What Do We Do With Parasitic Publishers (and the Good Books They Sometimes Publish)?
Writer questions how to handle presses who don't always treat writers well
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
Earlier this year, Lit Mag News did some excellent muckraking and shined a light on a number of presses and magazines—most notably, perhaps, PANK and C&R Press—that have made a habit out of collecting payments via contests and submission fees without ever actually announcing the winners of those contests or responding in any way to the authors who have submitted their work. This has, unfortunately, become a somewhat common grift in the world of small independent publishing. Buy a website, set up that Submittable account, and wait for all of us hopeful, naïve writers to open up our wallets.
I want to believe that we writers have an ethical obligation to call out these dormant shell-company presses with their absentee editors, who are making money off of submissions scams (even if it’s not much money, it seems safe to assume that they are at least making enough to maintain the cost of their online presence). The publishing world is already difficult enough to navigate and I think we owe it to each to sound the alarm on any publisher who is known to do this sort of stuff.
However, I want to present a situation that, while similar, comes with an added wrinkle: what should we do when one of these parasitic publishers is also, in fact, publishing good work that deserves an audience? What do we do when a press is clearly taking advantage of hopeful writers while simultaneously putting out books or stories or poems that we want to uplift?
To illustrate this dilemma, allow me to walk you through the circumstances that have been ongoing between myself and a small press (which shall remain nameless) that has been sitting on my manuscript submission for, at the time of this writing, almost three and a half years.
What do we do when a press is clearly taking advantage of hopeful writers while simultaneously putting out books or stories or poems that we want to uplift?
Say there is a small independent book press that is run by someone you know. Let’s call this person The Editor. Maybe you don’t know The Editor well—maybe you only sort of know them—but the two of you have been floating around in the same literary circles for the better part of a decade. You’ve stood in the same circles at parties, have seen each other read at events, and share probably dozens of mutual acquaintances. The Editor will even often like things that you post on social media.
And say The Editor has published a number of books written by some of your mutual acquaintances—people who are, in fact, close friends of yours. People who you interact with regularly and who you feel a sort of literary kinship with. These are writers whose books—published by The Editor—you love and recommend at every given opportunity.
And so, when you finally have your own manuscript—the culmination of years of work, made up of pages that have been widely published in reputable journals—it makes sense, you think, to send it to The Editor. You like the other books they’ve put out and you can see your own writing fitting well as a part of that lineage.
You write them a nice cover letter. You upload your manuscript document. And you pay your submission fee.
Then you wait.
A year goes by and you send The Editor an email. A quick hello, how’s it going, just checking in about my submission. You receive a very speedy response: an apology, a promise to get to it soon.
More time passes and this email exchange repeats itself a couple times; the back and forth starts to feel like a pattern. By the time the two-year anniversary of your submission comes around, you’ve not only sent two or three inquiries, but you’ve also sent a one or two friendly messages complimenting the other recent books that The Editor has put out. The Editor keeps on liking things that you post on social media, as if to say I have not forgotten you! Three years go by and you have yet to receive any indication that they’ve read even a single page of your manuscript.
And don’t forget: You paid a submission fee.
And, also, don’t forget: this press has published books by your friends, books that you love. If you start warning other writers about this experience—which is, at best, childishly unprofessional and, at worst, a flat-out scam—then you risk not only hurting your friends, but also damaging whatever opportunities your friends’ books might have to find their readers.
So what do you do? Do you carry on the embarrassing and seemingly fruitless years-long mission of pestering The Editor until they give you a real response? Or do you just sit with the embarrassment, hoping to never run into The Editor again? The ethical thing to do might be to hop on the internet and warn as many other writers as you can. But is the cost of your submission fee (and the submission fees of however many other writers might be in the same boat) worth damaging your friends’ careers? Is it worth risking those friendships when the people who have published books with The Editor have truly done no wrong?
The situation raises bigger questions, too: Is it possible for a publisher to do good work while also being a parasite on the greater literary world? As a literary community, where do we draw the line with publishers like this? What should relationships between small publishers and their literary communities that support them look like, and how can we prevent those relationships from leading to such enormous imbalances of power, dignity, and integrity? What obligations do publishers actually have to their slush-piles? What obligations do they have to their paid submissions?
Unfortunately, I don’t have answers to these questions, and whenever I do try to answer them, I inevitably find myself spiraling into anger and frustration about this whole circumstance. I have to believe that I’m not the only writer in the world who has found themselves stuck in a situation like this, and given everything that’s come to light regarding publishers like PANK and C&R, I can assume that similar situations are probably more frequent than most of us would expect. Do I speak up or do I stay silent? Both options feel bad to me, and the fact I’ve been stuck in this situation for years means that I’ve also had years to consider the best course of action.
All that time and I’m still at a loss for what to do.
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