch of Russian books in translation. Somebody from your program started Switchback Books, which recently published Monica de la Torre’s book of poems. Bigger presses have utterly failed to publish foreign works in translation (other than “classics” like Neruda etc). Small presses seem to want to bring new ideas and poetries to American Poetry, while the major presses at best seek to remain relevant, at worst attempts to restrict. I think my own background as a foreigner has forced upon me an awareness of this.

> 2. How did you get your start in the editing world?

I was sick of the insular, static state of poetry publishing. In particular I was annoyed at the lack of interest in foreign poetry. I wanted to help change that.

3. How do you decide what pieces to publish?

The books we’ve published have had different routes to us. The first book we decided to publish was Lara Glenum’s “The Hounds of No.” That was part of reason we started the press. I knew Lara and had read the book and was frustrated that nobody in Amerincan poetry had the guts to publish it. I first heard Sandy Florian read at a reading in Denver and was aboslutely blown away. Joyelle and I first read Don Mee Choi’s translations of Korean poet Kim Hyesoon and we contacted her and told her we had to publish the book. At that point she was far from ready with the book, but two years later we put out the book. So it happens in a lot of different ways.


Blogger Max said...

Well, I would argue that the small publishing is also pretty insular and prone to nepotism. The (somewhat) easy fix to this is to just start your own press and put out what you like. But one of the ethical concerns I have about small publishers is that jobs are being won, in part, because of the books that come out on these presses. And if people who run them are just publishing their friends, or whatever, that presents a major issue regarding how resources are being allocated, etc.

So while I think starting a small press can be a liberating activity, it's not exactly free of baggage normally associated with the gatekeepers at major publishing houses.

1:19 PM  
Blogger CLAY BANES said...

At the bookstore I work at, I order the poetry titles, so I'm given the seasonal catalogues of the media conglomerates and mark them yea or nay—then my colleague takes them to the meeting with the media conglomerate sales representative.

Maybe many of the large small presses have devoted editors whose tastes just happen to diverge from mine. Probably.

Maybe there's a linear history of the U.S underground avant-garde from last century which writes itself directly to today's small press poetry publishing story, and the good guys won. I dunno.

I'm urged to think something further complicating happened with poetry and the large houses that became owned by the media conglomerates in the 90s. Poetry has never sold well. That's the record. But while the conglomerates are still publishing it, and I am certain they are still losing money on it, they carry on having given up. They have quit the game. If they wanted to do a little bean counting and invest in a small slice of cultural capital, anyone reading these words could readily point their editors to a first handful of excellent poets writing today with large, rapt readerships. But they know and they don't. They have left the field.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I don't think that major publishing houses have given up on poetry per se. I think they just treat it like philosophy or critical theory or any of their other relatively small niche markets, rather than as "literature," which seems to be reserved entirely for contemporary and classic fiction of a certain stature (as opposed to science fiction and fantasy, which get their own section).

As such, poetry is doomed to be an extremely tiny portion of the output of major publishing houses, not because they have given up on it, but because it has been ghettoized into a miniscule, peripheral category for marketing purposes.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Nobody gets hired merely because they have a book. And for many hiring committees indie presses don't count.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Max said...


I never said anybody gets hired just for having a book. But having a book (or books) is often a big part of what gets your foot in the door. The bottom line is that books are legitimacy-conferring devices in the professional MFA sphere. Sure, perhaps a book on the press that your buddy started up yesterday is not going to look very impressive on the job market, but once an independent press has released a decent number of books and made something of a name for itself in the community, I think that tends to change. Of course, teaching demos and things like that are of primary importance, but again, a lot of jobs you can't even apply to without having at least one book, so...

8:12 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I would tend to agree with Max's comment that small presses are no less prone to insularity than other more moneyed concerns.

That said, and I don't know whether he means this consciously or not, implicit in his comments is the feeling that some neutral objective authority ought to be making hiring and publishing decisions. Not only does no such authority exist, it couldn't possibly exist, and it's not clear that, could it exist, its neutral objective decisions would really be any better than what we've got now. There's no way out of the problem of the partiality of value.

In short, there's a hard truth here: there's power everywhere, and everybody is making things up as they go along, and there's nobody to trust except yourself and the other people you can learn to trust.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I don't have a problem with small presses or how they choose what to publish. I do, however, think that, say, publishing one's friends becomes an ethical dilemma when said friends begin to use those books to secure resources in the professional MFA field. I think the nature of publishing is such that one can't really ever practice judgment outside of some kind of relationship with authors or their work, regardless of the distance or closeness of this relationship. This is a dilemma that academic disciplines at least attempt to address by handling things in relatively systematic, peer-review oriented ways. Obviously, the idea of "peer review" in creative writing is something much more difficult to put your finger on, because what one likes or doesn't like is most often not the result of relatively objective, widely understood theoretical frameworks, but rather how you "feel" about the work, about the person, or a combination thereof. I don't expect outlets for creative writing to adhere to an academic or institutional model. That would be absurd. All I'm saying is that it's worth noting that an ethical dilemma exists when the act of publishing becomes more than simply giving voice to a friend or like-minded individual, and becomes about allocating institutional resources as well. To ignore this, or to pass it off as "well, that's just how it works" is kind of defeatist.

10:11 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You're not really responding to Mark's note. There is *no* "objective" publishing - whether it has to do with taste, your pals, your professor's connections etc. The only problem is if you charge people money to enter a contest that you then don't hold as a contest (ie foetry). "Friend" is no different than any other factor that comes into publishing. You're looking for these institutional guarantees etc. I'm sorry Max, but not only are such objectivity-ensurers a fiction, but the search for them is in fact a way to cloak the inherently subjective nature of art and hiring practices.

6:48 AM  
Blogger Max said...


Did you even read my comment? I openly acknowledged that there is no guarantee of objectivity in the selections process for publication. Moreover, I would say that such a thing isn't even possible. And furthermore, I don't have a problem with this! The only reason it becomes an ethical problem is because resources linked to the new patronage (i.e. university MFA professorships, grants, fellowships, etc) are at stake and can be influenced by publications that stem primarily from personal relationships. There may be nothing that we can do about this, but we can, at the very least, acknowledge that the dilemma exists.

I agree with your assertion about book contests. I would also say that any university press or press associated with public funds should be held to a higher ethical standard, since we're talking about funding from supposedly "equal opportunity" institutions. I assume that this would mean that the press should have an editorial board of some sort, at the very least. But yeah, small independent presses can do whatever the hell they want. The thing is that, small publishers tend to be closer to the writing community, and I would hope that, when they make their decisions, they would have a greater sense of where the books they publish might take their authors, and how they fit into the system which assists in the allocation of resources for those in the creative writing world.

Just because something appears to be universally a problem doesn't mean we have to turn around and embrace it, or that we are allowed to forget it exists and still somehow be ethical individuals.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Max said...

"the search for them is in fact a way to cloak the inherently subjective nature of art and hiring practices."

I really love how you try to turn this around on me with your logical gymnastics, too. So suddenly the guy talking about ethics is the one trying to cloak the truth.

I'm just sick of people in the writing community, people who should stick together and, I dunno, share at least an airy sense of comraderie, creating a situation for themselves in which they must scratch and claw for the few remaining spots at the top, in which "friends" survive and those who refuse to network and schmooze fail. I guess it all comes down to whether you, in some sense, want the system to be insular, or if this, oppositely, repels you.

I think it's one thing to realize that the writing world, at large, in insular, and completely another to embrace it, to say "Okay, so this is the way it is? Well, I'm going to live this way, then."

8:00 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Argh, okay. Lest my last two posts open up cans of worms that I don't particularly feel like pursuing at length, here is my very basic argument:

There is no guaranteed (or even possible, I suppose) objectivity in hiring and publishing.

That said: breathing, thinking, compassionate individuals should ponder the ramifications of their actions before they act. Are we doing what we do for the simple benefit of ourselves and our closest associates? What is our bottom line? Do we submit to a system in which networking and schmoozing are the unfortunate requirements of "success"? Is the reward great enough to overcome this temporary (potential) lapse in personal integrity? Do we buy into it hoping to secure resources and then live from here on out as individuals with integrity (like the movie bank robber who says "this is the last score, and then I'm out")? Do we subscribe wholesale to this reality and become the (in my view) repulsive thing? Is it even possible to distinguish once you've already passed through the door?

I think it's valuable to be asking these kinds of questions about the "community" at large, and about oneself.

That's all.

8:37 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Max, I would agree that the questions you're asking in this last final large paragraph are worth asking, and that some people ask them more than others.

I'm not sure I entirely understand what particular set of activities you find "repulsive." If it's the general fact that human beings interact with each other in a way that involves doing business and behaving politically and that such a thing goes on in poetry too, then I probably wouldn't agree that it's repulsive. If it's the idea that the whole MFA and publishing industry is repulsive, that would strike me as a generalization. However, if it's the fact that many people do things while being blind to all but their own self-interest, then I'd be more likely to agree that the word "repulsive" could apply, depending on who in particular we were discussing, although my guess is that the pursuit of self-interest isn't going away any time soon.

Also, I think one implication of Johannes' comments is that to respond to self-interested behavior, by, say, "bringing the moral thunder of the gods," can turn out itself to be a way of playing the game, in fact a very common one. Insisting on the need for morality in these choices is something that in my experience many poets say constantly. Rather than being outside it, it's part of the fabric of the situation.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Max said...

When I refer to repulsive activities, I'm referring to those activities for which self-interest and the interest of friends is taken as primary, regardless of what the outcome is for otherwise well-meaning individuals outside a social circle who think, for example, that their work is honestly being considered for publication. I guess it's a case of, if it doesn't apply to you, then it wasn't meant for you. But I think we can all agree that such things do take place, and that one need not enumerate instances in order to form a general argument against such practices, right?

I'm not talking about "the moral thunder of the gods." I'm talking about personal ethics. If you are a person who sees how things appear to "work" and subscribes wholesale because "that's the way it is and I ain't gonna change it on my own," then that, to me, seems like an ethically shaky position. Your own personal ethics, however, may be in disagreement with mine. That's fine. But at least be aware of it, and perhaps address the issue if you're going to give an otherwise uninitiated person insight into the small publishing world (and how this world differs, or doesn't differ, from the world of major publishers).

9:16 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I'm not sure why you always have to be so angry in your posts.

My "gymnastics" quote was not meant to indict you, merely to point out that the administration of literature/the academy demands the illusion of neutrality - we're hiring this person because of the quality of the work, not the fact that I know his advisor etc.

Therefore, I think it would be useful to move beyond a mere binary between neutral/schmooze, which are not possible/desireable.

So you say you agree that there is no objectivity, but then you go right back to attacking "networking" from the stance that there is an objectivity.

Also important that a huge part of networking is showing your submission to the hierarchy (whether that be a Buffalo or Quietist hierarchy). So it really has to do with the hierarchical nature of poetry right now. (I don't know how many times I've recieved friendly advice that I shouldn't do this or that or I won't ever get a job etc - it's like there was a rule book!)

I'm as sick as you are of this hierarchical impasse, but calling "fire won't end it. Instead I think *you* should start a blog/online journal and start writing about books that you like or don't like and explain that.

9:17 AM  
Blogger Max said...


My standard is not objective for the simple fact that it is entirely my own. It is, in fact, intensely subjective. And I understand that. My idea of what is ethical in, say, the world of publishing, would be to consider all the ramifications of publishing a book aside from just "this needs to be read" or "this is an important piece of literature" or "so-and-so is a good guy who writes excellent poetry that isn't being put out by anyone else, so hey, let's start a press and get this bugger out." Given the nature of the industry, one can't afford, in my opinion, to think in such simplistic terms. Because even if you just put out a book because you think it's "important" for people to read, your decision also stands a healthy chance, for example, of affirming the value of the industry that has settled in universities--and all aspects of it, good or bad. But again, this is my idea of what is ethical. My goal is not a system which answers to some external code of conduct, but rather in which responsible people answer to themselves about what are, to my mind, very important concerns, keeping in mind that other people exist and are affected by their decisions.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Let me also add that I don't have a idealized image of small presses. Like you guys both argue, the concept of "community" always entails a degree of insulation. I think small presses have a better track record that bigger presses when it comes to approaching the foreign and exploring, but there's a whole bunch of insularity. I have often said/written that there still very little interest in foreign poetry, and that's as true in online journals and small presses as well.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You're fast.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Yeah, I'm kind of around today, hence the quick replies.

The only thing I'm trying to say, and I don't think we'd be necessarily at odds about this (hopefully not, anyway), is that small publishers probably should (this is my own personal ethics speaking up here) consider their role in the business/economic aspects of the creative writing industry, and whether their actions support or propagate the less savory parts of it. You know, as opposed to just thinking about it as "publishing important poetry that nobody else will" or something like that. Obviously that is also an important consideration. I think the excitement of publishing is putting out work that one feels is important and overlooked. But unfortunately, given the nature of the industry, this isn't the only thing on your plate if you're a publisher. I think it would be great if that were the only consideration, but one must also consider how one operates in the machinery. Do your decisions help it operate in a business-as-usual sense? Do your decisions help grind the gears? Etc, etc, etc. For example, I think that by taking special interest in foreign poetry, Action grinds the gears to some extent. But obviously not all presses (probably not most of them, either) can make a similar claim.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, I think we're largely on the same page.

I will say this: I believe in creative writing programs. Or I should say: I believe in the potential of CW programs - as hypothetical places of contamination (metaphorical of course!), conflict, examination and all the rest. Just as I believe that Poetry can be such a site.

Right now I think most CW (and English) programs are used to weed out mongrelisms of various kinds from poetry, to make Literature a place for people who can follow rules (this is especially true of English departments), and the English language a place for those who can speak it "correctly". And the "networking" you're talking of is clearly results in this situation. Of course I think that is indeed repulsive.

But I think CW and English departments could be "zones where interesting things happen" (see Aase's and Mattias Forshage's manifesto on the Stockholm Surrealist web site for the full context of the quote). That is why I have always been very open about saying it would be great if for example Lara Glenum gets a job (allowed by the fact that we have published her books) because I think she makes the classroom a much "softer" place (in reference to Silliman's "hard surrealism and Aase and Mattias' manifesto), where poetry becomes open to experimentation and experiences of the foreign etc. And by "experimentation" I don't mean that reified notion of "Experimental Poetry."


10:12 AM  
Blogger CLAY BANES said...

Talking untenable objectivity, my own thoughts on this subject are muddy-headed, because I'm miffed. After blurting my first comment, I reeled back remembering books I read published by "major" houses and major "indie" houses in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, most of them out of print — found in used bookstores and among university libraries' stacks — trying to assess my own argument that the "top" players had left the field. And it felt a little thin, ie the "top" has always kind of sucked, and there's little place for me to stand any beaming nostalgia.

I still maintain in the always changing material conditions of book publishing and distribution, the titans have absconded and left their currency, and anyone with first teeth can bite the coin and know the game is up. I'm just not up to the task to articulate it.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Oh yeah, CW programs are largely what people (those "in charge" of them, as well as their students) make of them.

I would say that my MFA experience has probably been somewhat out of the norm, in that we don't have anybody here harping about what poetry should be or trying to enforce certain stylistic or formal ideas. It is very much a self-directed program that puts a premium on giving students time to do whatever it is they want, or have demonstrated that they can, do. And since this is only real exposure to MFA programs, I'm not sure how pervasive the more prescriptive MFA programs are.

That said, I kind of cringe at the notion of citing my MFA (which I'll technically possess this coming May) as a reason why anybody should publish my work. And I know that refusing to sell my work as the product of an MFA program probably hurts my chances of being published. But, for me, there is a stinging sensation that comes along with making mention of your pedigree. I've done it in the past, before I had thought about what it really meant or implied ... that my work was obviously worth considering because I wasn't just some slob off the street. Shit, I was working toward an MFA degree, for Christ's sake!

That whole aspect of the enterprise is what absolutely bores and repels me. I know and respect people who engage in it because they're willing to give a little bit in exchange for the opportunity to seek that comfortable professor job which will allow them to do what they love probably more than any other living situation save independent wealth or a lucrative publishing career. For me, though, that just seems like so much drudgery, and not enough promise of payout at the end of the day. And, as usual, there's no guarantee that you can ever go back and reclaim what you've lost. There is always the chance that you will fall into the networking and schmoozing and adopt it as a lifestyle.

10:45 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Speaking as someone who has edited a variety of literary publications, I know that for myself, a writer who submits work doesn't gain anything by announcing his or her degree. If the editor thinks the work is good and has room for it, that's probably what counts.

In fact, while I wouldn't say it counts against the work to include such information, it can certainly lead to unintentional humor when somebody trumpets their degree in a letter and the work doesn't seem good. "You have a MFA and your poetry still looks like that? Wow."

That said, knowing the work of somebody who submits to a magazine probably does profoundly change the editor's reaction, because inevitably you think of the work you are seeing in relation to that other work you already know of. That doesn't automatically mean that you'll accept the work, of course, but it does mean that you have a different context for thinking about it. If you have work by Alice Notley in front of you, it may be hard to separate your sense of the value of this piece from your sense of the value of Alice Notley's other work.

When I've sat on state grant agency boards though, the submitted work is always reviewed with the writer's name left anonymous, so that these kinds of reputation biases don't enter the picture, unless you recognize someone's work simply by knowing their other work already, which has happened to me several times.

It's not really possible for submissions to a magazine to be anonymous, since somebody has to send the work from some address and so forth. But most official panels do make an attempt to review work anonymously, although an absolutely pure condition of anonymity is hard to maintain.

11:30 AM  

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