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Controversy swirls around local press over funding model

It's been a whirlwind two weeks for BlazeVOX Books, a Buffalo-based poetry and fiction press that found itself embroiled in a scandal over its controversial funding model.

It all started on Sept. 3, when a poet wrote a blog post criticizing the publishing company for its practice of asking authors to partially finance their own books.

That practice came as a shock to many in the national poetry community, which became consumed with a furious online debate over the small press when the funding model came to light.

In the space of a few days and in the face of massive criticism, BlazeVOX, a one-man operation launched in 2004 by Geoffrey Gatza, announced it would shut down.

Later, the tide turned and hundreds rallied to support the respected press. Gatza rescinded that shut-down decision and announced the company would stop its practice of asking some authors to pay a $250 fee to offset the $2,000 cost of publishing their books.

Gatza also announced an overhaul of the BlazeVOX publishing model. It will instead fund its operations in a more traditional way, by increasing the amount it charges authors for copies of their own books.

Even considering how business transitions go in the Internet Age, this one was fast.

And as a result of the quick-moving scandal, Gatza said, the prospects of his struggling press are looking up.

"At first it was very distressing," he said, "but now it seems it's turned out to be a very, very good thing for us. I couldn't be happier right now, because I got 3,000 emails of support. We also raised a great deal of money in the past week, too, and lots of sales. So there's been lots of support, both through words and also through money."

The BlazeVOX controversy spread like brushfire across Facebook before making its way to larger outlets. Evan Lavender-Smith, a New Mexico-based author whose popular "From Old Notebooks," was published by BlazeVOX in March, questioned Gatza's ethics in a Facebook post and pointed readers to a blog entry by poet Brett Ortler. Lavender-Smith, who declined to comment for this story, is in the midst of a dispute between Gatza and another Buffalo-based publisher over rights to his book.

And after Lavender-Smith lent his credibility to the debate, according to Michael Kelleher, Just Buffalo Literary Center's artistic director and a BlazeVOX author, the controversy "blew up."

On his blog, Ortler took issue with a letter he had received from Gatza agreeing to publish his book of poetry if Ortler would contribute $250 to the total cost of publication, which Gatza estimated at $2,000. If not, Gatza's letter said, he would publish Ortler's book as an electronic edition for free.

He called the policy "disingenuous and unethical, as it preys upon writers in perhaps their most vulnerable state."

On dozens of blogs and online publications, writers both aspiring and established weighed in for and against the policy. Many of them claimed that it signaled the transition of a once-vaunted small press into a so-called "vanity" press, which carries far less credibility in the publishing world.

Others simply took issue with Gatza's lack of transparency regarding the process, which was not publicized in the press' submission guidelines and thus came as a surprise to many prospective authors. Still others rushed to defend the press, which has steadily built a national reputation as a respected publisher of avant garde poetry and fiction books -- producing about 30 books per year.

Buffalo News poetry editor R.D. Pohl praised Gatza's contributions to the local and national poetry communities but painted a somewhat bleaker picture of the effect the scandal will have on BlazeVOX.

"The brand has been damaged at least somewhat by this. There's no question that's the case," Pohl said.

Kelleher, perhaps BlazeVOX's most staunch defender and a collaborator with Gatza for events like Just Buffalo's monthly "Big Night," agreed.

"Geoffrey could have communicated it better. It's definitely an idiosyncratic way of dealing with your finances, but I think it's one that grows out of how Geoffrey works and who he is," he said. "Geoffrey is in this because he likes publishing people and he loves making books."

For Lavender-Smith and many others, though, it seems the damage is done.

"Many authors have published books with BlazeVOX under a misleading impression as to the type of press they were signing with, and now those books may be stigmatized as having been published with a 'vanity press,' " Lavender-Smith wrote in one blog comment. "This is very troubling news, especially for a young author."

Gatza's new funding approach, which more closely mirrors how better-established presses operate, involves attaining the nonprofit status BlazeVOX now lacks and charging authors a standard 40 percent of the cover price for copies of their own books.

"In the end we're going to make more money, which pisses me off," Gatza said. "In a sense, it just seems like we had a very nice thing going along for the authors. . . But if this is what it's going to take to continue the press for as long as I want to do it, so be it."


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