February 19, 2014

“I question your commitment to books”: AWP staff battle Seattle tax law, social media response, even a reporter


Paul Constant, the book editor of the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger caught an important message from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) on Monday morning:

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Christian Teresi, director of conferences for AWP, told Constant, “We have been investigating [local tax laws] over several months to the late summer and early fall and I can say, from having hosted very large conferences all over the country, Seattle and Washington has some of the most complicated and punitive tax laws that I have ever seen for conferences.”

This would have been important information for some small publications that might not have bought tickets if they’d known the conference was closed. That’s not only because of the opportunity to spread word of their books to an interested public, but because of the opportunity to sell them book at their stands — important income that helps defray the cost of attending the conference in the first place.

Yet according to Teresi, the AWP “never said the book fair was going to be open to the public. We’re not backtracking. We’ve always taken that on a case-by-case basis based on the municipalities we’re visiting. We’ve always announced publicly when we were able to make the book fair public.”

But Poet Patricia Lockwood checked the cache from April 24, and indeed AWP’s website did say the fair would be open to the public. This information was live on the site through August, while tickets were on sale:

Screen shot 2014-02-18 at 2.49.01 PMScreen shot 2014-02-18 at 5.54.30 PMAs small presses and lit mags pack their boxes for Seattle, you can’t blame them for feeling pissed off. Tables cost $500 a pop, and booths cost $875, and though Teresi argues the fees are lower than other conferences, that’s still a big chunk of change before travel expenses.

Author/editors like Roxane Gay and Brian Spears protested the seemingly late announcement on Twitter. Spears pointed out that the last day of the conference — the day the fair is usually opened to the public — is the best chance to sell the rest of a publisher’s stock so they don’t have to ship everything back to the office.

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Vendors would have to collect sales tax if the book fair were open to the public, AWP explains. There are still tickets available for sale, but they are $120 a day. AWP tried to put a positive spin on the news, tweeting that there would be “4 public readings“:

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Teresi explained that the public day last year in Boston was “our lowest [public fair day] attendance ever, only a couple hundred. We were less concerned with having to close the conference this year because the loss of customers was negligible …” … although the foot of snow that arrived in Boston during last year’s fair could have deterred even committed book-lovers.

Meanwhile, Seattle tax laws had AWP staff confused about other points, too. AWP’s website indicated that the Washington State Department of Revenue (WDOR) would require all vendors to register for a temporary business license if they intended to sell books at their tables. A later update stated that this step was unnecessary, and anyone who had filed for a temporary license could be reimbursed by emailing [email protected].

But public outrage continued to intensify, until it appeared the AWP was trying to reverse the closed door policy within twenty-four hours, as a Paul Constant report updated. However, when Constant tried to follow up with Teresi, the conversation got heated:

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 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.

It does seem the response on social media wouldn’t have been an issue if the AWP had found a way to announce the news to its members and exhibitors earlier. In fact the conference might have actually lost an opportunity to use social media muscle for good — Twitter outrage from these writers might have earned them a chance to meet with city officials to talk about the problems presented by Seattle’s tax laws, which are indeed significant.

Now, though, the organization is contending with the anger of the very people it was founded to support. Meanwhile, the AWP has only a few days to find a compromise with the city of Seattle if it wants to satisfy its unhappy rank and file.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.