The recent controversy regarding the announcement that the National Endowment for the Arts will not consider grant applications from writers listing books published by BlazeVOX, a small publishing concern in Buffalo, New York--because it requested an author to consider contributing to the publication cost of printing his book--raises a number of questions about concepts of publication in general.
My own experience in this area has led me to some eccentric, though I think, proper positions, with respect to various kinds of publication.
The notion of "vanity press" has had a fairly routine meaning in popular culture for the last three-quarters of a century. With the rise of the large, corporate publishing concerns in the 20th Century, public opinion has been steered away from privately run and sustained publishing ventures, as if any kind of printed matter that did not pass through the sieve of professional editorial approval, and achieve the presumed blessing and adoption by a for-profit company, did not deserve publication; and, further, that any book which was published through the private auspices either of an author, an author's benefactor, or some undefined printing entity, was a damning indictment of amateurish fakery and "vanity."
In order to address the larger question of the history of publishing, and how the support of publication has evolved over the last five centuries, one would have to describe the development of book publishing as a capital business. But my purpose here is merely to point out that what we now think of as literary history, does not parallel the development of publishing. Taste, as defined as the criterion and approval of official literary culture, bears only a tangential relationship to the progress of publication as a business. In other words, there is no very reliable relationship between the value and quality of literary artifacts, and the value and utility of successful publishing capital ventures.
Many of the most important works and authors of American literary history were NOT part of the official literary culture. In fact, many of the early publications of the some of our most famous poets and writers, appeared through vanity or coterie presses.
Walt Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, paid for by Whitman, who also did much of the typesetting for the book.
Emily Dickinson's work was substantially unpublished at her death, and it was only through the efforts of her surviving relatives that her work was prepared for publication, beginning in 1890, four years after her death. For another half century, her work was not professionally edited, appearing in "cleaned up" versions with regularized settings etc.
Mark Twain underwrote the publication of several of his own books, in part through a publishing company he partly owned.
Ezra Pound's first book, A Lume Spento, was "privately printed" in Venice in 1908. Several of his other early books were subsidized by literary patrons.
Gertrude Stein paid to have most of her early books published.
Virginia Woolf self-published several of her early books through her own publishing venture, The Hogarth Press.
James Merrill's first book, Jim's Book, was published without his knowledge or approval, by his father to celebrate his son's 16th birthday in 1942. Merrill's second book, Black Swan and Other Poems, was published by his lover Kimon Friar in Athens in 1946.
Louis Simpson self-published his first collection of poems (printed in France), The Arrivistes, in 1949.
A.R. Ammons paid the Dorrance Press to produce his first book of verse, Ommateum, with Doxology, in 1955.
I offer these random examples of so-called "vanity" publication to point out that talented, unrecognized writers have often been obliged to facilitate their own first appearances, because the official organs of publication are not open to them. The works of writers whom posterity regards as crucial and innovative rarely are recognized in their time--at least early in their careers--and often are rejected by publishers. The record of great books rejected repeatedly by publishers includes many household names. The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, was rejected by a host of publishers before being accepted by Little, Brown.
Of all the books of presumed literary merit adjudged by agents, publishers and critics over the last hundred years, the vast majority are forgotten by posterity. Literary fashion waxes and wanes, but the most dependable gauge of literary fools-gold is an enthusiastic reception by a recognized publishing house. 99% of all books of fiction, poetry and criticism published by large for-profit publishing houses turn out to have little or no lasting value.
While it is true that a belief in the worth of one's own literary production is a poor basis for a measure of its literary quality, an official acceptance from an agent or a publisher's editorial staff is probably no more reliable a criterion.
For-profit publishers' measure of the value of a work is based of necessity on its potential for sale in the marketplace. The popularity of books does not depend to any significant degree upon their inherent literary value, and this is just as true of university presses and novelty publishers, as it is of the major New York, Boston and Philadelphia houses. The prestige of publishing houses is about equally measured, on the one hand, by the market performance success of its list, and the presumed "quality" of its individual titles. Publishers can't survive on unpopular books, because they won't pay the bills.
Most publishers traditionally regard poetry books, which seldom sell enough even to recoup their costs of production, as loss leaders. They may feather their nests with a handful of "recognized verse craftsmen" but they have no illusions about art for its own sake. This is no less true today, than it was in 1905, or 1925, or 1935, or 1945, or 1955, or 1965, or 1975, or 1985.
The fate of innovative poetry has fallen largely to the small press, or to coterie presses. Many of these concerns are subsidized by their owners or by the institutions which run them, or are supported by grants or gifts, or are tax write-offs for wealthy patrons, or are operated for the benefit of friends and colleagues or confederates.
The fact is that many of the books of poetry published each year in America and Great Britain are in principle subsidized in one way or another--and this would include books by "famous" authors like Derek Walcott, Robert Bly, or W.S. Merwin. Would Ron Silliman's book length poem The Alphabet ever have been accepted by a major New York publishing house? Could Larry Eigner's Collected Poems have been accepted by a non-institutional house? Are these titles in fact examples of augmented vanity publication--underwritten by the academic community, despite their lack of marketability?
The whole notion that an author whose work has no market value should be embarrassed by the prospect of "vanity" publication is really comic. The whole notion that Brett Ortler should be indignant with Geoffrey Gatza's proposal that he contribute something to the publication of his own poetry book is hilarious.
The plain fact is that anyone who cares enough about his/her work to want to have some control and influence over its physical realization and manifestation in the real world needs to explore and consider self-publication, before thinking of "straight" publication. Publication needn't be a mediation between an author, a publisher, and a probable public (reader). It might more profitably (in the aesthetic sense) benefit an author to conceive and design a literary work without the intercession or interference of a publisher.
What is worse: a publisher demanding that a novelist "revise" a work to make it more palatable or "salable" in the markeplace, or a publisher requesting that an author make up some portion of the expense associated with its promotion and production?
In our money-oriented culture, we tend to be dubious about an art which hasn't "earned" its way by passing through the gates of taste and approval. It's like wanting a credit default swap with a corrupt broker; you want the "security" of fake insurance, even when you know it has no real collateral. If you write to make money, or for the pathetic little fame that may come from having a big corporate publisher's marketing department front your effort, then you're probably not as serious about your work as you should be. Welcome to the remainder table.