Are Publishers “Off Limits”?

I can be a pretty tough critic. I know this about myself, and anyone who has read my reviews is likely to know it too. I make no apology. When we live in an era that sees each new batch of college freshman arrive to their composition courses without the ability to construct a complete sentence, I say: the time for high standards is now. I say, if you can’t do it well, keep trying. But don’t get all fired up because someone called you on it. And just to be clear: I hold myself to these same high standards as well. Doesn’t mean I don’t fail. I fail all the time. I fail most of the time. And when I fail in print? Someone will tell me about it. Probably also in print. That’s the way the game’s played, folks. But a friend recently questioned my decision to essentially slam a small press publisher for doing what I think is a bad job on the copyediting of a book I recently reviewed. And that conversation has me wondering, are publishers “off limits?”

My friend pointed out all the things that I know to be true about small press publishers: they work for virtually no money (some of them actually spend their own money to keep the press alive); they receive very little thanks and recognition for the work they do; they are champions of literary fiction and poetry – some of the most difficult writing to find publishers for; they work untold hours and may be, in the end, the people who believe most in our writing (with the possible exception of mom). And to all this I say, yes! No doubt. But does that mean that when a press/editor fails that we should, again, like it or shut up? And if so, why? Why do publishers get let off the hook for doing a crappy job when, we all know, writers don’t? Or is it that because publishers’ jobs are so grueling and thankless, we should simply be grateful that someone’s doing the job at all?

Yeah. That attitude has gotten us really far in education, too.

Or: is it possible that publishers get let off the hook because we’re afraid to say otherwise? The truth is: it’s a small world, the writing and publishing one. Sure, we all joke about not being able to swing a dead cat without hitting a writer (poor kitty), but the truth is: for those actively writing and publishing, it’s a very small world. And it doesn’t take much to get branded out here, let me tell you. But I like to believe that there is still some merit in honesty. There is still some value in expecting excellence and saying (out loud) when those expectations aren’t met.

I have a friend who recently published a book with a small press. She was ecstatic when she received her acceptance letter (who wouldn’t be?). What followed, however, was a virtual nightmare. The publisher/editor refused to assist in marketing the book (I can’t for the life of me figure that one out) and, when asked for any assistance at all, sent degrading and flat-out rude emails to his author. You know, the kind with lots of CAPS and !!!!!? I know this for a fact. I read the emails. And I was horrified. Of course, my friend says nothing publicly. Make no mistake, the word is spreading – but it’s spreading behind closed doors and most certainly not in print.

Is that how things are done? Is that how they should be done? Maybe. I’m willing to consider the possibility that bad presses/editors will eventually fail all on their own through good old word-of-mouth. But are we in the business of putting small presses out of business? Wouldn’t it be more effective, for all parties involved, to simply say: “Hey! This is unacceptable. And I’m saying so you’ll know and correct the issue. I’m saying because someone needs to say it. Otherwise, things might not go so well for you in the future.”

Maybe. Maybe not.

I’d like to write in a world where all small presses are encouraged to strive for excellence, to be like so many small presses who have held their standard and weathered the long haul. There are a plethora of excellent examples out there: Tupelo Press, Graywolf Press, Sarabande Books, Alice James Books, CavanKerry Press, and a whole host of others. Publishers are constantly telling writers to develop a thick skin – rejection galore awaits the writer. Shouldn’t that advice go both ways?

You tell me. Are publishers off limits?

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6 thoughts on “Are Publishers “Off Limits”?

  1. I think the problem is that publishers have the power, and writers can’t afford to offend them. It reminds me of the situation I found myself in when my kids were in school and would complain about a teacher and then make me promise not to confront the teacher because of fear of retribution. I wouldn’t be willing to risk being branded by a publisher, even a small press. You raise some good questions here, Gabriel.

    • That’s a disconcerting comment you’ve made there, Susan. There’s a real problem, IMHO, when we’re talking about the writer/editor relationship in terms of balance of power and fear of retribution. But you’ve only stated what I think many, many writers feel. And this, for me, is a problem.

      Thanks for your honesty. 😉

  2. Ack. I hate it when people excuse shoddy work because they don’t think they’re paid enough. It’s particularly disconcerting out of the mouths of creative artists and educators. But on to the publishers…keep up the criticism! They are fair game. I can’t wait for the brave new world of creative artists and educators who will, one day, hire their own editors and manage their own publishing and sales.

    • I like the way you think, Susan! Still, it’s risky business. We’ll see how all of my “honesty” and “high expectations” effect my attempt to publish this book when it’s finished. I’d like to think the two are separate events that have nothing to do with each other, but we live in the real world, don’t we?

      On your final comment: did you see that article about the chick who has made, I don’t know, like a gazillion dollars with kindle publishing? The new wave is coming. The new wave is here.

      Thanks for the comment! xx.

  3. So I know how passive (aggressive?) I can be so maybe this is in line with that, but wouldn’t it be lovely if there one online forum wherein writers could review publishers. Think Yelp.com or even ratemyprofessor.com. I in no way believe would change how a publisher works but it would give a writer a chance to see what other writers are saying about a publisher they are about to get in bed with. This actually may already exist — been awhile since I tried any publishing!

    • That’s not a bad idea, Chrissy. The question is: would writers be willing to put their names on criticism of their publishers? I suppose they could post anonymously, but that smacks of a lack of credibility.

      Too, I don’t think getting into the publisher/editor bashing game is a good idea either. The truth is, there are loads more good examples of small press publishers than bad. I, for example, had an AMAZING experience with my editor (Maggie Anderson) at Kent State – and I’ve heard of many other such great experiences. But the fact remains: there are also some horror stories out there and saying something about the “bad” is dangerous business for writers. And then there’s the fact that we (writers) need publishers – as Susan pointed out above.

      Some of us are talking about putting together an AWP panel proposal on the topic. I think it’s one that needs to be addressed. Thanks for your comment!

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