Friday, October 20, 2006

Kittens, Kooks & Shady Operations

Taking that Ben Franklin "penny wise, pound foolish" quote to heart.


Earlier this week someone who runs a book review site inquired to why I was doing things in a certain way. I explained my reasoning and he explained some of his concerns, which were valid. Got me thinking -- about reviews, why they're important (even if they don't often directly bring in any sales), and how the changing landscape of poetry publishing is making more work for review pubs.

Personally I think the rise of micro-presses and online magazines was a long time coming and am heartened to see so many folks pursuing these projects, taking up the huge piles of slack by bigger publications that have cut back or cut out poetry entirely. The breadth of poetries I'm coming across is staggering -- and that's just English-language, mostly American works. My knowledge of what else is out there is minimal.

But for the handful of review publications that consider independent/small press titles -- review publications that have been around for a while and are used to the way things were done -- the rise of micro-presses, POD and self-publishing complicates their process.

For one thing, it's more difficult to quickly distinguish between a new indie press title and say, oh I don't know, a self-published book about kittens. On the outside and a quick flip through -- they could look pretty similar. The number of "legit" publishers is growing, as are the number of "legit" authors self-publishing. Should a Lulu book be listed next to a Coffee House or Graywolf or Curbstone? is a question the review site editor is asking himself.

Now I have little sympathy for those hung up on "legitimacy" -- it's the same thing as shopping only designer labels -- well, I don't much care for it, and it's not flattering to my build, but it's _______. There's nothing wrong with liking or consistently prefering clothing from a certain label, but if you need the label to know if it's any good or not, well, you're a label whore and know nothing of fashion.

But without branding -- the mark of "quality" that let's others know quickly what's "worthy" and what's kittens - these freedoms many poets are undertaking or perhaps retaking, shunning these brands, putting out their own work, causes havoc for editors receiving 50 review titles and week and having to quickly decide which 5 or 6 books to forward on to their volunteer, unpaid reviewers, which ones to list on their received pages -- it's time intensive and can quickly become unmangeable.

And I do have some sympathy for that -- these review publications that consider independent press titles are few and far between, are doing it out of love for the work -- receiving even less "glory" than the poets and books they're reviewing. Their time and budgets are limited too, they want to do good a job, highlight good books -- and the system they've been using to distinguish the worthy from the kittens is being spun upside down.

This is probably the point where I should apologize to all the kittens.

I'm not helping the review publication situation. I'm a new press using the same printing service as thousands of kittens authors. Hell, as far as I'm concerned, kitten authors have the right to put their books out too -- I'm not going to turn my nose up and spend a lot more money (that I don't have) on traditional printing and distribution for fear of association -- and let's be real here, those traditional printers and distributors print kitten authors too, maybe fewer but that's not because they're too good (they'll take just about anyone's money), but because their cost is prohibitive.

I further blur these established lines by publishing one of my own titles. I'm risking kook status. Perhaps some already consider that to be my status.

Plus I didn't put the press's address on the books -- it's my home address -- I don't want anyone mailing manuscripts and queries or showing up at my doorstep trying to pitch his idea. You might think that's a silly concern, but you should see some of the e-mails I get in the No Tell Motel box -- some of these people think I'm salaried, work in an office and lunch with Judith Regan. It's weird.

And yeah, I could get a PO Box -- and may eventually, but that's another cost and I'm trying to keep costs down -- and besides, the only postal correspondance I do is with signed contracts and mailing books. Postal mail is expensive and slow and inefficient -- I don't want to encourage it.

But apparently not including an address may be considered shady -- and I'm told there's a lot of shade being sent out. So can't dismiss these concerns entirely.

At least not until book reviewing catches up -- and it's starting -- over half the review copies I've sent are to individuals who write about books on their blogs.


At 2:19 PM, Blogger shanna said...

there's a theory that book reviews don't sell many books anyway. (name the last 5 books you bought because you read a review. i can, and they were all either brought to my attention or moved up on my list of must-haves by jordan davis at constant critic. many reviews are 1) too slow or 2) negative and/or snarky or 3) weirdly not about the book at all. what to do? i will still read them but i find the more "official" an outlet is, the less i get from it. other readers probably different. my head is very much in this air.

decentralized/egalitarian means of production (for kittens & The Stuff) = good. (i am a hippy.)

anyway, go you.

At 2:27 PM, Blogger Reb said...

Most of the books I purchase (by poets I don't know in some capacity) were books I kept hearing about from others -- often on other people's blogs or in conversation. I read a lot of reviews too -- and they help get the word out -- which is necessary, but it appears to be only a first step.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger shanna said...

yeah, i the cumulative effect of various mentions is usually what gets me too. (and sometimes reviews are the final nudge.)

i read lots of reviews too. but i do tend to value more personal reactions/recommendations over ass-talking critics. (note: not all critics are ass-talking.) thus, i heart the blogs. it's usually obvious in either case when somebody is truly set on fire with enthusiasm and i like those reviews best. contagious. mmmmmm.

the concerns this editor mentioned to you are definitely worth thinking about: in that, when you're talking about some place like the NYTBR (or other major newspaper book review section) the review assignments may be influenced to some degree by the publishers' ability/willingness to take out reviews in the paper. (they stick that ad-rate sheet right in there with the news.) bidness is bidness.

i know, i'm a broken record.

At 5:02 PM, Blogger Steven Fama said...

A review can be a way for the reviewer to work out some idea or perspective of her or his own, and is valuable for that reason.

I also think a review is valuable to the poet, or should be. But here I may be projecting my own self-centeredness onto others, and besides I'm not a poet (I read poems). But I mean a review at least means that somebody read the book and cared enough to write out some thoughts.

I will sometimes buy a book of poems based on a review, as in something I read in Rain Taxi or the blogosphere, particularly where I "know" the reviewer (understand her perspective and remember how she has reacted to other books).

Sometimes I read a review to confirm whether a certain book I think I'm interested in -- but have never seen -- is actually what I think it is.

At 7:01 PM, Blogger EILEEN said...

You know, I used to doubt that reviews sell books. But after I started GALATEA RESURRECTS (, I got several backchannels over time from various readers mentioning -- confirming -- that they did buy a poetry book as a result of what they read on that review-blog!

And check it out -- I got someone's review copy, read it ... and then went out and BOUGHT my own personal copy of it (even as I'll not myself ever review that publication).


At 7:03 PM, Blogger Reb said...

Oh yes, I definitely find reviews valuable if not for many direct sales, but for the other reasons you both mention -- I suppose what I'm working through in my mind is how much a micro-press needs to spend to make themselves more palatable to a review publication with a more traditional operation. My choices of print-on-demand, self-publishing, and doing most of the day-to-day activity online enables me to run the press with a small budget. Since I can't afford to follow the old model (and have no interest in doing so, even if it was something I could pull off financially) -- I need to both work as closely as I can with the review pubs and investigate other review/get the word out options.

Speaking of book ads -- do those work? Do they sell copies? For a couple weeks I tried Google ads and while it did generate a lot of traffic, I don't think it sold a single book.

At 11:18 AM, Blogger shanna said...

ack, that theory that book reviews don't sell books isn't mine. they do (otherwise i would not have worked so hard to get soft skull books reviewed, for instance), but sometimes not by themselves. my posts have been hurriedly typed and poorly expressed.

to distinguish between book reviews and more general criticism: book reviews may sometimes provide a reviwer/critic a place to work out an idea, true. but longer critical essays treating several books or a theme across authors, etc., seem more useful for that, possibly more appropriate. apples and oranges. one focuses on the book and its worthiness for purchase/consumption, the other on the critic's idea(s). both are useful.

chris hamilton emery (of salt) believes that reviews are more about the reviewees reputation than book sales, and thus are important to help establish an author on "the scene" as an author to watch. i guess there's some truth to that too. in other words, he doesn't think they are so effective at selling books, but rather at selling the authors of the books. (i paraphrase, badly.)

Eileen--the ENTHUSIASM of the reviews at Galatea Resurrects--yes!--that works wonders! :)

At 12:57 PM, Blogger Collin said...

Great post, Reb. You and I are sympatico in so many ideas on this whole publishing thing. Of course, I believe the books you've published through No Tell are high quality, because you're the editor and I know you have good taste. Just because you're using Lulu as the "printer", doesn't mean it's not quality. Keep at it, Reb! I'm about to buy my subscription. :)

At 8:01 PM, Blogger Anne said...

Libraries rely on reviews. Not much small-press stuff gets into even a big library without either winning a prize, getting reviewed, or being specifically requested by a patron (which, at academic libraries, generally means a faculty member or grad student). A library may mean only one sale, but it may mean give a reader the opportunity to stumble across your book next week, next year, or 50 years from now....

(For myself, I could probably keep me "to be read" shelf overstocked for the next ten years with blogger recommendations alone!)

At 5:02 AM, Blogger DUSIE said...

this is an interesting thread, and post! idk, clearly at least where my opinion lies, apart from loving reviews, the reading of especially, and I find myself writing more and more, why, um free books, as well as it's a sneaky way to get books from various presses and small presses, micro and the like. I like to 'see' the book and the choices the press made in such a making. I am not sure whether I have personally ever moved a book's sales thru my blogging or reviewing of such, but I know I have flirted with peoples about attending events in their area to which they *did* end of attending. I have also had comments from people who really like certain reviews I've done, and are still talking about them years later! No lie! I also have a new review in the most excellent issue of Traffic, just out from small press traffic, ... where I review Jules Boykoff's, Once Upon a Neoliberal Rocketbadge... reviewing for me, and I have only reviewed books so far which positively move me, is also an intellectual exercise, and helps me identify and read books as a better and more thorough and intelligent reader, esp the difficult ones, like Boykoff's and others I have chosen to review in the past. I like to feel privy to the secret messages being put forth perhaps. For me reviewing is also about keeping conversation going... like at the dusie review blog, , most of the listed books are free and so it is in no way about profit it is about readership and community. (btw, kudos to eileen here, as the dusieblog was completely inspired and created after 'experiencing' GALATEA!

I am always happy to publish reviews at the dusie blog! ahem, hint! Reb, should I list No Tell there? I already have a copy so you just need to be willing to send out to people who request books, most likely /usually the USA. I can hear my postmans motorcycle, that could mean more books! : )


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