Dispatches | April 12, 2004

So there’s rejection, and then there’s this.

On Monday afternoon, fresh from discarding yet another rejection letter, I opened my e-mail account to discover a message with the following header: Fiction Contest Announcement from Zoo Press, 4/5/04. The natural response, before I’d even opened the e-mail, was one of disappointment, frustration, rationalization and eventually resolve—the usual set of responses a writer develops to rejection notices. You see, in February, I had sent my collection of short stories to Zoo Press, which was holding its first-ever book-length short fiction contest. C. Michael Curtis, fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly, was to judge, and the winner would receive $5,000 and Zoo Press would publish the book. These contests are, as anyone will tell you, somewhere between playing the lottery and giving candy to children—you might get lucky, but you shouldn’t expect to see your money or your candy again. Still, when you’re seeking to place your first book with a publishing house and you do not have an agent, these are the paths you trod. After all, someone will win and it might just be you.

But when I opened the e-mail, I did not discover that I had lost the contest. Nor did I discover that I had won the contest. What I discovered was that Zoo Press “will be abandoning its fiction program and both its prizes.” Wrote Neil Azevedo, publisher of Zoo Press, “We still love fiction, but we admit that we cannot publish it as well as others (FSG, for example). The experiment did not unfold the way we had hoped, as, I guess, is the nature of experiments.”

We’ll return to the nature of experiments in a moment. But while I was disappointed that Zoo Press would not carry through with its contest—not only because it would not be publishing my book, but because it wouldn’t be publishing anyone’s book—it was the next lines in the e-mail that galled me.

To quote: “Unfortunately, the entry fees for the relatively few number of submissions we received went toward promoting the prizes; (specifically we received approximately 350 submissions for two prizes totaling less than $10,000, which we put into a full page ad in the Atlantic Monthly and two other smaller email campaigns, to our financial loss).” Which, as I soon discovered, was Neil Azevedo and Zoo Press’s way of saying, “You ain’t getting your money back.” If, however, I would send $1.42 to cover shipping and handling, they would “be happy” to send me two poetry books from “the following list.” When I scrolled down to the list, attached to the bottom of the e-mail, I found blurbs for books by nine Zoo Press poets (not a single one of whom I’ve heard), which is to say, I was free to choose from Zoo Press’s back list, its dusty shelves, the stock that’s piled up in a narrow closet and that it would “be happy” to move. This offer, mind you, for writers who’d entered a fiction contest (and, yes, I read poetry; I love poetry; I am currently buried in poetry as I study for my Ph.D. comprehensive exam).

To put it bluntly, this is unacceptable. This contestant wants his entry fee refunded ($25), either the manuscript returned or the cost of printing the 193-page manuscript refunded ($10), and he wants the cost of shipping the manuscript ($3.85) refunded. I did not spend nearly $40 so that I could purchase two books of backlist poetry books, not matter their value to the authors or Zoo Press. I spent $40 to enter a contest with the expectation that it would be adjudicated fairly and commitments honored.

Now, back to the nature of experiments. I did not give my money and my manuscript to Zoo Press so that it could be used in an experiment. I assumed, as I believe any writer who enters such a contest, especially from a reputable source, has the right to assume, that the contest will adhere to the guidelines that it has set forth, advertised, and published. I also assume that the people running the contest have ensured that they will be able to fulfill their obligations, that, in this situation, they’ll be able to absorb whatever costs the contest may incur. If money is lost in that first year or if expectations are not met, then there would be no Second Annual Zoo Press Short Fiction Contest. But to abandon the First Annual Zoo Press Short Fiction Contest after accepting entry fees and manuscripts and then announcing that those fees will not be refunded is, quite frankly, unethical.

I recognize that small presses are a valuable resource and I recognize the difficulties that come with such endeavors. I applaud those who take on such risks and who seek to publish new voices, voices that otherwise might go unheard. But there’s also such a thing as irresponsibility. I don’t know exactly where Zoo Press went wrong—was it in market research that convinced it to launch to launch a fiction contest or was it in their promotion of the contest or did someone just not think this thing through? I don’t know. I do know I sent them $25 and my manuscript in good faith and that good faith has been broken.

So while it’s disappointing to see yet another avenue for the publication of quality short fiction go by the board, it’s even more disappointing to discover a press that seems to think it can blow up the lab and stick you with the bill.