July 31, 2015
Dear Intrepid Readers,
I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about two interlinked concepts: first, equality of representation in literary publishing—building upon last’s week’s editorial letter about how we, as editors, publishers, writers & as a cohesive literary community work together to invite marginalized voices into the conversation & create safe spaces for writers of all backgrounds to feel their work is welcome. Second, I’ve been thinking about how independent publishing (and by extension, the internet & its ability to rapidly disseminate information & creative work) as agents for social justice. More to the point, I’ve been thinking about what it takes in the modern world to use creative work to make a difference. These are ideas that are all wrapped up together—though we can look at them as mutually exclusive concepts, for the purposes of today’s letter, I’m going to approach them as different branches of the same tree.
Knock it off, lit mags.
Without disclosing my age, I’d like to share a personal anecdote that can put it in perspective. As a writer & editor, I ‘began my career’ back in high school, as editor of my high school’s literary magazine, learning the basics of editorial curation, layout, & production. This was before there was an internet as we know it today: submissions were compiled into packets, we met in person to discuss the packets, & as we accepted work, we transcribed it & laid out the magazine (in PageMaker! remember that?) This was also the process we used for the college literary magazine we produced when I was an undergraduate. After graduation, I began sending my own work out for publication. It was a long, tedious, and sometimes expensive process. It involved a lot of printer toner, more SASEs than I care to think about, scouring the classified sections of Poets & Writers, and long, long, LONG waiting periods. It also involved lots of form declines on tiny slips of paper, many of which I saved for years afterwards. I share this anecdote not to be old & crochety (though I’ll be honest, there’s a little satisfaction of the “Back in MY day….” story) but to put into perspective just how far the world of independent literary publishing has come in less than 2 decades. Gatekeepers used to hold much more importance than they do now—a writer would have to build a small body of publications in order to try and get an agent; without an agent, it was mostly unheard of to secure any kind of book publication, chapbook or otherwise. Access to the world of literary publication was geared more towards privilege. To publish, a writer needed that 50 pounds a month & a room of one’s own that Virginia Woolf wrote about. A writer would need to have the time to print out copies of their work & hand-address parcels to publications, journals, & publishers. A writer would also need to have access to a certain amount of disposable funds, to pay for paper, printer toner, envelopes, & postage. To say nothing of the investment of time & money it would take to produce work in the first place. This model is obviously flawed: it makes space for an imbalanced representation of writers—specifically, it makes room for more writers of privilege to have the disposable time & money to devote to both their craft and their ability to get their work in front of the gatekeepers, the editors, the agents & the publishers.
This flawed & outdated model of publication has thankfully been upended by the internet, and replaced by a more egalitarian approach to writing, editing, & publishing. Now writers need not set aside money for printing & mailing. The industry standard is electronic submissions; physical submissions seem an antiquated throwback, & in fact, many modern writers skip over publications that request physical submissions, as these are publishers that are perceived to have not adapted to the times. Gatekeepers hold less power than they did even 10 years ago: what we used to call a “vanity press” we now call “self-publishing”, and while self-publishing hasn’t quite achieved the same level of industry respect as traditional publishing, it seems only a matter of time before self-publishing & traditional publishing are held in equal regard. Agents aren’t hurting for clients, but having an agent doesn’t mean the difference between securing a book deal or not the way that it once did. A writer doesn’t need to have the disposable income to spend on industry publications to locate places to submit their work the way that they once did, and both the internet & access to computers being more common, it’s easier for working writers to carve out the space & time to write, edit, locate places to submit, & publish their work. Acceptances & declines no longer require long, agonizing waits, and simultaneous submissions are now the norm, instead of a rare exception. In today’s literary communities, writers can interact with other writers from across the nation & globe, find places to send their work, & get fast responses. They can build a publication history with more ease, & they don’t necessarily need to depend on an agent to have their work published traditionally—if they choose traditional publishing at all.
Why is it then, with more of an equal-opportunity approach to writing & publishing, the community finds itself challenged to incorporate diversity into its pages? Is it because of a flawed, outdated model casting a shadow across publishing, & editors that have been trained to seek out “quality work” as defined by patriarchal, privileged norms? Why is it that out technology & our access has moved at lightning speed in the 21st century, but the representation of diversity in our publications often appears to have gotten hung up somewhere in the 1980’s?
This isn’t where I tell you damn kids to get off my lawn. Quite the contrary, in fact. As a writer who began writing, editing, & learning the ropes in the “old world”, it has been nothing short of spectacular to watch the literary world around me evolve, change, and make space for my work. As a publisher, it is my pleasure & privilege to have the opportunity to “pay it forward” to other writers. I have watched the pool of places to submit grow from a handful of tiered publications that most writers could only dream of breaking into to a close-knit, collaborative community of small presses, who share the common goal of bringing work they believe in from authors they find exciting into the world & into the hands of readers. That idea is how Zoetic Press was born. Many of the writers whose work I find the most interesting, challenging & exciting I do not always find from the “Big 5” publishers. I would argue that in terms of poetry, you will find more influential work being produced at the independent press level—take, for example, our newest Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. His complete bibliography consists of primarily independent publishers & academic presses (Manic D Press, City Lights, University of Arizona Press, etc.) In fact, there are only 2 editions produced by a “Big 5” publisher, & those editions only in the past few years. Essentially, his career was built at the independent publishing level, & this is now the “new norm.” This is incredibly exciting to me as both a working writer, & as a small-press editor—in my lifetime, & in my literary career, I have literally seen the landscape do an about-face & change from something that seemed like a long shot to something that looks achievable to anyone. Which is why I find it frustrating to see influential, “top-tier” publications conforming to the outdated model & promoting the work of white, academic males instead of using the new literary landscape as a launching point for gender diversity, LGBTQ representation, writers of color, & intersectional work where all of the different experiences of writers collide & become more than simply one voice, the voice of The Canon, the story we’ve heard over & over & over again. We have all of the tools we need to build a new literary world…and yet, as a literary community, we still collectively compliment the emperor on his new clothes instead of pointing out the fact that the emperor is clearly naked. In fact, why is it that we’re even watching the emperor at all? He’s just a figurehead!
Which brings me to the part of this letter I am more excited to talk about: how we are beginning to use the new literary landscape to change the world, and what we can do next. Because of the new ease of connecting writers across geography, & the quickness with which we can share information, we have associations like VIDA, Lambda, & VONA. We have the ability to share our ideas in blogs (Rhizomatic Ideas, anyone?) & it’s easier than ever for a person to build a small press that changes the literary landscape by putting out work by authors who even a decade ago might not have had access to the gatekeepers (take for example, Write Bloody Publishing, Button Poetry, or Coffee House Press.) We can use the new tools technology has brought us to protest & put social justice in forefront of people’s daily lives—everything from sites like Thank You For Swallowing, Lament For The Dead, or the many literary publications who have turned their attention towards #blacklivesmatter.
Here at Zoetic Press, we spend a lot of time thinking about the things that we can do with technology to better the world through literature. We developed the Lithomobilus reading platform to expand the way readers approach literature, & to give authors a way to tell their stories in 360 degrees instead of a flat 180 degree approach. We care about our authors, the stories they tell, & we’re dedicated to ensuring that we don’t publish just one kind of story told in the same way by the same voice. We are excited to be part of the avant garde, the new wave of publishers leading the charge to change the way readers access literature & to challenge the way that publishers approach writers. Every week, I have the privilege of sitting down to write directly to you, our audience, our readers, our contributors, & talking about the things we all love so much: books. I’m honored to have your attention on Friday, & I’m always excited to read the poems, narratives, essays & stories you send to us every reading period. You trust us with your words, & it is our mission that we do not let you down. We are committed to bringing you diversity, equality of representation, exciting work from a wide range of authors, presented to you in all-new ways. And it’s our most sincere hope that in 2 more decade, someone comes along & looks at the path we’ve cut into the new landscape, & says, “I can build on that & make this world even bigger.” Because after all, isn’t the best indicator of success not just the change that we make in our own lifetime, but in the ways that we make sure that the next generation can do even more than we did? We certainly believe it is.
As ever, we’re excited to show you what we’re doing, who we’re publishing, & where we’re headed next. for your iPhone or iPad and enjoy everything we’ve published, completely free. Stay in the loop and hit us up on Facebook (Zoetic Press, Lithomobilus), Twitter (@ZoeticPressandLitho) and Pinterest, or see some of our authors reading their work on our YouTube channel. If you’re interested in hearing more from us, sign up for our monthly newsletter. We’re serious about your privacy, and promise not to flood your inbox. Want to be a guest writer for Rhizomatic Ideas, or to profile one of our contributors? Send us a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a book you’d like to tell the world about, or know a writer that everyone should know? Want to tell us who we should be hitting up to diversify our pages? Send us your reviews and author interviews!
Until next week,