Sunday, October 14, 2007

Paper. Who needs it?

Russell over at Yuckelbel's Canon has written a nice post referring to my post on being a professional poet. Thank you, Russell, for your kind words! Part of his post has sparked some thoughts that I've been having for a while now; so I thought I'd continue the diablogue here. (This is so late-oughts.)

Russell writes:

Lately however, the legalistic world has started to invade poetry on the internet. More and more we are told, if your poems have appeared on your blog then legally they have already been published and cannot appear in our magazine. I am now holding poems back to publish elsewhere before I put them on my blog. More and more I see poets who earlier were prolific on their blogs but have now become practically mute. This is a trend that worries me. I am not sure it is a good thing for the good poets out there to stop giving us the opportunity to come read their work and learn from them. I am not sure it will be a good thing for us who aspire to be afraid to practice and share our efforts with the group of readers we enjoy. I understand the value of the things Tiel and others have assembled as exercises and places to practice the art of poetry but that is only part of the richness we have all shared on the internet. It is the loss of that original and rather free environment that I find scary. I am not sure quite what we should do about it and would like to open this discussion with all of you out there who are equally affected. Tell me how you are reacting to these new changes in our precious electronic community. Please give us your comments!

Now, some industry figures: Most poetry print journals have extremely low circulations. The giants in the field, like Kenyon Review and Ploughshares, have print runs of 6,000 - 7,000 according to the 2007 Poet's Market. (Poetry, floating on the Lilly bequest, claims a print run of 16,000.) But skim through that book, and you'll see the vast majority claim print runs of 200 - 500, many of which go to libraries rather than bookstores or subscribers. Things are even worse on the book side; a book officially makes the best-seller list if it sells 30 copies (according to TIME magazine). No, I didn't leave off a zero, I meant 30. That's including the author's mom.

People, these are not good numbers. These are the signs of an industry that is crippled if not dying.

Compare the following: Sunday Scribblings routinely gets 90-100 contributions a week; the late Poetry Thursday ran over 100 per week; the relatively new Writer's Island has been getting about 80. Assume very conservatively that half the people who submit to these sites read all of the submissions. That means each of these sites weekly reaches more people than most best-selling books of poetry ever will.

I'd love to know what kind of readership numbers online poetry zines get. Some of them must have hit counters. Anyone want to pipe up? I mean... not to brag... my blog got close to 2,000 hits last month. A lot of those were repeat visits by the same people-- but, compared to 30 copies for a best-seller? Would it be fair to say I'm playing in a bigger league?

Of course the catch is, no-one's paying to read online and no-one's making money writing for the Internet. (I'm going to argue in a minute that that's not necessarily true.) But then again, how much money are people making writing poetry for the paper market? Contributor copies look nice, but they make terrible dinners. Again, Poet's Market identifies journals that pay actual money; flip through it and look for the $ symbol. Good luck.

So, if it's getting harder for us Internet poets to break into the paper market... maybe we shouldn't care. Maybe we're the future and they're the past. Maybe, if they won't publish a poem because it's already appeared on our blog, we should blow them off and post it to Totally Optional Prompts or Monday Poetry Train or submit it to a good online journal. Google is your friend.

Yes, some online zines won't publish something that's been on your blog. But there's a big difference-- if you're holding back on posting something because you've submitted it to a paper journal, you can usually expect to wait 3 to 6 months. That's a long time in the life of a creative person. By the time it's either rejected, or printed and the rights revert to you, you may have moved on and be experimenting with whole new ways of writing. Posting the piece may seem irrelevant or embarrassing to the new you. Online zines typically respond much, much faster-- my pieces in the July issue of SCR were submitted in April and I heard back from them in May. Now, SCR doesn't have a problem with publishing previously blogged items, but if they had, I would have been much less reluctant to hold those pieces for two months than for 6.

The electronic world has some other advantages. I've blogged before about the important of the listening experience to poetry. Most blogs and some online journals can accommodate various kinds of sound files, podcasts, etc. (Note to self: Practice what you preach! Get some sound files up!) Also, it's much easier to experiment with various kinds of multi-media (images, video, sound) in an electronic format.

But the big thing for me, and I think for people who share Russell's concerns, is self-ownership. I think you can get a pretty good picture of our future by looking at the music industry. Some 15 years ago, recording was basically owned by the big companies; if you wanted to sell music at all, you had to try for a contract with one of them, and they picked a tiny handful of artists to be groomed to "stars" and basically blew off everyone else. Indie labels were struggling to survive. Now, pretty much anyone can put together a recording rig and sound-processing software on the cheap (a friend of mine did it on temp pay), produce their own albums for pennies per disc, and do their own distribution via websites and word-of-mouth.

It's not all rosy; the RIAA and other bodies have been resorting to increasingly desperate legal strategies to maintain their stranglehold. (The UK equivalent, Performing Rights Society, is suing an auto shop for playing music on the radio where customers could hear it. Read it here.) But the cat is out of the can-- I mean, the genie is out of the bag-- I mean, the worms are out of the bottle, and I truly believe they cannot be put back. The e-world is too big and too amorphous to be controlled by suing individuals (though it sucks to be one of the individuals who gets sued).

Back to poetry: we're seeing explosive growth in self-publishing through Lulu Press and others. If self-publishing doesn't appeal to you (and there are some legal and financial doors it doesn't open), you can get together a couple of friends and start up what's called an "imprint" (basically a small publishing company). You won't get the distribution you'd get from Random House or Scribner & Sons, but what are the odds you'd get that anyway? And besides, you get to keep the rights and most of the money.

A couple of paragraphs above, I said that no-one was making money writing for the Internet. That may become less true as time goes on. The traditional publishing industry is beginning (tentatively and intermittently) to entertain the notion that material that has proved itself popular on the Internet might actually be worth picking up and marketing. This is much more common-sensical than it seems at first glance: gosh, thousands of people who saw this on someone's blog liked it, maybe that means more people would like it?

I don't know how wide-spread this idea is. I do know that Beth Meacham, the SF editor at Tor Books, has been actively marketing material that first appeared-- for free-- on the Internet. She regards it as a way of reducing risk for the publisher: if an author or a book has already proved it has some legs, it should really be worth more to a publishing company. And of course, I'm expecting to publish a book made up almost entirely of poems that you could read for free on my blog-- but I'm also expecting, at least initially, that people will buy the book because they enjoy my blog.

So perhaps the wheel will make another turn, and the enormous and vibrant world of Internet poetry will bleed back into the paper world and revitalize a dying industry. We can hope. But, if not-- we'll all still have our blogs.

If you like poetry, check out the weekly prompt site at Totally Optional Prompts


Anonymous said...

Yeah, as much as I enjoy reading poetry online, I prefer the feel of paper. It keeps what is primarily a cerebral activity and gives it a truly tactile element. The weight, the grain of the paper, the cover bending in more anxiety-inducing arcs as we proceed through the book.

The poetry world seems to be kinda messed up re: publishing. So few (comparatively) people read it, it's hard to get anyone to want to publish, let alone the mass circulation you get with mass market fiction. I think that's shameful, with the virtuosity and uniqueness seen more so in poetry than anywhere else in the written word.

I had been thinking that perhaps some of the more renowned poets in the blogosphere should set-up an imprint, perhaps through LuLu or something similar, and do anthologies, books, chapbooks, by the other blogging poets. Just an idea I had been tentatively thinking about.

But, to the professional topic, I just read an essay by Tony Hoagland where he briefly spoke about that, I'll put that up on my site in the next day or so.

Shubhodeep said...

Thanks for engaging us this rather vital topic as it would seem. However, let me here provide a different point of view, a slightly tangential one, that might be relevant to those who blog/write for the sake of writing. However, I do understand that aspiring or current full-time writers might not find the following very relevant, although in the ultimate context it'll still be somewhat true.

This is the copied comment from Russell's blog unless you have already read it:

"Perhaps we could delete each post after it has been "lapped" up by the blogging community. I doubt if publishers would be able to detect this "deception".

On a more serious note Russell, I would like to address an aspect of your post from which I differ at the moment. (At the moment, because greater experience and exposure might change opinions and situations)

Let me concede at the outset that I consider myself to be at best a grappler with a few good words. Definitely not a poet as I understand or would like a poet to be. However, that you will concede, cannot take away my love for writing. There are different reasons why people write. Some write for fame, others for money. And some others for academic recognition or critical appreciation or mass appreciation or maybe even all. Sometimes these reasons overwhelm the basic reason why most people start writing: namely, the love of writing.

All outflows of creative impulses can best be explained by love for a particular outlet eg. music, art, poetry. Personally, the incentive for me has largely been the love of writing, although admittedly coupled with a vague desire for appreciation. However, considering the fact that neither my parents nor my friends know much about my endeavours, albeit flimsy, in writing, I reckon the appreciation argument doesn't stand.

I concede however that there may be a variety of reasons for giving up writing.However, the point i'm trying to make is that if a deep love exists for something, then external incentives pale in comparison to the automatic impulse generated by that love.

Whether the internet exists or not, whether greater opportunities cease or they don't, I doubt if there is a power that can break true love!

To put it in a nutshell, I sincerely believe that lovers of words such as ourselves, will still be able to gain pleasure from the few words that we put down in ink, even if nobody else reads those words."

Additionally, it is also worth mentioning that even the traditional publishing industry is hard on most writers. There is a writer called Ruskin Bond who lived in obscurity for most of his life but is gaining a tremendous reputation nowadays and is a bestselling author in India. Many others prove the case. Many great writers do not get a publisher. I doubt they give up writing because of it.

Let me also take this opportunity to invite you to my blog. Hope to see you around.

sister AE said...

I'm definitely interested in this train of thought. I'm relatively new to blogging and I have been one of those who has held back some of my previous works, ones I'm very proud of, because I keep thinking I might want them on paper sometime.

Paper is good for reading in the bathtub, for popping into a knapsack to read in the woods, or to curl up with on our vacation get-away where there is no Internet or even computer.

And I have been thinking about buying a book published at Lulu by one of my favorite bloggers.

But I too, wonder where the trends are taking us.

And your stats on the readership of blogs vs poetry books were staggering!

Jo said...

A very interesting read indeed. I was only remarking to a friend this morning how saddened I am that poetry is barely read any more (though that's a thread in itself). I have plenty, plenty of 'bookish' friends who read novels or non-fiction but I know of no-one IRL who buys/reads poetry regularly (well aside from me). Perhaps the blogging trend will change this? We can only hope.

I have also not been blogging long but it is a source of great joy to me that there are people writing superlative poetry that I can read every day and, not only that, I can connect with them in a way I would be unable to with a print author -- which can be very inspiring.

Finally, I think your parallels with the music industry are bang on.

gautami tripathy said...

Though I read poetry online but I still prefer holding a book. I have read most classic poets.

More hits do not mean all are into poetry. Sometimes I think as there is no critique, our work suffers.

All said and done, I rarely see you visiting any of us.

arch.memory said...

Great post! But I already left a mostly overlapping comment on Russell's post that you mention above. So instead of repeating myself, I'll just direct you to it.