An Open Letter

Saturday, June 11, 2011

An Open Letter Concerning the Evaluation by

Colleges and Universities of

Publishing by Creative Writers


The following began, quite literally, as the text of a letter, written to a former student of mine, a poet, essayist and critic, who was going through the tenure and promotion process in an American university.  Questions about where and under what editorial and commercial circumstances he was publishing his work were raised not, as you might imagine, by scientists or faculty members from the business school, but by a member of the English department.  This is pretty familiar stuff, which many of us have had to deal with in a variety of settings for years.  As a poet in a university, I was early on the subject of such questioning and its less than flattering innuendos.  Eventually, as a member of tenure and promotion committees, it became my role to explain and defend the publishing records of my younger colleagues.  In the final, most embarrassing version of this curious game, I found myself, as an outside referee in tenure and promotion cases at other universities, defending the publishing preferences of writers I thought of as distinguished enough to be beyond the reach of such questions.

At one absurdly comic point, an administrator at my own university drew up a long list of literary magazines and presses which he sent out to people he thought of as experts in the field.  He asked that they review the list and assign numerical values to each of the magazines and presses based on literary merit and stature.  His plan was to multiply the number of poems, stories, lines or words—I was never quite sure which—by the “quality rating number,” then add the results and get a number that would represent the writer’s  achievement.  The plan was never put into effect because the chosen experts, those, at least, who didn’t simply laugh and throw his letter and list in the trash, sent their letters and lists to me, either as a not-so-gentle jab at my department or with the presumably flattering suggestion that I would be the person most qualified to assign the ratings.

I certainly don’t suppose that this letter or any other will solve these problems.  My hope is that it might offer some comfort and a little armor to the writers who are threatened by them.

The publishing issues raised in English departments concerning creative writers are strange, often contradictory, and nearly always vexing.  There is a tendency in academe to defer judgments of scholarly or literary worth to different  levels of commerce.  So fiction published by a large New York trade publisher is presumably better than fiction published by a small press, a university press, or an aesthetically specialized press like Dalkey Archive or FC2.  Poetry published by Knopf or Random House is presumably better than poetry by Wesleyan, Pittsburgh, and Illinois, which is, in turn, presumably better than work published by Sarabande, Flood, Third World, Burning Deck, Blaze VOX, or Tia Chucha.  Fiction that makes its way into quality paperbacks or Penguin paperbacks can retain its commercially conferred value, while fiction that moves into mass-market paperback tends to lose value.  In this strange form of what might otherwise be called thought, some commerce is good but too much commerce is bad or at least less good. Lingering here is the notion that the more commercial something looks, the more valuable it is, unless that look is wholly commercial and thus lowbrow, all of which is more than a bit distressing since universities are supposedly places where ideas of value are hashed out independent of corporate influence.

There is a long history at work here. It might be useful (perhaps even disconcerting) to focus, first, on scholarly books.  In the distant past, the mid-1950s and earlier, scholarly monographs in the humanities and social sciences were mostly published in hardcover series—see Columbia English Studies, Yale French Studies, plus nearly all the early Oxford books.  Before University Microfilms these were often doctoral dissertations, publication of which was required for the degree and financially subsidized by their authors.  (More on University Microfilms later.) Sometimes there were dust jackets, quite literally dust covers, called wrappers, made of ecru or pale blue buff paper with print but without illustrations.  These books, though for sale, certainly were not positioned as retail properties.

In the mid-1950s a number of American publishers, trying to develop quality paperback lines (better paper, flexible bindings, and higher prices), bought the rights to some classic works in the humanities, so Love in the Western World, Mimesis, The Allegory of Love, Homo Ludens, Four Stages of Renaissance Style, The Social History of Art, The Virgin Land, and others appeared in paperback editions, all within a couple of years.  They created Doubleday’s Anchor series and some other premier paperback lines at little cost.  The books were not uniformly commercially successful (a happy circumstance for me, since I bought my copies from discount tables at fifty-nine cents each), but the imprints survived, as did the notion that a scholarly book ought to have a retail life.  That aspiration wouldn’t have had a chance, except that in that period the members of the association of research libraries (nearly a thousand of them) could be depended on to buy every book published by American university presses.  It was an indirect subsidy of the tenure system.  All university press scholarly books had a guaranteed base sale that made it possible to extend their print runs to include bookstore placements and retail accessorizing—color dust jackets, jacket copy, varnish, and plausible retail pricing.  For a while it seemed the norm, and university departments adopted the notion, without knowing anything of the economics that had created this happy circumstance, that books of intellectual merit and suitable aridity should have a commercial presence of the right sort in the right kinds of stores.

Eventually, though, library budgets failed, and with them the standing-order deal.  By the nineties scholarly monographs were asked to carry their own weight.  The jackets disappeared, and with few exceptions so did retail placement.  More significantly, monographs grew shorter, dull-looking, and more expensive.  Their actual markets—smaller, in fact, than those of most poetry books—had to bear their costs.  A monograph of 225 pages in a bare, unadorned cover had to be priced at $85-$90 when its audience of a few hundred had to pay the bills.  Now, the typical university press acceptance letter includes a request that the scholar-author seek a cash subvention from the research board at his own university. (If we “creative” types were to engage in such behaviors, the shouts of vanity publishing would be unceasing.)  The question is: are these drab, expensive monographs less good than their fancied-up predecessors?  And now that scholarly, as well as literary, publishing is moving to electronic, rather than paper, media, will it be less valuable?  Less tenurable?

The point of this long—and longwinded, I’m sorry—discussion is that all areas of publishing undergo changes that are driven, as well as complicated, by economic and technological circumstances.  The survivors adapt.  And adaptation will mean print on demand, as well as wholly electronic scholarly books and journals.  I now do most of my research  online.  I can access a huge range of scholarly material through Google, can call up original documents from rare book and manuscript collections, and through JSTOR can read virtually any scholarly article in any field.  Does the mode of access change the inherent value, either to me or to the home institution, of the scholarship I’m reading?

Before getting on to issues specific to poetry, perhaps I should say something about print on demand.  It is wholly a matter of storage and its relationship to technology; that is, before books are sold, whether they will be stored as printed books, or as data. How this became a question that has bearing on literary merit is complicated. In the past it made economic sense to print the number of books you thought a title would sell in its first season, plus stock for your  backlist, because in traditional print publishing —whether with loose type, monotype, linotype, and various forms of lithography— a higher initial print run drives down the unit cost of individual books.  Warehousing was the principle  expense of the backlist, while its earnings were the same as the earnings for the first books sold.  So you stored your assets on pallets in a warehouse.  Distribution costs were, in the past, based on a percentage of each sale.  In recent years the cost structures associated with warehousing and distribution have changed dramatically.  In addition to taking their profit from each sale, distributors now charge storage fees for the pallets of books that haven’t yet been sold.  Taxes related to inventory also changed, and the big stores—Barnes and Noble and Borders—recirculate their own inventories to manipulate their accounts payable and so, on an almost annual basis, change their appearance of profitablity.  These movements of books incur additional expenses to the publisher. For the publisher with a lot of titles in short print runs (poetry, literary fiction, scholarship), print on demand is a very attractive option. But it is essentially a storage question.  The savvy publisher using on-demand technology will print enough copies initially to circulate for reviews and to make key bookstore placements.  No one who’s serious would simply dump the book file into a data bank and wait for the orders to arrive.

I suspect that some of the academic antipathy to on-demand is rooted in the history of dissertation publishing and University Microfilms.  Microfilm “publishing,” which began in 1938, was a way of relieving new PhDs from having to pay substantial sums to have their dissertations printed.  In time it became, not just an option, but a requirement for completion of the degree in most American universities.  In the world before digital databases, dissertations were photographed (as they would have been as a first step in offset printing) and stored on film rather than printed.  Any researcher could find these titles using basic bibliographic tools. The researcher could read the text on a microfilm reader or request, for a fee, a paper copy of the dissertation.  It was essentially “on-demand” publishing, and that, I suspect, is the root of the problem raised with you about the “on-demand” storage of your book.  If departments accept University Microfilms as publishing, then every dissertation is “published,” but departments and colleges want an additional, more conspicuous presence as a mark of status and tenurability.  There are reasons for this, some of them even reasonable, but that’s not what’s at issue here.  Instead, it is the presumed identity between the old “on-demand” typescript (microfilm), which couldn’t, based on its very ubiquity, be considered publication in the strange world of tenure and promotions, and the new uses of digital-based print on demand, which store the whole book in production-ready form, fully typeset, designed, with a cover, cover art, blurbs, author photo, and plastic or varnish-based gloss.  Copies of these fully formed products with all retail accoutrements in place are printed and distributed for review and initial sale, and the capacity for additional sales is stored as data. Salt, one of the most conspicuous literary publishing ventures of the past decade, uses on-demand storage.  John Matthias, Robert Archambeau, John Kinsella, and many others are Salt authors; and in its “Companion” series, collections of essays on individual Salt authors, the publisher has revived one form of scholarly publishing. Shearsman, which just published Matthias’s Trigons, also uses on-demand storage,  as does Flood Editions, probably the most celebrated of new poetry imprints in America.

Independent publishing has always been, of necessity, inventive and has, over the years, been very good at finding ways to manipulate or ride the wake of technological change.  In the 50s and 60s an explosion in writing was supported by what was called then “the mimeograph revolution.” As business, government, and school office technology was becoming obsolete, and small publishers bought or salvaged used mimeograph machines and made themselves into printers.  Some combined this with newer forms of paper plate lithography that gave their products a better look.  George Hitchcock published Kayak, one of the most significant magazines of the 60s and 70s, on a mimeograph machine using salvaged job lots of paper.  Once printed, the magazine was left multicolored and untrimmed, its uniquely raffish appearance reflecting its independence from economic or institutional sponsorship.  Trobar, Matter, Joglars, Cloud Marauder, Floating Bear, Mojo Navigatore, and Yugen were all mimeographed and stapled magazines. No one in touch with the period would dismiss Kayak and Trobar as less important to the development of American poetry than, say, the Hudson Review merely because of their appearance.

To choose one combination of technical adaptations over another as having a lock on literary value is simply silly.  Computer word-processing technology has made every writer into a typesetter, which not only drastically reduces book-making expenses, but insofar as we send our manuscripts in data files rather than in envelopes, we have become co-workers in the publishing process. Combining initial printing with digital storage in on-demand is one adaptation.  The Panhandler, a Florida magazine, has taken an opposite direction.  The magazine is published in a sophisticated online edition, available to computers and cell phones alike.  It is also subsequently available as a limited edition art book portfolio, working at opposite ends of the publishing spectrum, the online ether and the type-dented fine print edition on expensive paper.  This recalls Black Sparrow’s practice, from the 60s on, of using finely printed, signed and numbered, limited editions of their books to subsidize small but significant trade editions.   Online poetry sites, another kind of adaptation, have changed the nature of marketing, and as I’ve already noted, on-demand storage systems have changed the backlist and its costs.  If you look at some of the major publishers’ Web pages, you’ll see unabashed “borrowings” of ideas developed by independent bloggers.  Knopf/Doubleday now has a “poem of the day” page.  The only thing that makes it different from any of the independent “poem of the day” sites is that it only features, as you might have guessed, Knopf/Doubleday poets.

Poetry publishing is complex and various, but it is still true that poetic change happens in independent publishers and small presses.  They are occasionally, though not always, caught up to by large commercial publishers, but their value is unquestionable.  The increase in the numbers and variety of poets writing and publishing has been met by an increase in the number of small poetry presses.  This essentially positive literary development creates new areas for the kinds of misunderstanding that are generated in tenure and promotions committees.  Is a press with a name that is unfamiliar to committee members or located far away from Manhattan respectable?  That is to say, does it represent a judgment a committee can rely on?  Does it represent any editorial judgment at all?  In large publishers unsolicited submissions, when they are opened at all, are invariably screened by recent college graduates or interns, who can say no but not yes.   In the small number of university presses that publish poetry, editorial selection often, but not always, is buttressed by outside readers or a committee.  In small presses and independent publishers the editor/publisher is often the first and last reader and is likely to be expert in his or her own area of poetic interest.  However narrow that interest might be, it tends to be well-informed.

With little magazines, small presses and independent publishers have been at the center of American poetic development since the 1920s.  William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and HD spent their entire careers in small presses.  New Directions, it should be remembered, was a small press when it first published Williams, Pound, and HD.  In time it grew larger and more consequential around them.  Three of the most influential books of the 1950s and 60s—Howl, Lunch Poems, and The Maximus Poems— were published by small presses, and neither Charles Olson nor Frank O’Hara had a large commercial publisher in his lifetime.   We all know that if you want to find out what’s happening that’s new in American poetry, you look at online discussion groups and magazines (Jacket, for example) and stay in touch with books from Burning Deck, Sun and Moon, Pavement Saw, Tupelo, Flood and others.  No one with any knowledge in the field would suggest that you look to this year’s Knopf, Random House, or Farrar, Straus catalog.

All of the distinct branches of contemporary poetry have been nurtured by independent presses and magazines.  This has been true not only for aesthetically self-defined poetic schools but for feminist and ethnic literatures, as well.  Latino literature, which now has a conspicuous place in commercial publishing, was essentially begun by one, one-person small press in Houston, Arte Publica. African-American writing owes much of its development to a small press in Detroit, Broadside. Because they work at the edges of what is happening in literature, it is impossible to know what presses we will look back on in the future as historically important or even essential.   Grove Press became well-known in 1959 because of the first of its several censorship court cases, but before Lady Chatterley, it had, as a small independent, published Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, O’Hara, Olson, Duncan, Genet, Robbe-Grillet, and more.  Before it was accepted by Grove, Beckett’s work had made the rounds of all the major New York houses and been rejected.  It was Gilbert Sorrentino, then a largely unknown poet and little magazine editor (NEON), who brought these authors into Grove, which was pretty much then the antithesis of uptown, commercial publishing.

Here are some of the tangles you get into if you confuse commercial publishing with literary value.  For years Marvin Bell had Atheneum as his publisher.  He changed to Copper Canyon, a non-profit small press.  Did his value as a poet decrease?  Charles Wright went from Wesleyan, where he published for twenty years, to Farrar Straus, so presumably he became a better, more consequential poet.  Did Matthias by leaving Swallow for Salt and Shearsman become less significant?  Diane Wakoski had three notable books with Doubleday, then went exclusively to Black Sparrow, a very small publisher in California.  A precipitous decline?  Lucille Clifton went from Random House to BOA.  A similar decline?  Gwendolyn Brooks left her New York publishers for Broadside in Detroit, though with that change her career seems to have soared.  Would anybody, despite their individual talents, value Jill Hoffman (Holt, Rinehart, Winston), Karen Swenson (Doubleday) or Jane Cooper (Macmillan) over Barbara Guest, Hilda Morley, Lyn Hajinian or Sonia Sanchez merely because of their publishers?  Looking at the careers of the poets of the New York School, should Frank O’Hara seem the tag-along because he never had a major trade publisher?  Should we declare Robert Creeley the poetic winner of the Black Mountain Sweepstakes because he was published early and often by Scribners, while Charles Olson, who published with Jargon/Corinth, was merely an also-ran?  William Carlos Williams wholly subsidized his first book, Poems 1909, and financially contributed to the publication of his Collected Poems (1934), and Walt Whitman famously designed, printed, and published Leaves of Grass.  Perhaps, they should be discarded altogether.  As I said before, this is silly.

To be fair about it, there are real concerns here, however bizarrely misstated.  One question is, I suppose, whether in the acceptance process, your book was subjected to editorial scrutiny.  The answer is, certainly, yes, though the process in most small presses is much more like the process at large commercial publishers (an editor who has the authority to say yes reads the manuscript and decides to publish) than the process in university presses, where outside readers are sometimes used.  University presses that publish poetry sometimes have committees.  Sometimes they have an editor for poetry or fiction and simply solicit pre-screened letters from the outside to present to their press boards, so there is the appearance of scholarly, peer review.  Many small presses and some university presses have gone to contests for selection.  The competitions are advertised, and manuscripts are invited.  In most cases “reading fees” are required.  A more or less notable judge is paid to pick a winner, and the cost of publishing and the judge’s fee are subsidized by the losers, a displaced form of vanity publishing.  In my view this is the worst development in the field, but it too is an adaptation.

Whatever publishing environment the poet chooses or accidentally falls into, any manuscript accepted for publication competes with thousands of other manuscripts (my guess would be thirty to fifty thousand).  No editor, certainly not a small press editor, who will likely be responsible for all the costs and most of the labor of publication, makes these decisions carelessly.  If the question being asked is whether there was a judgment applied to your work that might be used to shore up the judgment the department has made about you, the answer is “yes,” but it is not like the judgments made in peer review for scientists or social scientists or in the makeshift version of peer review used in the humanities.  If the question is whether there have been multiple, independent judgments of merit, it is easily answered by pointing to the variety of settings and the range of magazines in which you continue to appear, which represent a range of critical assent to your work as broad, broader in fact, than any peer review at a university press.

The more reasonable—and more polite—version of the publisher question could go this way: do you think this publisher will do well by your work, printing it attractively, getting it out for review, placing it in at least some key retail outlets and making sure it’s available for direct orders?  A college has a real interest here.  Having presented you as a qualified writer, they can be genuinely concerned that you make a place for yourself in the writing world, but your answer can only be, “I hope so, but based on what I’ve seen of this publisher’s work for other poets and with my active participation in the process, I think it will succeed.  If it doesn’t, then I suppose we’ll both agree that I should go elsewhere.”

One last thing—and it’s the darkest recess of the “publisher” question.  There is, if only implicitly, an invasion of academic and aesthetic freedom involved here.  Large, commercial publishers and glossy magazines do not necessarily represent higher judgments of literary merit.  In the short term, they might offer access to larger audiences.  What they do represent—you could argue “enforce”—is a fairly limited set of social and aesthetic choices.  Saying that you should publish in the New Yorker is not merely a wish for greater success for you but an insistence that you become a different kind of poet, that you change your subject matter, your poetics, and your voice in order to find a shiny place among the hotel and jewelry ads.  Saying that you should publish with Knopf has the same effect.  I would be happy if on your own terms you were swooped up by either or both, but not if you tried to remodel yourself and your work to suit what you imagine they want.



Friday, July 1, 2011