“HOW IS FENCE?”
Fence is a miracle, and by saying this I gesture toward the precipitous chances of such a venture taking hold—in the literary community, in the public imagination, or even much less in the lanky and laconic world of volunteer production. By anyone’s standards (“anyone” being someone who cares to think about independent publishing and its varied and concurrent unlikelinesses), Fence has achieved an uncanny and significant success.
How do we measure success? I thought it might be useful to tell you something of our various barometers.
We measure success by the quality of the submissions we receive—approximately 50 of poetry per week and about half that of fiction. My personal delight, as the one who most literally receives the mail, is in the spread of its origins: postmarks from Stillwater, OK; Jackson, TN; Olympia, WA; not to mention Tokyo and Turkey and more truly foreign parts. Other delights include the obvious: unsolicited work from one we would have solicited; excellent work from one we’ve never heard of; the spread not just of origin but of interest and voice and antecedent; kind words from readers at all points upon whom Fence has made a favorable impression.
We measure success internally, by the strength of our editorial congeniality and by the continuing adventurousness of our project.
We also measure success by circulation. In its first year, Fence had a subscriber base of approximately 150. It is now at 1,600. Five hundred copies are distributed to newsstands and bookstores by Bernhard DeBoer, Inc., of Nutley, NJ. Another 530 or so are distributed by Ingram Periodicals, of LaVergne, TN, and Chico, CA. Another 100 or so are reposited for wholesale at Small Press Distribution, in San Francisco (this is where you must go if you are seeking a back issue of Fence—www.spdbooks.org).
We measure success by the achievement of our goal of accessibility, both literal and figurative. We aim to make the material of Fence as widely available as we can, even to the extent of putting a disturbing bar code on the front cover because Ingram Periodicals demands it; even to the extent of keeping Fence in the demoralizing chain bookstores because so many readers frequent them. I personally find a great deal of beauty in the unknown reader, and while the concept of accessibility has become attached to a consternated set of debates concerning a perceived clash between the goals of community-based publishing and the admittedly market-aware/market-wary precepts of Fence and other “glossy” literary journals, we continue to find a great deal of value in examining and employing it. We open ourselves as editors to the values of many different kinds of writing, and in so doing we make a range of work available to a range of readers.
Having come this far with me, I hope you will go a little farther: down the rabbit hole of periodicals distribution. When one is engaged in making a product that will never make a profit (most poetry, and all literary journals), one is lurking within a system that is inherently hostile, and which promises to reject one, rather like a host body rejecting an unexpected transfusion of blood. This system must be navigated.
In 1998 I visited the offices of the national periodicals manager of Barnes & Noble and discussed with him the problem of “onsale” dates. At that time the chains did not make a distinction, in their returns policies, between literary journals—be they biannual, quarterly, or monthly—and any other periodical, meaning that any journal, from Sewanee Review to Granta, could be returned after a week on the stand, if whichever employee was in charge didn’t see swift sales. Obviously, for a journal that comes out only twice a year, this is a poisonous condition, one which has now been at least partially ameliorated: Literary journals have since been created as a special category, and biannual journals, for instance, now have an onsale period of ninety days, rather than seven.
Another mysterious pain I have taken in the publishing of Fence is to insist that Ingram send me, every other week, something called an Account Order Regulation Report. It took me months to ferret out from my account executive the existence of this precious document, which shows exactly how many copies are being sent where, and how many are returned, and which can be requested for any periodical by its publisher. Thus can the publisher make informed decisions about which store might get more copies, which store less, etc.; thus can the rather shamefully inflated draws that huge companies like Ingram don’t even blink at (“Volume! Volume!” they cry) be reduced to more realistic, less bankrupting ones.
Now here’s a fact, amid all this fervor: Of 1,000 copies of each issue of Fence distributed to bookstores both chain and independent around the country, approximately 450 copies languish unsold—though probably not unread—and are “returned”—covers ripped off, content discarded. By the reckoning of distributors and booksellers, these are not bad figures, but by my reckoning this comes dangerously close to half of our draw. While we are glad to make Fence as accessible as possible, and therefore glad to be represented in all kinds of bookstores, we do not relish the role of tiny pawn in the massive game of waste. So if you’ve come this far with me, I hope you will go even a little farther:
Buy this journal. If you’re standing in a shop reading it, march it right up to the counter and then take it home. If this copy belongs to you already: Thank you, and good night.