What's the Matter with PANK Books?
Two authors formerly with PANK Books share their stories
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
In late February, Lit Mag News ran an article about the questionable practices of several literary outlets. One of these was PANK Magazine. The article was shared and discussed widely. Yet, what many people did not know is that the very week the article went live, a large contingent of authors from PANK had crafted a private letter directed to PANK’s owner, Jessica Fischoff. Two of those authors then reached out to Lit Mag News, asking to share their experiences. They have chosen to remain anonymous, due to the heavy toll this ordeal has already taken on them. Here are their stories.
On working with PANK
Working with PANK the past three years has been a series of false promises, elaborate and vague (often plausible but not probable) excuses, missed deadlines, increasing confusion and isolation, perpetual disappointment, and strangely enough – emails wishing me well.
Five weeks into lockdown, PANK contacted me to let me know they were interested in publishing my manuscript. JF said she and her co-editor, CC, would be in touch soon with a contract to sign. Other writer friends I told were excited for me because they all knew PANK to be a reputable press. I waited a month for JF to get back to me and each day that passed the silence made me wonder what was happening. Had they reconsidered? Did they overextend themselves with the number of titles they could publish in the midst of a global pandemic? That month’s silence – and the fear and anxiety that accompanied the lapse in communication – would foreshadow the rest of my dealings with PANK.
When JF resurfaced she was friendly and upbeat and thanked me for my patience (supposedly they were reworking their contracts and distribution guidelines, hence the delay). The contract stipulated that my book was scheduled for a Fall 2021 release – 19 months away. I didn’t hear from PANK again for four months, at which point JF said she had a meeting with CC soon and she’d be in touch afterwards. Months passed again without any follow-up. With the release so far ahead and several other rounds of books for them to publish first, this didn’t seem that odd. I believed what she told me because it never occurred to me that the editor of a small press might not have my best interests in mind.
JF gave the impression of being an overworked but enthusiastic editor. I assumed she had another source of income that took up the bulk of her time and for that reason I cut her a lot of slack. Seven months before the supposed release, I’d yet to see a production schedule (or proofs or a cover), but I trusted her because it felt like my only option. I didn’t have an agent, and the contract was signed. If seeing my book in print meant being patient and understanding, then that’s what I would do.
I believed what she told me because it never occurred to me that the editor of a small press might not have my best interests in mind.
PANK went silent again that fall. Neither JF nor CC responded to my messages. What if the pandemic was continuing to have ripple effects on their business that they were trying to correct? Who was I to demand their time? People were asking questions about the book, as they had been for months. Wasn’t it supposed to come out soon? When can I get a copy? All reasonable questions, but none of which I had answers to. I focused on how it would feel to hold the book in my hands when I wrote follow-up after follow-up message, so that none of my emails bubbled over with the true frustration and exasperation I was feeling. I was scared that if JF found me difficult to work with, she’d drop me from the catalogue – so I did everything I could to keep the process moving while not revealing my true concerns.
The pattern continued of emails not arriving for weeks and months, and on the infrequent occasions I did receive any correspondence from her, she maintained the same level of cheeriness, which as time passed felt less genuine and more infuriating. Again and again she thanked me for my patience. Again and again she wished me well.
I told myself that JF was probably overworked and that PANK was probably understaffed. Maybe this was normal for a small press with limited means? (The more people I spoke with the more I was told, no - this is not normal.) That this experience coalesced with the pandemic further added to the difficulty of deciphering the situation. This was a time in which nothing felt normal – every industry was facing setbacks, shortages, delays – and publishing was no different.
I was eventually given two months’ notice about the book’s exact release date – despite having signed the contract two years prior.
To the outside world I was a person whose first book was about to be released, and so people in my sphere expected me to be excited. Worse than how PANK was treating me would be having to confess that I had ended up with the worst press imaginable – I didn’t know anyone whose publishing experience was such a nightmare. Explaining this to the outside world only compounded my stress as I felt a deep sense of shame that I hadn’t put the pieces together sooner.
Things worsened once the book was released. The space hosting my launch party and the bookstore in charge of sales for the night couldn’t get a response from JF about placing an order. I followed-up and checked-in and followed-up again. She chimed in just days before the event to say all was fine and she would make sure to place that order. (Everything JF writes is in future tense, she’s not done it yet.) The space wanted to know what kind of wine I’d like for the party, what layout I was imagining for the room – I couldn’t gather my thoughts because I was terrified the books wouldn’t arrive on time. I delegated every task to friends – please choose the wine, please arrange the chairs, please get some flowers.
The launch would end up being the only event I had books for. (And I did finally get to hold the book in my hands, although my elation at its actual existence was cut short the moment I noticed my misspelled name on the spine of the book, a mistake which I immediately alerted JF to and which she never addressed.)
Explaining this to the outside world only compounded my stress as I felt a deep sense of shame that I hadn’t put the pieces together sooner.
I had also directed every single person I knew that couldn’t make it to the launch party to the PANK website to pre-order the book. The release month, when the website claimed books would be shipped out, came and went. I sent a message asking about this but got no response. A week later I sent another email. Each week that passed someone new got a hold of me to let me know that they had ordered a copy of the book but it never arrived. Many of these people had tried to directly contact JF themselves (through email, through social media) and were only letting me know because those efforts had been unsuccessful. I pressed JF for information and updated her with my running list of names.
While this was happening I set up three readings – and same as with the launch, the venues booking the events couldn’t get a response about ordering copies of the book. I would step in, cc’ing the bookstore, or the venue, and JF would respond right at crunch time to claim it was all no problem. One space asked point-blank for the tracking number of the shipment (an email I was cc’d on) and JF never gave it. JF never gave any detailed info, you had to trust her responses that things were “on their way,” “had been taken care of,” or were “coming shortly,” despite a track record that proved the opposite was much more likely true. She never forgot to wish me well.
After books failed to arrive on time for those three readings in the fall, I stopped booking readings all together. I couldn’t chance showing up empty-handed to a venue, since having books on hand to sell was the only way to recoup the travel costs. I often found myself sending apology emails to the people that were trying to support my work – I’m so sorry, JF can be like this. I don’t know why she hasn’t responded to your email. I’m so sorry. Months after the book’s release, JF said she would look into the issue with pre-orders and claimed she would personally mail out those books. She wished me well.
Despite my book having existed in the world for barely four months, it felt like it was already dead. JF’s actions (or lack thereof) went beyond flaky to negligent – she was actively hindering the potential success of my book, a potential that seemed to dwindle each day.
Needless to say, those books never made it out, and it took a collective effort from the majority of PANK’s authors in the winter of 2023 to prompt a response from her, at which point she claimed she was feeling much more positive and was ready to make the necessary changes required for her authors to feel they had the supportive environment they needed (and deserved). She knew her communication and clarity needed work (to put it mildly) and she claimed she was ready to get the press back on track.
It was all too little too late. The only agency I had now was to work to remove the book from PANK, and by whatever means possible. For months all of my energy went to this singular goal. My days and nights were consumed with it, to the point where I began to joke with friends that PANK might have given me an ulcer – an attempt at levity in a situation that was taking a very real physical and mental toll on my body. I wrote messages to fellow PANK authors, former editors, former printers, former and current distributors, potential lawyers, and to JF herself. Imagine if she had been willing to put the same level of energy to the book actually getting into the world.
JF took advantage of my kindness, of my inclination towards being understanding and forgiving. Most bizarre of all is that today I’m glad to have gotten word that my book was removed from distribution and our termination agreement, which dissolves our previous contract, has been finalized. What I’m glad about is having legally severed ties with PANK. But that sense of relief is tempered with a profound sense of loss that this book that I spent years writing, then years finding a home for, and which then spent two and a half years being published, has now been erased from the world at my own doing. I chose this.
Such is the reality of working with PANK – I would rather have no book than a book with them.
My advice to PANK submitters: Don’t do it.
My own experience working with PANK largely mirrors that of the above writer. I’ve never had the displeasure of working with a press that so actively seemed to work at not getting their books into the world. If being a publisher means to make things public, PANK works hard at doing the exact opposite.
When my book was accepted for publication by PANK I was excited because, founded by Roxane Gay and M. Bartley Seigel in 2006, the press is fairly well-known and respected. And being that my manuscript was a somewhat non-commercial one, teasing the boundaries of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction, I thought that PANK would be a good home for it.
My PANK book was not my first, and going into the experience I knew that small presses are oftentimes labors of love. That being said, what I’ve found is by virtue of the fact that small press editors are doing things because they want to do them, not because they are paid to do them, the dedication to the work is sometimes even greater. Since $ doesn’t factor in, or at least not much $, the focus is instead on getting the work as much in the world as possible. Spreading the word via social media, helping authors set up events, etc.
Let’s just say that with PANK that wasn’t the case. Not by a long shot.
If being a publisher means to make things public, PANK works hard at doing the exact opposite.
Like the above writer, the gestation of my book—also accepted for publication in the spring of 2020—endured months-long periods of silence. I got a first proof of the text in the summer of 2020 and didn’t get a second one until ten months later. And to be fair, this was during the first year of the pandemic and time had a different quality. Although I regularly reached out to PANK for updates regarding my book’s status, I wasn’t super concerned if I didn’t hear back for weeks or even months. My book wasn’t the central focus on anyone’s mind, including my own.
But as my publication date grew closer, I did, of course, grow concerned about the silence. Soon after my book’s publication I had a reading tour planned and I knew for a fact that PANK’s ostensible distributor, Small Press Distribution (SPD), didn’t have copies of my book and thus the bookstores that I would be reading at wouldn’t have any in stock to sell at events.
I had to beg JF, through multiple emails, to allow me to buy author copies from her to sell at each reading. It was excruciating. Add that to the fact that once I received finalized copies of my book it was to my chagrin that I realized that PANK’s interior designer (who that is I have no idea; although I asked, JF didn’t answer) had inserted multiple spelling errors into my book, spelling errors that were not in the final version of the text that I had sent to PANK.
But the tour/bookstore debacle was really just the tip of the iceberg. People who bought my book directly from PANK didn’t receive it. The publicist I hired to help me promote the text was a complete waste of $, as JF didn’t respond to her emails. Bookstores that wanted to stock my book had to email JF multiple times–and, receiving no response, eventually just gave up. And to be fair again–for most of my entanglement with PANK the other head editor, CC, was also involved–and he himself wasn’t always great at responding. (I later learned that CC himself was in the dark regarding a lot of what was going on, and that JF was PANK’s main point person for everything. But that was months down the line.)
The masthead for PANK is misleadingly long, as at the end of the day the press is run by one individual, JF, PANK’s publisher. (At least on the book side. I can’t speak to the magazine side.) So all of the authors have no recourse but to constantly try and get her attention–and that proved impossible, time and time again. At a certain point I grew ashamed of reaching out to JF. It made me feel needy, as if I were asking for things (i.e. actually sending books to people who bought them) that were above my authorial pay grade. And until the collective action (a letter sent privately to JF) by PANK’s authors in winter 2023, I had simply accepted my book’s failure. I’d moved on, because trying to get JF to do nearly anything that a sensible publisher would do seemed to be a lost cause.
As of this writing a sizable portion of PANK’s books are out of stock at SPD—because JF won’t send them any to sell—and buying copies via Bookshop/Ingram isn’t remotely cheap. It’s $32.20 for this 160 page title, for example, not including shipping. And these are Print-On-Demand (POD) books.
I go back to my opening contention, that I’ve never had the displeasure of working with a press that so actively seemed to work at not getting their books into the world. Working with PANK made me feel ashamed that I cared about my book and my writing, which was the absolute worst feeling to have.
It’s worth mentioning that, as JF told the group collective when we reached out to her this past winter, she went through a challenging time on a personal level the past couple of years, dealing with some family and health-based ordeals. For those challenges she has my empathy and well-wishes. That being said, rather than be forthright about her situation and extreme lag times, etc., JF, throughout the entirety of the time that I had to deal with her, chose to simply disappear, for weeks or even months at a time.
It’s still unclear to me why she didn’t have someone else on that very long masthead explain the situation to her writers. And if she wanted to protect her privacy, simply letting her authors know that she was in the midst of a challenging time would have made a major difference. The silence, though—it solved nothing and made everything worse.
Working with PANK made me feel ashamed that I cared about my book and my writing, which was the absolute worst feeling to have.
There was never any clarity regarding her personal situation, not in the slightest. (And she wasn’t the only one who had to deal with loss and grief in the past couple of years.) Instead, a cavalcade of fibs and fabrications were all I personally ever received from her, about almost everything. (And if she wasn’t lying she wasn’t responding at all.) The lies rarely made sense, and oftentimes they simply dug JF deeper into the hole that she had self-created for herself. But I became used to them, in the worst possible way.
By the end honesty from her would have been the biggest surprise imaginable. After dozens of texts and emails to JF, most ignored by her, I had to finally hire a lawyer to get out of my contract with PANK.
I’ve never worked with a publisher that, on almost every level, seemed to be unfit for the job. As a publisher JF appears to be benefiting from the acclaim and cachet that M. Bartley Seigel and Roxane Gay established so many years ago. It’s sad. And deeply, deeply frustrating. Also deeply frustrating is that the work of so many PANK authors is innovative and engaging. It’s worth reading.
I concur with the above writer whole-heartedly: I would rather have no book than a book with PANK. My experience working with the press was absolutely wretched. Things can change and hopefully things will change at PANK. But if they don’t, my advice to anyone who thinks about publishing with PANK simply amounts to don’t do it.
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