Why don’t we change the poetry book economy?

“Nobody except the handful of mega-poets sells many poetry books, regardless of how much effort they put into marketing/promoting (see one unscientific survey). In my view, our mistake as a poetry community is buying into the traditional commercial paradigm, within which poetry sits very uneasily. We lock our poems up in hard copies which are then only available for sale – how do we expect that to nurture and grow our product? Why don’t we change that paradigm – we are a small enough community that we probably could. How about running things on the lines of a gift economy? And based on multi-format publishing, not just print? My two cents.”

Just added my mad-haired-prophet-in-the-wilderness two cents to this interesting and much-commented-on FB thread on poetry book sales.

What happens when a poetry video gets 3,000 plays in 5 days?


 
The video-maker freaks out, is what happens. This will be the last post I write about viewer stats for still image remixes, but I did want to get this experience down, noting that what has been interesting for me is less the stats themselves than my reaction to them.

As previously recorded, I had already been unsettled by the relatively high numbers of viewers attracted by earlier still image remixes I had done for poems from The Poetry Storehouse (this one and this one in particular). But neither of those came anywhere close to numbers of viewers attracted by Items of Value to a Dying Man (shown above – poem by Kristin LaTour, art by Peter Gric), the response to which just blew me away. Peter Gric was wonderful to work with – open, generous and in no way inclined to control any part of my remix process – but either his terrific art has made him much more famous than I thought, in my near-total ignorance of the art world (I found him by clicking randomly through links and simply emailed him via his website) and/or he has – relative to online poetry networks – a pretty enormous online network.

The video got 1,050 plays on the first day, 1,650 on the second. My original FB posting of the video link got 554 shares after Peter shared it. The video exceeded 3,000 plays today. (As I said before, I am used to the most popular of my poetry videos capturing maybe 40 or 50 views on their first day. Over time – months, sometimes longer – a video may end up with 200 to 300 total views.)

I was delighted of course, but fell into angst at the same time. What did it mean that I had accidentally put together something that led to hundreds of people interacting with a poem they would almost certainly have had no interaction with otherwise? Was I burdened with some heavy new Responsibility to Poetry as a result?

I took my angst to (where else..?) Facebook. Is a poem that is read by and moves 10 people of more value to the world than a poem that is read by and moves 1 person? I posted as my FB status, not even sure if that was in fact the question I was struggling with. The question got traction quickly and, as is usual in the poetry community, thoughtful and helpful responses came quickly (see here for the exchange, although I don’t know if any or all of the conversation is viewable from the outside). It turned out that wasn’t at all the question I needed to ask, and the back and forth over a day or two was very helpful in clarifying my thinking.

I see now that what had been complicated for me by the experience was my sense of my role as showcaser, curator, remixer, presenter of poetry (at The Poetry Storehouse now, at Whale Sound previously). Was I now obliged to take these activities in some different, burdensome, non-fun direction?

What the Facebook exchange clarified for me was that poems are not like the toys in Toy Story. They don’t have a separate, secret life that springs into action whenever their owners are asleep or otherwise absent. A good poem can support a literally infinite number of interactions – living in interaction over and over again through aeons, each time as freshly as the first time. But a poem has no life outside its interaction with people. When they are not being interacted with, poems lie dead in the dark, where they are purposeless, and meaningless.

The role of the curator, remixer or publisher of poetry is to maximize the number of interactions each poem has with people. In the hands of the successful curator/publisher, the poem lives in interaction repeatedly and reaches a higher level of its interaction potential than poems in the custody of less successful handlers.

That’s the role of the curator/publisher in the scheme of things poetry. But it doesn’t have to be their motivation. This is where I got confused. If things go well, more people will interact with poems as a result of my remixing and curating. If things don’t, they won’t. But that’s not why I do what I do. I do what I do because I like voicing poems, I like exploring the technology of putting poems online in different ways, I like the challenge of combining poetry and digital imagery in video, and experimenting with sound.

The additional interactions that occur between poems and people are a happy by-product of my doing what I like to do. But I don’t do it in order to increase the number of those interactions.

And that made me feel so much more relaxed about those viewership stats. Some videos will get 3,000 plays in a few days. Most will be lucky to get 300 plays in a year. Should that influence what I do and how I do it? No.

As artist Kiki Smith said, in a quote I recently encountered via a Twitter feed: “Just do your work. And if the world needs your work it will come and get you. And if it doesn’t, do your work anyway. You can have fantasies about having control over the world, but I know I can barely control my kitchen sink.”

With warmest thanks to the Facebook friends who were so thoughtful and generous in their responses to my original and subsequent questions.

Does ‘look of the line’ = ‘meaning of the line’?

E-book formatting is not the same as print formatting and e-reader devices definitely require us to recalibrate our relationship to text. Doing this seems to have been easier for readers of poetry (who seem, by and large, a flexible and open bunch), than it has been for many writers of poetry. Many writers of poetry can separate the look of the line from the meaning of the line, but many absolutely equate the two and flatly negate the possibility of separation. If, as a poetry publisher, you admit the possibility of separation, then, as Gabrielle David emphasizes below, your central task is to ensure that, no matter how the e-reader or the human reader adjust text size, the meaning of the line remains intact. I much enjoyed the post below from Gabrielle, in which she made this and other interesting points. Gabrielle’s post first appeared on the WomPo listserv and is reproduced here with her permission:

“I have watched the rise of the ebook biz and the various devices (many of which have come and gone) in the past six years. I understood that at some point I would have to consider ebook formats (for both phati’tude Literary Magazine and 2Leaf Press), and have been tinkering with the design and format of the ebook for quite some time, before coming up with a “recipe” that would address poetry and the issue of line breaks.

When you are dealing with multiple devices coupled with the fact that the end user has the ability to change the size of the font, it is a foregone conclusion that the text is going to shift. For years, the issue was the conversion of text through Word and other word processing programs which exacerbated this and other problems. At the same time, there is no standard way to convert text to reading devices, everyone does it differently, so ebooks have had their share of problems, primarily just really bad formatting of text (including poorly designed books and horrible editing), but in recent years, as the devices have grown more sophisticated, the reading public has demanded more for their money. The large publishing houses have scrambled to get people who know how to code ebooks and work with the latest technology to produce them (which they can well afford), but for the smaller presses, it’s just another resource that’s not readily available to them.

Since I have worked in the technology field for years, I was at a greater advantage and understood what needed to be done, but was in no great hurry to do it because the industry was changing rapidly, especially in the past five years. Right now, we are down to four major devices: Kindle, iPad, Nook and KOBO, including Android and Apple phones. While there are different nuances to each device and a standard ebook format continues to develop, its safe to say that the format issue as it pertains to poetry will always remain an issue because the lines will always change from device to device and end users will always control how text appears on their device.

Since most poetry books are published by small presses and many do not have the resources to convert print books to ebooks, coupled with the “hysteria” of the poets, many have not taken the plunge. I think this is a huge mistake. Poets and small presses are precluding themselves out of a market and a built-in-audience of poetry lovers who would like to read poetry on their devices. The public is buying more ebooks than print books. It’s a market that you simply cannot ignore if you want your work, including your poetry to reach a wider audience.

And really, the lines are handled just as they are in print — if it’s too long, you wrap with an indent to show it is a continuing line. Most poetry readers understand that in print, so if they see it on a reading device, they will understand it as well. To be sure, poetry with gaps of spacing, poetry typeset as a visual centerpiece to the poem is more complex to convert into an ebook. Right now there are two solutions: (1) working with someone who has a total understanding of the technology who can figure out ways to work around it, or (2) publishing the ebook with the lines flush left, but even that may change in time as the technology continues to develop.

Right now, the best way (in my humble opinion) to prepare ebooks is to hand-code the text using XHTML. This solves a number of problems: you have better control over line spacing and the flow of text, and as the technology changes, you can go back to your original XHTML file and update it. People are big on apps right now and interactive text (click and a photo or illustration pops up; click and music comes on), which is becoming popular in the children’s and YA market, but it also provides writers some creative ways to reproduce their books on reading devices. So by hand-coding books, your work is able to grow with the technology.

What’s happening is that these reading devices are providing a new stage on how we communicate through text — the world is no longer flat, it’s round. In fact, we recently released three poetry collections by Jesus Papoleto Melendez, Shirley Bradley LeFlore and Tony Medina, with more to come. Jesus’ poetry has lines all over the place and we were able to recalculate the spacing so that the work is not falling off the page/device. On the other hand, Shirley has extremely long lines, so we had to code for the indent to show that it’s all one line. When the ebooks are viewed in normal size they look just like their print counterpart on all of the devices, however, if the end-user decides to blow-up the screen, the meaning of the lines remain intact. In the end, I think that’s what really matters, when you format poetry in ebooks, the meaning of the lines remain intact (repeated twice here for emphasis).”

About Gabrielle:

I am the executive director of the Intercultural Alliance of Artists & Scholars, Inc. (IAAS) (www.theiaas.org), a NY-based nonprofit organization that promotes multicultural literature and literacy.  I am a lover of poetry, and have been reading, writing and studying poetry since elementary school through college.  I became involved in the NY poetry scene during the 1990s doing poetry programming at the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Queens, NY, booking artists like Maria Gillan, Jesus Papoleto Melendez, Sonia Sanchez, Shirley Bradley LeFlore, Louis Reyes Rivera, among others. This program prompted the creation of phati’tude Literary Magazine (www.phatitude.org), and later on, the television program phatLiterature (http://www.youtube.com/user/gdavid01), which was videotaped at the Library and aired nationally on college networks and public access outlets. We recently launched our imprint, 2Leaf Press (www.2leafpress.org), which promotes multicultural poets and writers. 

who needs words in the age of the image?

…the most important language of our so-called post-literate society. The image. Ours is a world where the ability to communicate doesn’t require anything more than rudimentary reading and writing. And, in fact, sounds and pictures can do the job just as well.And given time constraints today, perhaps better. This is what virtual reality has wrought.The image is the new word. Don’t send a message expressing your emotion, send an image representing the idea.

[...]

It would be useful [..] to trace the history of Western civilization with an eye towards evaluating the war between image and word. Start with the Mona Lisa on one side and Don Quixote on the other and count up the wins and losses in each column [...] most realists among the wordsmiths already know that short of some massive cataclysm that lays to waste the electronic grid that makes the delivery of images so easy, we are pretty much done for.

From The War on Wordsmiths by Ali Eteraz – read full article here.

I don’t necessarily disagree with his premise, but do think there is a key distinction to be made between written wordsmithing and spoken wordsmithing. Which doesn’t much help the written word crowd, but does make the overall case for wordsmiths somewhat less dire.

multi-format poetry publishing, cont’d

Check out this awesome web-page. This is how poetry should be published!

We blogged about Dave Bonta’s Twelve Simple Songs before, but there’s more now. From a single online location (Dave built a dedicated page for the publication), you can read the poems via Issuu on the web, download a PDF of the poems, download an MP3 file of the author reading the poems, or purchase (at cost-price) a print edition of the poem. You can also watch an awesome videopoem someone made based on the poems, read for the video project by someone else.

Poetry publishers take note. It doesn’t get better than this!

Other relevant multi-format publishing posts from the Very Like A Whale archive:

- multi-format poetry publishing!
Want poetry readers? publish in multiple formats, some free
Multi-format poetry publishing – production steps

multi-format poetry publishing!

I am beyond thrilled to see this great initiative from Dave Bonta. He has collected twelve very romantic poems into a chapbook called Twelve Simple Songs, and has made it available as:

- regular PDF download
an Issuu digital chapbook
an MP3 download
– and coming up: in print from a new POD service, Peecho

How awesome is that?! We, as potential readers, are asked ‘how do you like your poetry served?’ and we get some choices. I, for one, went for the regular PDF download, because honestly, I find Issuu aggravating to use. The chapbook looks really beautiful on my iPad in my iBooks reader, and is a breeze to read. Others will prefer the Issuu version, others the MP3 audio download, and others still, the upcoming print version. Some may want more than one version. By catering to all these different preferences, and by eschewing the profit motive (digital versions are free and the print version will be sold at cost), Dave has exponentially increased his poems’ chances of getting read.

A quick suggestion: Dave might at some point want to consider putting together a mini-website for Twelve Simple Songs, a place where he can consolidate the links to the different formats for future traffic and search engine huntings. As I mentioned in this 2011 post entitled another advantage of multi-format publishing, the beauty of a website for a chapbook or collection is that you can add things to the work as they happen – if someone writes a review, for example, or expands both the work’s content and its modes of expression by making a videopoem based on one or more of the poems.

Congratulations, Dave, on this tender collection and thanks for sharing it so generously.

Other relevant multi-format publishing posts from the Very Like A Whale archive:

- Want poetry readers? publish in multiple formats, some free
Multi-format poetry publishing – production steps

revisiting ten questions for poets – on poetry, publication, technology

This series represents a wealth of poetry and po-biz wisdom from a bunch of awesome contemporary poets. I used to have these linked as separate standing pages, but didn’t refresh that format when I changed blog themes recently. Have just added these standing pages back to the left-hand column, and got lost in re-reading while I did so. Thank you once again to the generous poets who participated for doing so! That wonderful group includes Ron Silliman and the late Reginald Shepherd.

TEN QUESTIONS SERIES
poets on poetry
poets on publication
poetry editors on publishing poetry
poets on technology