Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Editors and Publishers

As many of you know, I had a horrible experience this summer with Cider Press Review. And as you also may know by now, Kevin Larimer, the deputy editor of Poets and Writers, wrote an article about this debacle for the November/December issue.

I've debated responding to this article for a number of reasons. For one, I'm just plain tired of the whole thing. It took up most of my summer and cast a pall over my household--and over the incredibly happy prospect of my book coming out. And given the nature of this article, and the ways in which I've been painted as a poet who just "complains" about things, I felt that offering my critique would just be playing into that portrait and prolonging this whole thing. But to remain silent is to play into his "moral of the story," which is that poets should either allow editors to do whatever they want or "self-publish." So I'll make my comment anyway.

When he approached me about writing this article, I embraced it. I don't have anything to hide. I've disclosed what happened between me and the press, and since I knew that they couldn't deny what they did, I expected that they would badmouth me and blame me and try to justify their actions, which is exactly what they did.

I knew that as a reporter Mr. Larimer would have, at his disposal, the transcript of what happened between the press and me. I knew that he would inevitably make choices about what to include and how to shape the story. And while I'm glad that the story got out to a larger audience, the ways in which he shaped it, and the way he focused it, truly surprised me.

I didn't expect him to frame this as "who has the final editorial say--author or editor?" because in our case, as in most cases for poets, it was a non-issue. According to the contract they created and we all signed, they did. Period. So they weren't obligated to do a damn thing I asked. But when it came down to it, they chose to break that contract instead of honoring it, and apparently, that's okay, as long as your "feelings are hurt" by said layout disagreement.

I was also surprised by the way in which he chose to (not) present the legal aspects of this situation--and the fact that he never touched on any of the ethical ones.

He casually mentioned that if I paid them back the money they gave me (as well as money they didn't give me), I would "get my rights back," but he never mentioned the fact that they didn't actually own my rights. Once a contract has been broken, neither party is entitled to the fruits of that contract--a little legal detail that got overlooked. And the way the discussion was framed, I just hired a lawyer to avoid having to repay prize money (and their cover art expenses). In reality, the fact that they were withholding my rights meant I had to spend almost all of that prize money just to get my own book back.

But all of this got glossed over on the way to the "real meat" of this story--the gossipy he said/she said about a back cover disagreement. The thrust of this was editorially sensationalized, with various quotes parsed so that they were taken out of context, leaving out the elements (and the facts) that made them fair and reasonable requests and leaving only the most contentious, foot-stamping stuff.

For example, Mr. Larimer chose not to include the fact that the full contest guidelines already appeared in a full-page ad for the book contest on the last page of the book. That fact made the repeated ad on the back cover redundant and unnecessary, which was the point I made to the editors at the time. Oddly, that fact never made it into the story.

If I were going to be cynical about it, I could point out his position as "Deputy Editor" at the magazine. I could focus my critique on the issue of editorialization as a whole, and on the fact that this article is a metaphor for its inevitable conclusion: poets should just be quiet and be grateful for whatever they get and however it turns out for them because in the end, the editors are the ones who get to shape and control both the text at hand as well as the ways in which this information gets presented to the larger world.

Don't get me wrong. A good editor is a blessing. The wonderful editors at my new press gave me pages of notes, comments, and suggestions within days of acquiring my manuscript, and I was incredibly grateful for their input. In the olden days of poetry, editors and poets worked closely together to create a better text. But creating those relationships now is a hard thing to do, and you're damned lucky if you find yourself matched up with people who can not only understand what you're doing but can also help you to do it more effectively.

But what about a bad editor? Or an ineffectual one? Or one who believes that because she runs a contest out of her basement, she knows more about the poet's work than the poet does (even though she never actually read my book until she was putting into layout form)? And who believes she gets to change that poet's work without her consent?

And what about the journalist who knowingly includes, in a "researched" article, a quotation that was never actually said? As noted, Mr. Larimer had the entire transcript of the four-day dispute over the back cover, and as he noted in his article, no other conversations took place.

So he knew for a fact that I NEVER wrote that going back to the blurb authors would be "horribly unprofessional." And while he covered himself by noting that Robert Wynne "claimed" that I said it, this claim was undocumented because I never did. And yet, for some reason, he included it anyway. And I wanted to know why.

I emailed Mr. Larimer the day after I read this article and asked him the following:

"If you knew there was no documentation for this quote, why did you include it? Especially when you had, at your disposal, all of the things that I did say?"

His response? "We invite you to write a letter to the editor."

I have to admit that I'm surprised because I want(ed) to believe that Poets and Writers took its job as being an advocate for writers at least halfway seriously. To me, that means don't include anything, in either direction, that isn't true. To this end, I did not mention anything in my correspondence with Mr. Larimer that I could not provide evidence for. And I tried my best to represent the tenor and tone of communications honestly without augmenting or omitting important details.

But the editorial decision in this article that really left a bad taste in my mouth was the way Mr. Larimer "outed" last year's contest winner. Not only did he broadcast her name and the title of her book, which were supposed to be kept under wraps as part of the settlement between her and Cider Press, but he also betrayed her as a "source."

When he asked for her comment on the situation, she wrote him an email explaining that she couldn't comment on it because of the gag order and the settlement they had reached. And instead of honoring that, he QUOTED from her email.

Let me do a Joe Biden here and say that again. He quoted from an email in which she said she couldn't comment on the situation. He created a comment from her "no comment."

All of these "choices" seem to shape this article in a very specific direction. Even though it was about the dynamics between authors and editors, no authors were interviewed for the piece. He didn't ask any poets or fiction writers for their take on having their work edited without their consent (which was, to me, the biggest issue--not the author photo BS). Instead, he asked a fellow editor for his opinion, and his take on it was not at all surprising.

What disappoints me most about this article is that it does little to further the conversations that should be happening--about the relationships between writers and publishers, about the ethics and the contest system as a whole, about alternatives to the current publishing paradigms. Instead, it just reifies the belief that the publishers are the kings of the kingdom, and poets are just peasants who should happily lap and snap up any crumbs that might get tossed our way--a dynamic that is faulty and dangerous to poetry.

While this article could and should have focused on preventing this kind of thing from happening to another poet, the main subtext is that the only way to prevent this scenario is for poets to just shut up and "be grateful" for whatever they get--and for however their book turns out. Even if the books are full of typos. Even if the editors change your language without your consent.

So I stand by everything that I wrote in that original blog post, and then some. My aim in all of this was to let poets know the facts about Cider Press Review. They believe it is acceptable to enter into contracts with poets and break them without legal cause. They'll do it and then try to get money out of those poets in exchange for "rights" they don't actually own. And after they do it, they'll badmouth the poet they dropped and blame her and lie about what she did and didn't say. And apparently, they'll get away with it.

If you want to enter into a contract with people like that, have at it. Just remember that thanks to my $750 lawyer, they now have a "new contract," and one of the clauses mandates that the communication between the poet and the editors belongs to the press and can't be shared, which amounts to a pre-emptive gag order. So if they do to you what they did to me, you won't be able to talk about it.

Me? I'm brushing the dirt off my shoulder and moving on. Again.


Collin Kelley said...

As I said on my blog, it's not a good piece of journalism. Sadly, P&W is beholden to the "establishment" and all us pesky newcomers with ideas about how our work should be presented to readers are nothing but a bunch of boat-rockers and we really should just self-publish because we're not very good anyway. That's really the gist isn't it?

Anne said...

Hi Stacy, Thanks for your continued diligence in setting the record(s) straight about the Larimer article. And, in particular, thank you for noting that Mr. Larimer made a "comment" out of my "no comment" email to him. That is precisely the kind of thing I so disliked about my interaction with CPR: someone else changing a word or omitting words in what I'd written and putting it in a new context in order to shift its meaning!

Hopefully, the joy of your forthcoming book, Cradle Song, will cast a longer shadow (of joy) over the literary world than this whole ugly mess has.

You are my hero.