Compassionate Curating: On the (Literal) Cost of a Seat at the Table
Let’s begin with the obvious, the unspoken: making books costs money. More to the point, making books costs someone’s money. And, even more to the point—if you have not been named editor of a press that is backed by a university or literary institution that financially supports said press, but you still want to participate in the production and distribution of contemporary literature: then making books often costs your money. That is, if you want to make books, or start a journal—if you want to help shape the landscape of American arts and letters for the better—then you had better be able to afford it. And, as bell hooks wrote almost twenty years ago, when we talk about money in the United States, we are often using it as an indirect way to talk about social class—and all of the inclusion/exclusion implicit in extant class boundaries and definitions:
“The closest most folks can come to talking about class in this nation is to talk about money. For so long everyone has wanted to hold on to the belief that the United States is a class-free society—that anyone who works hard enough can make it to the top. Few people stop to think that in a class-free society there would be no top. […]We live in a society where the poor have no public voice. No wonder it has taken so long for many citizens to recognize class—to become class conscious.”
I once spent a summer in Tuscany, studying Italian. One of the first friends I made on the trip was a girl named Jessamyn. She was, when I met her, putting herself through her expensive undergraduate course of study at a private, high-ranking university by working three jobs: she was an RA, a TA, and a stripper. (Several male students found out about her third job that summer, and essentially terrorized her over it—which both is and isn’t integral to the piece of narrative I want to share.)
One day, about two weeks into our trip, Jessamyn confided in myself and two other friends one day at lunch that she had had several unexpected, major expenses come up right before the start of our trip. She had put her airfare on her credit card at the last minute. She shook her head and said ruefully, “I’m really glad that I’m here, but I honestly have no idea how I’m going to pay for any of this.”
Another girl, named Denise, overheard this from a neighboring table. Denise attended the same university as Jessamyn, and her favorite topic of conversation, from what I had been able to gather, was how much money her father, who worked in finance, paid or didn’t pay in taxes (the percentages she threw around varied, but it was always, to her mind, far too much).
“Why are you here?” she asked, and it was clear that she was speaking to Jessamyn. The rest of us sat there in silence, taken aback.
Jessamyn sat, open-mouthed, caught off-guard and seemingly unable to find a response.
“Why are you here, if you can’t afford to be here? Why are you sitting here with us, if you can’t afford to be sitting here with us?”
We were all shocked by what was happening—it was the kind of thing we had all been raised never to say. But I understood, even then, that Denise’s outburst did not appear to be about some Randian concept of fiscal responsibility; rather, her comments signified to Jessamyn that Jessamyn was trying to move through a space that was not hers to navigate. The impact of Denise’s words were to let Jessamyn to know that such a space would and should remain hostile territory for anyone who couldn’t properly afford to enter it—that no matter how much money she might accrue, she would never really belong with us. I thought—and still think—that we all understood, in the moment, that Denise was not concerned solely with teaching Jessamyn a painful lesson; Denise wanted all of us to internalize those values, too. In her mind, we were defying a natural order of sorts simply by associating with Jessamyn in the first place.
Later in life, when I married a metal worker whose formal education culminated in a high school diploma, as I navigated academia and the Poebiz Nation, I would learn firsthand how many Denises exist all around me—the ones I couldn’t have spotted before. I would have to learn to deal with Denises daily.
Like the Denise, for example, who insisted on scheduling important meetings during the one-hour midday block of time that I had to pick up my husband from work. Or the ones who made it clear to my husband, at on-campus events he attended with me, that they did not understand why he was sitting with us when he was clearly not qualified to do so. The graduate students with Marxist preoccupations who would engage regularly in self-congratulatory conversations about being workers and raising consciousness, but who, when they met an actual blue-collar worker, seemed nonplussed by the concept of inclusion.
There are Denises on faculty, too. The ones who pressure adjuncts into providing free labor. Who help set the tone for those like the adjunct at a local city college who recently followed us through a grocery store, screaming at my husband to “get a job” and calling me the kinds of names you might expect someone like him (the adjunct) to call the female partner of a man who looks like my husband: a man who is gainfully employed, but whose job is very literally a dirty job (e.g., construction-grade adhesive, diesel grease, actual dirt, etc). This adjunct understood, by looking at us, that we are working-class people. So he followed us through a public space, attempting to humiliate and degrade us, using specifically class-based slurs. Some of his ugly words intersected with my gender, for an extra bite, but he and I were both keenly aware that certain types of gender-based insults would result in his expulsion from the store. There is a vulnerability to being working-class, because those insults, intended to further entrench systemic oppression, are often considered allowable offenses by those who have the power to stop them. And I could hear Denise’s words reverberating through my brain the entire time: Why are you here?
I think that part of the problem with the way we currently view, experience, and argue about small-press and indie-lit publishing is that we have failed to appropriately contextualize it as an industry. We use words like community to describe indie-lit and the Poebiz Nation, but I think that can be a little deceptive: it leaves out some important pieces, because when we think of community, we don’t necessarily consider things like currency. But currency is what shapes an industry and the positions of power and influence held by those within such a community.
The history of literary publishing in America has had both a capitalist bent and a classist undercurrent. Literature has usually been written, edited, published, produced, and distributed by people of letters. Historically, people of letters in the USA have overwhelmingly been wealthy, educated, able-bodied, white, cis men who have presented as heteronormative.
Publishers, literary agents, editors—we have come to reflexively associate money and education with such positions. And, for a long time, other than the occasional self-published book that made it (see: Anaïs Nin’s early work) or DIY-pamphlet, that’s how it worked. However, we’ve all borne witness to many of the ways in which digital publishing and other technological advances have affected the literary industry—from the rise of self-published genre authors who find followings via Amazon, to the multiplicity of small, “indie” micro-presses that now pervade the poetry and other niche literary publishing industries.
And yet, somehow, we haven’t been able to translate to ourselves that these changes must necessitate other changes in how we view excess and access in the arts—particularly in terms of publishing and accessibility. We cannot appreciate the positive trend of independent presses sprouting up all around us—we cannot celebrate the multiplicity of voices being amplified, and the types of inclusion being enacted for authors and artists who would otherwise have remained marginalized—while still insisting upon the same financial models of an erstwhile literary scene, which were created to ensure the very types of exclusion whose demise we want to celebrate and congratulate ourselves over. To say it plainly: if we are excited about the fact that indie-lit and poetry are becoming more inclusive across spectrums of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, lifestyle, dis/ability, educational resources, and social class—then we cannot expect the capitalist structures of standard publishing to sustain these new models of inclusion. Because it doesn’t work:
- Most editors work for free.
- Most editors are also publishers.
- Most editors fill many other jobs (unpaid) at the presses they run.
- Most small-press/indie-lit publishers are expected to lose money.
We rely on this free labor at a baseline level. Without these editors laboring for free, the books in question would not exist. Yet, these publishers without institutional backing or a background of wealth are at a disadvantage when it comes to building a successful press. Ironically, the more prestigious a press is considered to be, the better its books usually sell. Presses backed by the financial security of independent wealth or university grants are able to offer greater support for their authors and promotion for the books they publish. They can offer large cash prizes for their contests. As a result, more authors submit to such presses, and more readers hear about the books such presses publish. They can afford to send out larger numbers of review and promotional copies of new titles, generating greater visibility and more potential readers. It makes sense, as an author, to try to gain that visibility, and place your book with a press that seems able to offer you greater reward and stability. You probably don’t have to worry, for example, about Wave Books or Copper Canyon or Graywolf going under; your book, if placed with them, will not only remain in print, but will likely gain a wider audience than a book placed with a smaller, less prestigious, less-well-funded press. This heightened exposure will augment your advancement as an author, and possibly as an educator or publicly recognized intellectual, in the future.
And yet, it’s often financially secure presses that charge gratuitous contest and reading fees—which, often, they genuinely do not need in order to survive. When authors complain about fees in this sort of context, I understand and fully agree with the complaint. A cycle is created: authors without disposable income—those whose utilities have been shut off yet again, those who cannot afford to socialize because every drop of fuel in the car must be used to get to work and back—are being told that they shouldn’t bother being authors at all, that their gifts are of no consequence to a publisher with “real” literary prestige. This, of course, intersects with other aspects of identity; a working-class, able-bodied, heteronormative, cis white man is often much more likely to be published than, for example, a working-class, queer, disabled person, or a working-class woman, especially if she is a woman of color. It often seems to me that the only real way for working-class people to fully access the literary industry is to become publishers themselves, and take up for each other. Yet, when a working-class person creates a small press, those with money, education, academic employment, and power rush to create another set of obstacles. When we mistakenly accept the idea that all micro-presses and indie-lit presses must be grouped together with well-funded, comfortably established presses, we have created and offered our support to the assumption that all such presses, in competition with one another, must be held to the same fiscal standards. That titles must be inexpensive and must also meet certain (expensive) aesthetic standards. That if indie-lit giants shouldn’t charge submission fees, neither should That Brand New Press in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, started up by Some Girl No One’s Ever Heard Of. Larger, well-supported presses can withstand criticisms and keep charging whatever they want: they know that people will keep submitting to their contests and keep paying their fees. The Girl No One Has Ever Heard Of will feel called out, embarrassed, like she’s done something wrong, committed some sort of literary transgression. She can choose to persist despite that feeling, or she can stop charging fees and her press will fold. Who wins when her press folds?
But the Girl from Susquehanna County shouldn’t be made to feel this way, especially not if her mission in starting a press was to amplify marginalized voices and enrich our possibilities as readers. Because in addition to all of the editorial work she’s done for free, she also probably does design work for free. And here’s a short list of the other expenses she’s found a way to cover, and why she may need submission fees to keep her project afloat:
- She has a computer
- She has word-processor software
- She has design software
- She has spent a great deal of her own time (and very likely a substantial amount of her own money) learning to use the design software proficiently
- She provides all of the necessary editorial work for free
- She provides all of the necessary design work for free
- and, should there be too many design projects happening at the press simultaneously she must hire designers to handle some of them
- She pays for the books to have corrections made to them at the printer’s, as necessary
- She pays for the books to be printed
- She pays for the books to be distributed, through SPD or perhaps a less expensive distributor (it’s rare for a small-press publisher to be able to avoid working with any distributor at all, and distribution costs money)
- She pays for all of the books that her press publishes to be shipped to her (so that she can ship them elsewhere), her press, her other staff, to the author, and to the distributor
- She pays for all the review and promotional copies that are sent out by her press
- She often covers postage for those who order the book from her press’ website (this varies from press to press, of course)
- She has likely to pay for the rights to use some of the art that the author has requested (or, sometimes, insisted) be included in the cover design
- Or, if she has not had to pay an artist for work incorporated into the cover design, she has labored to create art that can be used for free on the cover
- If there have been unforeseeable problems with an artist or an outside designer, she has to pay them a contractually obligated “kill fee,” and then find a new artist or designer and pay them the full fee
- She manages her staff for free
- She handles PR for the books for free
- She handles PR for the contest and the press for free
- She pays for a website and other associated press necessities
- She listens to people sniff that a book with such thin pages (#50 instead of #70 or #80, for example) can’t be taken “seriously”
- OK, just kidding, that last one didn’t actually cost her any money
- It’s just a slap in the face. And it’s unchecked classism. And that costs her something, too.
- Because it says that “serious” books are always moneyed books.
- And, in addition to not being “serious” enough, she can’t keep publishing new authors without charging submission fees once a year.
- And you telling her that she should be ashamed of doing so is simply a reinforcement of what she’s been told all along: that free labor is the only possible way she can ever prove that she merits a seat at your table—and that it will never quite actually get her there. That if she can’t afford to pay for her meal, you’ll send her back into the kitchen to wash dishes, among her people.
- So she can at least have a nominal seat at the table, even if it’s the marked kind.
- As long as she never gets tired.
- As long as she can make it on her own (isn’t that the American Dream?).
- Why aren’t those dishes clean yet?
Think about it.
Part of what I want to say is that we all deserve to be paid for our work. All of us.
Part of what I want to say is that you shouldn’t have to have a middle-class income to comfortably afford books. Books—and beauty, and access to new ideas or evocative conversations—should not be prohibitively expensive. This is why some small presses, including my own, choose to donate their books to underserved communities and the institutions that serve them. But donations don’t cover the lack or fill the void entirely.
Part of what I want to say is that a lot of us do work for free. I do. I do an almost unbelievable amount of work for free. If I tallied up the number of hours that I work for free in a month, you literally would probably not believe me. I may enjoy it much of the time, but it’s still labor. I’ve still spent an unhealthy number of sleep-hours on free labor that I’ve given away. And I think that part of what I want to say is that I’ve begun to feel rather depleted. And when I say that, I absolutely do not mean that I don’t love running a press, nor am I communicating that I don’t want to be an editor. I intend to run my press for the rest of my life. But I would like to politely suggest that perhaps there are ways in which it does not have to be made so difficult to do these kinds of things. Not just for me—but for other people with editorial talents and ambition, including those who have less voice than I have, and/or who are perhaps less obstinately stubborn about doing what they love.
Part of what I want to say is that it costs money to make a book. So books are going to have to cost a certain amount of money for presses to stay afloat. And—while I would obviously never endorse predatory or vanity-press tactics, such as charging authors full price for their own books—it seems obvious that sometimes indie presses, especially new and more vulnerable ones that are not run by the bourgeois, will have to compensate for the fact that poetry doesn’t sell very well by occasionally charging reading fees. Because many micro-presses aren’t businesses—they’re non-profit organizations, and the people who run them give away their time, energy, skill set, being, and money in order to provide us art, and authors a voice. Is it better to not have presses exist unless only individuals from the upper classes with the “appropriate” amount of startup capital want to create and run them as businesses? Who are we shutting out with this attitude? And why—why?—why?—do we feel so OK about it?
Part of what I want to say is, what are you doing about it? Not the universal “you.” I mean you, specifically. What kinds of solutions are you helping to enact? Or are you just complaining about reading fees and willing to leave behind those you feel don’t belong at the top of the reading pile with your manuscript?
I enjoy working as an indie-lit editor, even if it is entirely unpaid, and even if in addition to being unpaid, it takes money out of my pocket and sleep out of my nights. I get a thrill out of making beautiful things. My brain is flooded with joy-chemicals every time I hold a newly printed book that I’ve labored to bring into the world. And, at least as far as I am aware, the authors whose books I have labored to put out into the world are happy to have their books in print through my press. And sometimes this makes me happy. But other times, when I turn on my social media accounts that are synced up with the Poebiz Nation, I am very troubled at the weird, artificial walls of taste I see all around me that seem to suggest that this is all there is.
I feel as though I’ve tuned in to a Twilight-Zone-esque frequency of reality that is comprised of a few hundred Denises just Denise-ing their ways around Deniseville. And they’re all asking the same question, and it’s always—even when it’s not—directed at me: Why are you here, sitting with us, if you can’t afford to be here, sitting with us?
This absolutely is not all there is.
FOX FRAZIER-FOLEY is the author of two prize-winning poetry collections: The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), which was selected by Vermont Poet Laureate Chard deNiord as the recipient of the Bright Hill Press Poetry Award, and Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014). Her newest collection of poems, Like Ash in the Air After Something Has Burned, was just released by Hyacinth Girl Press. Fox edited the anthologies Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She created and manages the micro-press Agape Editions.
This essay is part of a series on compassionate curating with a focus on editors’ and curators’ thoughts, experiences, and advice on putting together crucial, urgent collections about difficult topics or work from marginalized and at-risk writers. And how to navigate bringing these important projects to fruition while navigating stereotypes and tropes, caring for writers and readers, being mindful of writers’ emotional labor and trauma, and how to put into practice or imagine a praxis that avoids doing harm.