Duotrope does not list Kattywompus Press. If you’re one of the many writers who utilize their site for submissions, you won’t find us.

I’d submit a listing, but Duotrope does not include in publications listings any publisher that charges the writer one red cent for any aspect of submission or publication, and the wompus has a $15 submission fee for manuscripts. If we get around to doing a periodical or anthologies, we probably won’t have a fee for those. Reading a couple of poems or a short short story doesn’t take much time. Reviewing an entire chapbook manuscript, on the other hand—or 25 pages of a full length work—takes substantial time and effort.

I titled this blog Poetry but in fact, small press publications of all literary stripe are, to be polite, economically marginal.

The wompus does not use student screeners. Every manuscript which comes in to the press is read by the editor in chief (me). Some manuscripts are also reviewed by my associate editor. While we do not offer full manuscript editorial reviews—for which editors charge hundreds and sometimes more—I often do include in rejection letters some comments and suggestions, for what they’re worth. I believe in writers, and I do everything in my power to support their efforts.

There’s a boat load of confusion about how small presses finance their work. Most writers don’t even know the difference between subsidy and university presses, and independents. Few writers know the constrictions attendant to nonprofit status–a number of people have casually asserted I should file for nonprofit status. There are many, many small presses alive today, and many different business models, from retiree or hobbyist presses that publish a book or two each year, to full-on, full-time, day job operations like BlazeVox.

BlazeVox is a respected and beloved small press which is for the most part, like us, a one-horse town. It’s run by Geoffrey Gatza, who recently found himself at the center of a storm over his shifting business practices. You can read a summary and catch links on Brian Spears’ blog on The Rumpus (no relation to the wompus). In short, Gatza has shifted the BlazeVox business model to try to stay afloat in hard times, and now requires some of his accepted authors (he hasn’t made clear what proportion) to pitch in $250 before their book is produced. No contribution = no hard copy publication (e-book only).

I started this blog by mentioning Duotrope’s policy that “all money flows to the writer.” I’m a fan. So, why do I violate that by charging prospective authors a reading fee? And how does a reading fee, or Gatza’s new required author “donation” policy, inflect what type of press is being run? The issue is vanity publishing, and you might think by now we’d have a perfectly clear definition of what that constitutes.

A wonderful wompus author—he is both a delightful wordsmith and a lovely human being—recently offered to help me pay for production of his book. His is the first full-length manuscript we accepted. I am in love with the poems. I stand by his work 100%.

As a start-up, I am broker than smoke. I won’t belabor here the thousands of dollars I have invested in various arms of the press. It might get paid off someday, and someday I might actually begin to eke out a living off this press. But not today, not this year. To be clear, like Geoffrey at BlazeVox, this is my day job, and for the moment my health insurance and regular meals come courtesy of my partner’s income.

So I turned down this author’s offer of help. I told him I cannot risk the reputation of the press. There can be no confusion on this point: Kattywompus Press does not do pay-to-play publishing. No amount of money you might offer will convince me to publish your book. And if I love your manuscript, you will not be required to “donate” anything further beyond your best efforts at refining the work itself. Vanity publishing is pay-to-play, and any press that accepts a manuscript provisional to the author ponying up has crossed that line.

This includes, by the way, any press that requires you, the author, to collect a minimum number of “pre-orders” before they will do your press run.

This might seem like a subtle distinction from what we at the wompus, and many other independent small presses do, which is to send out a pre-production offer for more author copies.

We pay our chapbook authors with 20 copies. We offer wholesale author discounts if/when they want more of their book, and we make these discounts available for first run for two reasons. (Here is me, the editor in chief, coming clean, absolutely.) Yes, if you order 50 or 100 additional copies, of course it is helpful in defraying my material and labor costs of publishing your book. But I also offer it for more prosaic reasons: I only do a press run of what we need. We do most production in-house, so it’s not the same model as out-sourced print-on-demand, but it has the same economic advantage: we don’t have a warehouse of inventory sitting around soaking up our money.

So yes, we offer additional copy purchase on the eve of production—sometimes the author’s request for additional copies doubles our press run, so we need to know. But we never, ever, ever require orders from the author. Once you get an acceptance from us, you are free to take your 20 author copies and never order more.

Geoffrey at BlazeVox defends his up-front author charge in part by noting that his authors receive additional copies at far lower cost than most presses offer. That’s a fact. Is the up-front fee a better model? That’s for you to decide for yourself. For myself, and Kattywompus Press, I prefer to steer clear of front-loading. Any wompus author who is selling in large numbers can also purchase in large quantity from the press, which puts the author discount at 50%.

The only up-front fee we require is for submissions, and this fee can be waived, and is regularly waived. I take manuscripts without a reading fee when they are invited submissions—we have quite a few of those right now. And I will waive the fee to a writer for reasons of economic hardship.

That said, you’d better make a tight case on that argument. Writers are not often well off, economically. Nevertheless, we writers must invest a bit of money now and then in support of our writing, be it in the form of a new computer or a contest entry fee or a conference or workshop. Your economic hardship has to weigh againts that of the press. We are not now and we will never be a vanity press—I would shut the whole thing down before I’d make my money from pay-to-play (or as Geoffrey notes, before I’d publish simply because I knew something would sell–our selections are based in literary, not monetary value). But we do need to accrue some small compensation for a tiny percentage of our labor, and we have to cover material costs, so reluctantly, we charge a reading fee for manuscript submissions.

Geoffrey Gatza, at BlazeVox, refers to his new required author contribution as a form of cooperative publishing. That’s a really interesting discussion in itself. I had an exchange some time back with an author whose previous book was published by a straight up collective. They are very good to their authors (each other). They appear to publish good looking books. And to do so at what they consider a reasonable price (in my opinion, too low a price for color cover, perfect bound, full length books), they partner with a corporate vanity press called First World Publishing. She was incensed when I pointed this out. But for me, it’s akin to partnering with Wal-mart, a mega-corporation which has done more damage to American communities and working conditions than just about any other single source you could name.

That conversation made me sad. As sad as the exchange where I told a poet recently published by Finishing Line that they, too, now meet accepted criteria of a vanity press, despite their long prior history of “legitimate” publishing. And like BlazeVox, like the publishing coop I mentioned above, Finishing Line does not (as of my last perusal of their website) make explicit this fact.

Therein lies a piece of this dispute. A good starting point for any small press is to be up front with writers and readers. Tell us what you’re about and why. Don’t fudge specifics, and don’t sidestep the hard questions. Probably, Gatza sidestepped some of those tough questions on his shifting business model because he is uneasy with them himself. Nobody likes to admit they are struggling for money, and downshifting to a model which is bound to stir controversy can’t be comfortable for him.

These are important conversations, and that sticky intersection of art and economics is never an easy place. Does anybody in small press publishing–editors, publishers, authors–lack a deeply felt opinion?

Those of us who love the book, and who love and support small presses, have to grapple with the fact that lines are blurring. That does not mean we should ignore the ethical aspect of emerging models. If anything, it makes scrutiny more critical than ever. And it makes mutual support–moral as well as material–essential.

Here at the wompus, this is the only economy we have known. Does founding a press under this economy certify us insane? I know for sure that it certifies us as lovers of the book, and lovers of the independently produced, beautifully crafted, small run book. So is Geoffrey Gatza, over at BlazeVox. So are the folks—I am willing to stipulate—at Duotrope, who won’t list my press because I charge a reading fee.