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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

AWP May Reverse Closed-Door Policy on Book Fair

Posted by on Tue, Feb 18, 2014 at 1:59 PM

In brief: Yesterday, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs announced that their book fair, featuring hundreds of small publishers, would not be open to the Seattle book-buying public due to "punitive" state and local taxes. AWP director of conferences Christian Teresi claimed that the AWP "never said the book fair was going to be open to the public." Today, Twitter user Patricia Lockwood discovered a web cache from April 2013 that showed AWP announcing in a FAQ that the book fair would be open to the public on Saturday, March 1, 2014.

Here's why this is important: For three days next week, AWP is going to be temporary home to the biggest bookstore in Seattle, stocked by hundreds of small publishers. Many of these books for sale at the AWP Bookfair are not available on the shelves of our local independent bookstores, our library system or, hell, even Amazon.com. And as it stands now, this bookstore will not be open to ordinary citizens of Seattle. That seems like a terrible waste to me. We don't just want to host arts conferences in Seattle for the monetary gain. We want them to be resources for the city, to engage the city in a conversation. We need the public to have access to these books and publishers that they would never otherwise meet.

I just got a call from AWP director of conferences Christian Teresi. Here's what he had to say about the cached FAQ matter: "The pages that Patricia Lockwood references are from last year before sales started for Seattle and before we were well into investigating the tax issues with the city of Seattle." He also told me that "I’m a little mystified by the reaction. But I am happy to say that we have revisited the issue for the umpteenth time with the city tax office and we are very hopeful that we are going to work this out and make a space for the public." Teresi says he hopes there'll be an announcement in the next 24 hours. (I've heard rumors to the effect that the city is currently reaching out to AWP to resolve this matter, but nobody from the city has been willing to confirm this on the record.)

Teresi also took the time to complain about my coverage of this whole affair. "I question your commitment to books," he told me, also arguing that I am not committed to communities centered around literature, and saying that I am instead interested in harming an "organization whose only mission is to help writers." He said the reaction has been unfair: "The reaction on social media, Paul—from you even, has been lacking detail and clarity," calling it "not something you’d see in the New York Times." He's right; I've never written for, nor do I expect to ever write for, the New York Times.

Teresi said that since the whole debate about the book fair being open to the public came out, he has also gotten many messages of support from exhibitors saying they're "happy with the conference not being open to the public." I pointed out that many exhibitors claimed on social media that the open-to-the-public days were by far their most profitable AWP shows. "Some people want it open to the public," he said. "That would be my personal preference." But he thinks that the social media uproar is unfairly maligning AWP: "There isn’t any conference that does what we do. Our registration rates are discounted. They’re really low. Compared to other comparably sized book exhibitions, they are really low." Teresi added, "you know, I’m not ExxonMobil."

Teresi may disagree with the way Slog and social media reacted to this story, but if the end result is that the AWP Bookfair is open to the Seattle book-buying public then just about everyone—Teresi, exhibitors, AWP fans, people who are not committed to books—will be cheering AWP on. I'll post more news as it comes.

UPDATE 2:35 PM: Patricia Lockwood hits the Wayback Machine again to suggest that the public sales day information was, in fact, available on AWP's website while tickets were on sale:


 

Comments (26) RSS

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AirBuddy 1
Non-profits are the absolute worst when they lash out.
Posted by AirBuddy on February 18, 2014 at 2:06 PM · Report this
fletc3her 2
Haven't they heard about the silent reading party?

I've considered being a full participant in this event, but I don't think I have the time. I did think going to the book fair would be interesting though, to see what was available and also possibly to talk to some of the publishers about some book ideas. Is it $120 interesting? Probably not.
Posted by fletc3her on February 18, 2014 at 2:11 PM · Report this
3
What I don't understand is that the AWP is already offering a $285 non-member price for admission (and purchasing privileges). Surely this undermines their arguments that sales must only be made to society members in order to evade tax liability?

And couldn't they just have a $10 limited-access non-member price for admission on Saturday? Or sell one-day memberships? Or give them away?
Posted by Warren Terra on February 18, 2014 at 2:28 PM · Report this
4
Book sellers are the most uppity bunch of people when it comes to taxes, forms and minute discounts of any kind. They'll happily drop $1500 on a title but when it comes to adding on sales tax or signing a receipt they act like you've personally insulted their entire way of life.
Posted by ryry on February 18, 2014 at 2:49 PM · Report this
MacCrocodile 5
Oh shit, Paul, now he's going to come after you for quoting the words he said to you. This is really irresponsible journalism, Paul. Look out. The booksellers are going to get you.
Posted by MacCrocodile http://maccrocodile.com/ on February 18, 2014 at 2:56 PM · Report this
6
Thanks for continuing to cover this, Paul. As someone who complained with vitriol (@my19thcentury) about the closed-door thing all day yesterday, I'd like to go on-record that I thought AWP's explanatory letter, when it arrived, was thoughtful and heartfelt, and the hard numbers they provided were interesting to see--even as ballpark estimates. They might be correct that most Saturday sales are to other conference-goers and not the public; it's well-known that many attendees browse the first few days and shop at the end. Whether my tiny arts&poetry mag will do better or worse this year than before remains to be seen. The lesson to them should be: send the thoughtful letter first, then tweet about it. Not vice versa.

But the real issue--which you have hit on in this post--is that while AWP sees itself as serving one purpose (career development and craft instructions for teachers and students of writing) its annual conference has come to serve a second function that is of questionable interest/value to it and is quite possibly beyond the scope of its mission: its book fair is the de facto national indie press & poetry festival, a wonderful fantasy world where the likes of New Directions, McSweeney's, and Wave Books are the venerable institutions/biggest guys in the room, and a lot of the rest of what's on display is stuff you'll never hear of or have access to anywhere else.

Most of us in the writing world wear multiple hats. The publisher of my books (a multinational corporation) regards AWP as beneath their interest. They don't care if I go or not, so long as I leave them out of it. The college(s) where I teach are happy to have me there to meet prospective MFA students, attend or give panels, talk tradecraft etc. with peers from around the country, etc. Sometimes they've even funded these trips. But I also co-edit the aforementioned tiny arts&poetry magazine, which is produced by a team of 5 people around the country, at the rate of about 1 issue every 18 months, in an edition of roughly 500 physical and no digital copies. We effectively do not exist except for the rare public reading (usually in NYC), on a website that you would not find unless you were looking for it (and which I won't plug here, though if anyone cares they can tweet at me), and at AWP. That obscurity is deliberate, so no need to feel bad for us, but I hope the example makes plain what might have otherwise seemed abstract to readers following this story without much grounding in this world or a dog in the fight.

So yes, it will be a loss for Seattle if the fair stays closed, and for precisely the reasons you give above, but what the whole drama yesterday has made clear is that a sizable minority of AWP members regard the self-identified Core Functions of its annual conference as, at best, bonus material, and the book fair as the main event. They wouldn't be attending otherwise, and losing the notion--however limited--of presenting ourselves to "the" or "a" public, has made a lot of people question the massive resources they/we are pouring into getting and being there.
More...
Posted by @my19thcentury on February 18, 2014 at 2:56 PM · Report this
7
This post didn't exactly live up to its first two words.
Posted by bigyaz on February 18, 2014 at 3:02 PM · Report this
William of Seattle 8
Paul, you might get something in the NY Times someday, who knows? The book dude is just throwing out "NY Times" because all liberals, like me, throw it out for Gravitas. For example, have you read today's Krugman? As far as Seattle's largest bookstore, I'd have to argue that Gargantua on S. Lk. Union is all that.
Posted by William of Seattle on February 18, 2014 at 3:05 PM · Report this
The Accidental Theologist 9
Poor Teresi. He just can't compute how "not-something-you'd-see-in-the-New-York-Times" is a compliment. And thus exemplifies a truly provincial POV.
Posted by The Accidental Theologist http://accidentaltheologist.com on February 18, 2014 at 3:05 PM · Report this
10
Thanks for continuing to cover this, Paul. As someone who complained a lot about the closed-door thing all day yesterday, I'd like to go on-record that I thought AWP's explanatory letter, when it arrived, seemed thoughtful and heartfelt, and the hard numbers they provided were interesting to see. They might be correct that most Saturday sales are to other conference-goers and not the public; it's well-known that many attendees browse the first few days and shop at the end. Whether my tiny arts&poetry magazine will do better or worse this year than in years previous remains to be seen. The lesson to them should be: send the thoughtful letter first, then tweet about it. Not vice versa.

But the real issue--which you have hit on in this post--is that while AWP sees itself as serving one purpose (career development and craft talk for teachers and students of writing) its annual conference has come to serve a second function that is quite possibly beyond the scope of its mission: its book fair is the de facto national indie press & poetry festival, a wonderful fantasy world where the likes of New Directions, McSweeney's, and Wave Books are the venerable institutions/biggest guys in the room, and a lot of the rest of what's on display is stuff you'll never hear of or have access to anywhere else.

Most of us in the writing world wear multiple hats. The publisher of my books (a multinational corporation) regards AWP as beneath their interest. They don't care if I go or not, so long as I leave them out of it. The college(s) where I teach are happy to have me there to meet prospective MFA students, attend or give panels, talk tradecraft etc. with peers from around the country, etc. Sometimes they've even funded these trips. But I also co-edit the aforementioned tiny arts&poetry magazine, which is produced by a team of 5 people around the country, at the rate of about 1 issue every 18 months, in an edition of roughly 500 physical and no digital copies. We do it because we love doing it, and because of what it means to the writers we publish and the few&proud readers we find. We effectively do not exist except for the rare public reading (usually in NYC), on a website that you would not find unless you were looking for it (and which I won't plug here, though if anyone cares they can tweet at me), and at AWP. That obscurity is deliberate, so no need to feel bad for us, but I hope the example makes plain what might have otherwise seemed abstract to readers following this story without much grounding in this world or a dog in the fight.

So yes, it will be a loss for Seattle if the fair stays closed, and for precisely the reasons you give above. If AWP can find a way to avoid that, then a thousand kudos for them. And to you for pushing the story. But what the whole drama yesterday has made clear is that a sizable minority of AWP members regard the self-identified Core Functions of its annual conference as, at best, bonus material, and the book fair as the main event. They wouldn't be attending otherwise, and losing the notion--however limited--of presenting them/ourselves to "the" or "a" public, has made a lot of us question the massive resources poured into getting and being there. This is roughly the exact reverse of the organization's own perspective, and suggests that some soul-searching within the organization--and reckoning between leadership and membership--is due, if not overdue.
More...
Posted by @my19thcentury on February 18, 2014 at 3:10 PM · Report this
11
My goodness, Christian Teresi needs media training.
Posted by politickling on February 18, 2014 at 3:23 PM · Report this
12
Thanks for continuing to push on this, Paul. I've always had mixed feelings about AWP. The insular nature of the conference and the panels particularly bothers me--the closing off of access to the book fair is in line with this insularity. The good news, as noted yesterday in the comments on your post, is that there are TONS of free offsite events so locals will get some if the best (incl access to books) without a high cover charge.
Posted by Prickles on February 18, 2014 at 3:32 PM · Report this
13
And *I* question *his* commitment to Sparkle Motion.
Posted by sanotehu on February 18, 2014 at 3:35 PM · Report this
14
"I question your commitment to books,"

I question Paul's commitment to books not written by white men.
Posted by somethingsomethingusername on February 18, 2014 at 4:08 PM · Report this
15
In fairness to AWP, and Christian Teresi, they do try to make things open to the public-- that's what they want. Having worked there for more than 10 years, I know we faced this problem many times. Cities see professional conferences as golden geese, so they're unwavering in their tax policies. I'm sure AWP was working to try to get this resolved, but when, for example, a city asks for several thousand a day, plus tax forms filled out by 500 plus exhibitors, plus subsequent sales tax filings from 500 plus small presses, it just becomes unworkable. Please remember AWP has a very small staff. Ridiculously small, for a conference that size. Where I work now, there is a conference of maybe 4,000 people and 100 exhibits. (Very small compared to AWP). We have a confernce staff of 13... AWP has four or five, and i guarantee nobodys getting rich at AWP. AWP is coordinating 500 plus events on top! So...maybe cut 'em some slack. Matt Burriesci
Posted by MattB127 on February 18, 2014 at 4:24 PM · Report this
AirBuddy 16
@15 So they oversell and understaff and then blame the locals... and you left to work at an org with a better staff ratio. You're not exactly helping awp's PR meltdown.
Posted by AirBuddy on February 18, 2014 at 4:39 PM · Report this
17
Well, understaffing is an issue of money. You can't spend what you don't have. AWP doesn't make a fortune on this conference, they keep rates as low as humanly possible so as many people can participate as possible. They keep the room rates as low as they can, even though they're doing it with one arm tied behind their backs. Most conferences this size anchor in one or two cities. That allows long term negotiating power and also the ease of working in the same city year after year. AWP moves the conference around to serve the members, so for example, those in the Pacific Northwest don't have to fly across the country every single year, and also to spotlight regional voices. This is nuanced and difficult work, it basically means thy create a new event of that size every year. So it's a little more complicated then just "Hire some more people." Would you prefer to pay $100 for registration, or twice the room rate? Then they could hire some more people. And have you donated to this very worthy organization?
Posted by MattB127 on February 18, 2014 at 4:53 PM · Report this
18
I meant pay $100 more for registration.
Posted by MattB127 on February 18, 2014 at 4:57 PM · Report this
AirBuddy 19
@17 Thanks for the explanation. Hopefully AWP can hire those two full time Exhibits and Registration coordinators by 2015 as per their strategic plan so they don't run into situations like this again.
Posted by AirBuddy on February 18, 2014 at 6:13 PM · Report this
20
Thanks for reading the plan, I'm sure it means a lot to the staff to know you're engaged. Let your board members know you support more staff! At the end of the day AWP is an amazingly efficient, principled organization. If they get their hackles up, it really is because they care so much, and they work so hard, and every conversation regarding the conference starts with what's best for the members. I know that's the case. Support AWP! They're supporting you!
Posted by MattB127 on February 18, 2014 at 6:38 PM · Report this
Josh Bis 21
I still don't understand the "complicated tax issue". Are you really arguing that these booksellers should be allowed to sell in the city of Seattle to the general public at members-only discounts and not pay taxes? Or that the conference should somehow serve as the temporary accountant for all of these independent businesses? I can understand the disappointment, but I'm curious about a proposed solution.

Is there a corollary to this book fair for things like Penny Arcade or ComiCon?

Regardless of the resolution of this book fair issue, it seems like the city is benefitting greatly by all of the free citywide satellite events.
Posted by Josh Bis http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Author.html?oid=3815563 on February 18, 2014 at 9:23 PM · Report this
22
Teresi also took the time to complain about my coverage of this whole affair. "I question your commitment to books,"

Goddamn. Is anyone there even remotely competent at dealing with the press and the public? What we see here is a multiple-asshole pileup.
Posted by stating the obvious on February 18, 2014 at 10:18 PM · Report this
23
The tax issues change from city to city and state to state. Don't know how comic con deals with it, other than to note that A.) it's the SAN DIEGO comic con, meaning they've anchored in one city. When conferences do that they can squeeze concessions from municipalities, because the conference means lots of revenue/jobs for th city. Same as SXSW which is held in Austin each year. Book Expo same thing. AWP is not much smaller than these. Also these conferences cater to commercial entries who pay muh higher fees and who are accustomed to paying sales tax; awp serves mostly nonprofit orgs, many of whom are tax exempt (but only part of the time) so there's that wrinkle. The staffs of these orgs also turn over every couple years, so theres no continuity-- even if there were, the policies chnage every year depending on th site. I know that when AWP went to Vancouver, for example, they paid the customs fees for every single exhibitor, and it was neither cheap nor easy to do-- I think it was something like $200/exhibitor. I think when all was said and done, every time an exhibitor signed up I actually cost the organization hundreds of dollars. So when people paint AWP as a bunch of moustache twirlers out to deny their members access to a ravenous public (and I promise you, we're talking maybe 200 people tops, after AWP has assembled 13,000 people) I think maybe some context and nuance would be helpful.
Posted by MattB127 on February 19, 2014 at 4:27 AM · Report this
24
So Josh Bis, I'll give you an example of how this goes awry: AWP wants to open up the bookfair to the public. The city says, "Fine, pay us $25,000 and every one of your exhibitors must fill out this form and return it five days prior to the event." AWP says OK, pays the money, and sends the form to their exhibitors–– AWP can't fill these forms out for their exhibitors, because they require signatures from the individual owners/controllers of the individual exhibits. AWP sends the form multiple times, calls every exhibitor, emails every exhibitor three times, posts a giant notice on the website with a PDF, pleading with everyone, "You've got to send this form back." Fast forward to the Saturday when the event is open to the public. Someone from the tax office shows up at AWP's table at 9am and says, "I've got about 100 forms. You have about 500 exhibitors. Now we're fining you, and all your exhibitors, too, and not only that, but we're closing it all down immediately." Now all this has occurred for the benefit of (maybe) a couple hundred locals who have chosen not to pay a registration fee, volunteer, or register through some literary entity. (AWP does capture most of the local audience through the regular registration process). It's not difficult OR expensive to get in, and I do think day passes ARE available on Saturday. This (and other wacky shut down threats) has actually happened at AWP numerous times, and it's always avoided thanks to some deft maneuvering by the staff (and sometimes, the application of a great deal of money, relatively speaking). So when it comes to opening it up to the public, I know it's always the desire of AWP (or it was when I was there anyway), but it really does depend on how the city chooses to work with the organization. Usually you can tell if it's going to be a problem, and when you think it's going to be a problem, what do you do? You choose not to chance it, because it's so unfair to everyone who's paid to be there, exhibitors, registrants, and AWP itself. It's just not worth the risk. I guess, having worked there, and known the people there, who are all so deeply committed to helping writers, I get weary when I see a headline like, "AWP May Reverse Closed Door Policy on the Bookfair," because that headline alone is a gross distortion of the reality. There is no "Policy" (it changes annually, and if anything, it leans towards openness) and it's definitely not an organization committed to "Closed Doors," at least if actual facts and numbers are to believed. Anyone who's been there can see that the conference has expanded dramatically, and often people are complaining about how big it is. Who can claim they're not offering huge (and unmatched) access to presses that don't normally get that kind of attention? They could use a PR person. I'm sure it's on their wishlist, but it's probably a few lines down. Like, maybe after they get a new septic tank at their headquarters, which is located in a split-level house with a gravel driveway. People are crammed into tiny offices, working long into the night, and they're genuinely trying to make a difference. I think AWP's members (like me) deserve that kind of organization, and I'm happy that I have it.
More...
Posted by MattB127 on February 19, 2014 at 7:04 AM · Report this
25
Hi: Editor here who is participating in the AWP. At lunch, so this must be quick, but last month, everyone who intended to sell books had to register with the City of Seattle for a temporary license to collect sales tax. The journal I participate in, Menacing Hedge, has a license to sell books in Seattle on Thursday, Friday and Saturday to ANYONE. All the participating journals and presses who intended to sell books had to obtain and provide proof of obtaining the temporary license. I have no fricken' clue what this is all about since we are licensed. I am a Seattle native and this has me wondering. I must get back to my mortgage paying job, but if you want a copy of the email and form that the AWP emailed me, let me know and I will send it to you. KellyatMeancinghedgedotcom. Cheers!
Posted by kellyBee on February 19, 2014 at 1:05 PM · Report this
26
Holy Jesus, am I pissed off at the amazingly poor organization of the AWP Bookfair! This latest mess is only the tip of the iceberg, but it was so f'd up that the guy whom I was going to drive up from Calif. for the Saturday free day, said, that's it, there's no point in going and I had to agree! We could hardly afford to drive the 1300 miles to Seattle just to be turned away at the door! SHEESH!! What a bunch of morons!
And it cost me the money I paid for half a table, plus the inventory I sent ahead...so please, if anyone is planning on attending it now that Saturday has been opened up to the public again (OMG R U KIDDING ME?), PLEASE visit table i18 and check out the Lummox Press table. The press made it, the publisher did not!
RD Armstrong, Lummox Press
Posted by one pissed off mofo on February 19, 2014 at 4:50 PM · Report this

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