This blog post is a little personal and a little petty, but sometimes that happens.
I interned with Cleis Press the summer after I graduated from college (June through August 2014, for those of you following along at home). Working for the biggest and baddest (but also indiest and scrappiest) erotica publishing house in the States had been a dream of mine since I picked up my first copy of their blockbuster Best Women’s Erotica series. Cleis books formed the backbone of my thesis on the feminist potential of erotica, and I wrote reviews of many of their titles in exchange for a free copy. Walking into Cleis on my first day was like walking into a candy store, the walls lined floor-to-ceiling with books on kink, sexual health, fantasy and activism. In between hours building Cleis’s Tumblr and drafting tweets to promote upcoming author events, I flipped through the pages of erotica collections and fantasized about seeing my name on the Table of Contents someday soon. I made incredible friends, discovered my love for social media, and connected with authors who I now consider mentors. It was an invaluable experience, which is great, considering the internship was unpaid and I blew through a ton of my savings to do it.
My internship ended when I decided to move back to New York. The Bay area didn’t agree with me, and I’d gotten an offer I couldn’t refuse from TED. But Cleis remained dear to my heart, and I flew back East with a suitcase full of porn from its shelves. I continued to write reviews, and to submit to anthologies. Some of their new titles—particularly a partnership with Penthouse—disappointed me, as they were so clearly designed to court sales instead of the press’s core values. When the news of the Cleis buyout struck, I was devastated but not surprised. Even with the post-Fifty Shades boom in erotica, life is hard for an indie press right now. The entire staff resigned a few months later, and it seemed like the end of an era. Some of my favorite editors stayed on to produce new works, like Jon Pressick’s stunningly good Best Sex Writing of the Year. Most of my favorite authors began to drift from the genre or took their work elsewhere. Cleis’s PR emails became increasingly desperate and, well, safe. The politics were gone. The transgression was gone. I wasn’t excited by their titles anymore.
And then my herpes blogging became my first priority and I forgot about erotica. I could write a whole separate post about why my fiction brain shut down—the exposure and attention made me hyper-aware of what I was writing and how it could be warped as I became more of a public figure. That fear and self-consciousness made it hard to write fiction, even for myself. But this morning, I sent my first story in months to Exhibit A for him to host on his blog. Excited, I took to Twitter to announce it, and comment on why I had taken a break from the community. The genre had fundamentally changed, and I tweeted this as part of that observation:
A few minutes later, I noticed that Cleis had blocked me.
As a woman who spends a lot of time on Twitter, I’m a big fan of the block button. You call me a whore? Blocked. You make me uncomfortable with your eagerness and reply to all of my tweets when I haven’t acknowledged any of them? Block. I’m totally on board with the block button. But that’s on a personal account, and that’s a different ballgame. I wasn’t personally attacking Cleis, only commenting on how the erotica industry has changed. You also cannot personally attack a brand, which is subject to public scrutiny and criticism. Them blocking me is not only unusual as a they are a company and not a person, it’s a foolish overreaction.
It’s also tremendously disrespectful to me as a reader, an erotica author, and a former unpaid intern. The publishing house whose tweets I had formerly written blocked me on Twitter for commenting on their buyout. Maybe they don’t know I was an intern just over a year ago—after all, the staff that I worked for quit en masse. But this is also the same publisher who still sends me press emails asking me to promote their books for free. So yeah, that rubs me the wrong way.
I loved my time at Cleis. I loved the books they used to publish. There are writers and editors in their network who I still admire. But what happens when indie publishers are bought out, or forced to prioritize profit as opposed to the values that once defined them, the values they were founded on? The politics are bled out. The transgressiveness scaled back. The marginalized communities they represented are alienated, cast aside for more market appeal. Their longtime staffers quit, or are fired. And their loudest advocates are blocked on Twitter for pointing out how much things have changed.
I won’t tell you to not buy Cleis’s books—I’m still looking forward to reading Rachel Kramer Bussel’s brand new Dirty Dates. They blocked me on Twitter, they didn’t burn down my house. But it’s important to talk about what gets published and why, and to hold brands accountable when their values change. Cleis is not what it used to be: that change is reflected in the stories they tell, the way they do business, and how they treat their editors and authors. I’m taking my money, and my fiction, elsewhere.
In case you’re curious, here’s a list of all the Cleis titles I have reviewed on my blog: