Report from the Field: The Publishing Process Is Archaic
I’m closing Five Quarterly.
We’re a small, online lit mag that has existed by word-of-mouth and by support of our amazing writers and editors. We’ve hosted a few readings in New York and LA, but haven’t ever advertised or shouted from rooftops about our democratic publishing model: five new editors, five new writers, each issue.
The magazine is made up of two women, Vanessa Gabb and I, and a small army of rotating interns and friends, and yes, publishing an issue each quarter, and reading thousands of submissions every year is quite tiring. Of course we don’t make any money, even when we host contests (we give it back as prize money and make swag for readers).
There are a million other reasons too, like real life things, that get in the way of running a magazine as a labor of love. And it’s certainly unpaid labor.
But these aren’t the reason we’re closing.
Annoyed with the publishing process, we devised a plan to try and make the process accessible and cooperative. And it hasn’t really worked.
“We wanted to devise a publishing model that would celebrate and make more visible cooperative working, sharing with a wide range of others the responsibility of putting out a cultural product. We wanted to offer an opportunity to participate in something one might normally not participate in, particularly if not in the lit world but still a reader or wanting to try a new creative experience. We were interested in the usual suspects as well as the unusual suspects. No matter the final product, at the end of the day, we were interested in the process: in being part of something collaborative, something democratic.”
But finding people outside of the literary community to participate in this process, the people we really wanted to come on as guest editors with diverse lives, wasn’t easy, and over the last few years, we’ve figured out that it’s hard to be inclusive within an exclusive capitalism. Trying to democratize publishing by asking a varied group of people to select the final pieces for each issue goes against the heart of capitalism, and it seems the literary community still lives and dies by the notion of one editor-in-chief to decide what’s good and what’s not.
Our quest to try to change this process, to make publishing a bit more inclusive, led us to believe that simply inviting who we considered to be diverse people (this includes people of color, women, people of lower socio-economic backgrounds, the LGBT community, people with non-publishing careers, and more) would solve the problem we wanted to avoid: Publishing feels exclusive.
At first, we sought out these guest editors ourselves, which took a lot of time and effort. And for the first few issues, we did end up recruiting pretty heterogeneous groups of editors, consisting of, for example, a union steamfitter, a gynecologist, an accountant, artists, MBAs, moms, a fashion designer, and even 90s heartthrob Rider Strong. When we did recruit people though, it was mostly through our own personal networks, so we never felt as if we were truly breaking apart a publishing system, and found that we exhausted these networks pretty quickly.
The next phase then was to take advantage of the fact that we worked in education. We experimented with having high school students we had contact with assume the roles of our staff, choosing and producing the winning manuscripts. The students loved it. The experiential “course” gave them the opportunity to work with professional writing and expose them to the publishing landscape. Ultimately though, while the process provided a democratic view from non-writers, it was time consuming and we never had the time to really present it and the final products.
We did appreciate that none of these students were in the professional literary world and we liked that. So, we opened guest editorships to the public, took applications, and hoped that non-literary/non-publishing people would apply. And if we kept spreading the word, there had to be interest from beyond. Don’t people love to read?
But as the applications rolled in in droves, we found that the same type of people were applying: writerly types, not of all similar backgrounds, but writerly types and a lot of MFAs nonetheless.
I have skated through poverty throughout my life. I come from a single mother, little money, the idea that college was too expensive. Not one person in my family had gone to college, and it was clear that I’d have to figure it out on my own. My personal struggles are always financial, then and now.
I started at a community college because it was affordable and forced myself into a D-1 athletic scholarship as a transfer at a university. For me, it was the only way to study literature and writing. I had limited knowledge of publishing; I assumed that it was a thing for rich people, specifically rich white men, because as I understood the process as I progressed, those were the only people who were allowed to decide what was published.
I liked writing fiction but was lost on how to become part of a literary community, to participate in the process, and I had no one to turn to when it came to my creative work. And publishing a novel, that seemed so far-fetched, but also extremely necessary to get paid for the countless hours/years I’ve put into writing.
When I decided to pay for graduate school to get an MFA (very little was covered by a small scholarship) I was suddenly drowning in the reality of student loans. I wound up right back where I started: broke. But I had succeeded at meeting other writers and built a small community – not exactly worth that hefty dollar amount though.
All the while, even in graduate school, I worked full-time as a journalist. I’ve worked full time for as long as I was legally allowed to. My mother, the hardest-working person I’ve ever known, used to tell me that I could be a writer all I want, as long as I always have a full time job. So I settled on being a full-time journalist for the past decade, part-time fiction-writer, and literary magazine editor. Part-time anything that pays enough to keep my head above water.
For me, it’s hard to look at the current state of publishing, and it’s lack of inclusion and diversity, without shaking my head at capitalist intrusion upon everything, including art.
In my final semester of the MFA program, I was desperate for money and publications, because money has always mattered to me most of all – because I never have any of it. I was writing, and reading, and submitting, but it wasn’t enough to get many publications – or money. I was freelancing, renting out a spare Brooklyn room on Airbnb, and hoping that one day I could understand how publishing actually worked.
Who exactly was reading my work and telling me they did or didn’t like it? And why did it take them so long to decide? Why were the same things being published again and again?
Poverty is an endless cycle full of a lot of setbacks and exclusivity. If you’re not in, you’re way far out. When I met Vanessa for Taco Tuesday that day in 2011, we discussed our radical political views about the oppressive system we’ve lived in for so long, and when we started talking about publishing (her poetry and my fiction) we thought, why not try to change it. After a few margaritas, Five Quarterly was our new passion project. If we were writers who saw things from an anti-capitalist perspective, then why couldn’t we publish with this mentality too?
Sixty percent of books are published by the Big Five: Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan.
Collectively these publishing houses are worth billions of bucks. Penguin Random House alone claimed $3.5 billion in revenue in 2014.
Books are big business and the process of publishing has been set up to collect cash. And still, some great art is made along the way, and there seems to be some merit in this structure because so far, it’s all we have. But this model still exists under the umbrella of capitalism, so it has its limits.
Of course we literary folks, the ones who really read and devour lit mags, and praise and support independent presses, and have faith in self-publishing, are aware of insanely great pieces of poetry and prose.
But what about everyone else? As a publisher myself, I feel responsible for including everyone. Or at least opening the door.
I think it was Vanessa who spoke first, but she must have been annoyed that it took me so long to agree: We can’t keep this up.
This summer we dedicated our lives to our own books, the ones we had both been sweating over for at least a year, and we quietly let Five Quarterly run on its own. We checked in whenever we could, we did our basic daily editorial functions, and delegated a lot of slush pile reading to our interns and guest editors. But we kept hitting walls that the system threw at us. We kept getting the same guest editors.
We questioned why we started a lit mag in the first place and wondered if trying to crack an oppressive literary system was the only reason. Was it selfish? Did we want to meet more people in the literary community? Were we so vain that we could publish our own magazine, and slightly dictate who our guest editors would be? Did our views on capitalism and socioeconomic strife even matter in the literary world? Why couldn’t we figure this out?
In a hasty and quick decision, we said we’d throw in the towel and be open to something bigger and far-off in the future. But before we’d announce anything, we promised to sleep on it.
And we were already caught up in so many things in our personal and literary lives, and of course, always working full time. When we finally spoke again that week, it was clear: We’d failed at making publishing totally inclusive. We were so sick of seemingly the same editors dictating what is good. Who is good enough. Inside Five Quarterly and outside too.
We wanted the people to decide, and we wanted to include all of them, but we hadn’t found a way to get there. Perhaps capitalism doesn’t promote literacy and a love for creative writing because it’s a luxury itself, and maybe that’s why we couldn’t find the kind of editor pool we were naïvely looking for.
Lately there has been a shift in publishing. Publishers are including more diverse editors on staff in terms of race, gender, and sexuality, which I very much support. There are more diverse authors, too. But what is the point of these editors if they are working inside the same exclusive structure? Because after all, it’s still a job, where editors are being paid to make money for a company.
Five Quarterly, with its tiny light, had set out to find people who loved to read, regardless of advanced degrees or literary experience. The people that didn’t know or have the resources for or care what MFAs were. We wanted the people that loved to read, who could be exposed to a process in which they might otherwise never had the chance to take part. We wanted to give people access.
Simply, what if everyone had a say in what books are bestsellers? Especially in poetry or literary fiction.
To some degree, this process already works. Of course, we only see it with self-published genre fiction, because there is system set up to write, and to read. You can write whatever you want and give it to the masses, but without any formal process you might create unnecessary judgment and roadblocks. And as always, there’s a big risk that you might never make any money because your platform is only as big as you. But the self-published books that do take off are proof that there are readers out there who can decide the fate of a book, just by reading.
Right now I am waiting on agents to get back to me. The statistics say they will all reject me. But the process itself has been humbling: I write a book, I send it to an agent, and they figure out if it’s worth any money, if it can be commodified.
My words are worth money, because I’ll always need money.
Publishing is for capitalists it seems, and sometimes it feels like it exists to make rich people get richer. At least when we are talking about our current and traditional publishing models that exist right now, it seems like the only way to make any money as a writer. But it’s for the few and not the many. And in this process, if I’m lucky, I’ll earn a very small piece of it, to stay afloat.
If publishing were democratic, published books were chosen by people, real people that love to read and that don’t have their necks at stake, and if it wasn’t all about profits, what would we publish? What would writers write? Would we pander to what sells? Would we say what we really want? How do we define the skill set to let passionate people publish books?
In the overwhelming response to guest editor applications that we received at Five Quarterly in such a short time, my guess is that there are people who are hungry to participate in this shut-out capitalistic process. And while so far literary types of the same mold have predominated, they are still willing to back this idea.
What would happen if we let everyone in? If we could find them and give them access to a new publishing model?
I’m closing Five Quarterly with the hopes that Vanessa and I can attempt, once again, in a bigger and brighter light, to solve the problem that has plagued us: How do we try to be democratic in our art inside of a seemingly undemocratic economic system?
The many small (and amazing) literary magazines who are already publishing diverse issues, might not be big enough or loud enough to shake the big money and the big system.
Because even at our loudest, and our brokest, there are still a lot of fires to put out. We couldn’t master a democratic publishing collaboration, or get non-writers to jump in head first, and it’s a lot of work to run a labor of love without wages. We are still hitting walls within capitalism, and maybe it’s time to aim our sights on the publishing system itself.
CRISSY VAN METER‘s writing has appeared in Guernica, Catapult, ESPN, VICE, The Hairpin, and more. She’s the managing editor of Nouvella Books, and the co-founder of Five Quarterly. She teaches writing at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in Los Angeles.