Definition of ‘publication’ & the importance of editors

It seems to me that refusing to consider blog-posted poems on the grounds that they constitute “previous publication” undermines the importance of the role of editor. It equates a blogger’s role with that of an editor. Reb made this point in her post and I find my thinking crystallizing around it.

One editor I corresponded with recently defined publication thus:

“I consider a work published if it’s been submitted to an editor who has chosen it.”

Which seems to me exactly right. Editors are creating a new product in their own right when they select pieces for their magazines. Each poem is one element of several they select to form a part of a new whole, the magazine.

Poet X’s work on is just that. Poet X’s work in SmokeLong is something else entirely – part of a much larger thing called SmokeLong, which is the artistic production of Smokelong’s editor. Which in turn is the reason I pick up SmokeLong.

Refusing to buy SmokeLong because I already read Poet X’s work on would be missing the point of editors entirely.

Imho, anyway.

More on the whole blog-posted poems issue here.

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

22 thoughts on “Definition of ‘publication’ & the importance of editors”

  1. As an editor, I can see both sides of this, so Inch’s policy falls somewhere in the middle of the two extremes that I’ve seen show up here.

    For the purposes of our print publication, we do not consider work that’s appeared in an online workshop, on a newsgroup, or on a personal blog to be previously published. We wouldn’t consider work that had been given in print form to your workshop group to be previously published, and if you left your diary lying around for your younger brother to read, we wouldn’t hold that against you.

    The Internet is letting us do things today that we couldn’t do before, and there’s going to be a tense period while we re-configure our notions of public life and private life. But as long as people continue to post to their blogs with the attitude that it’s a personal space and the public just happens to be able to look in, poems there will remain akin to the poems in a print diary, at least as far as Inch is concerned.

    However, if you send us work from a personal website or Internet workshop, we’ll politely ask (without requiring) that you take it down when the issue is published, and replace it with a link to our site. I think most editors do pride themselves on having the good sense to select the boldest and best new work, and we’d like to believe that we “discovered” your poem or story, y’know, for 45 minutes or so after the issue hits the stands. Let us maintain that illusion by sending your readers to our site, where we can claim to have “discovered” you and they can chuckle about how they knew you when. Hopefully, they’ll buy an issue to support you, and find something they love by someone they’ve never heard of.

    And hey, we return the rights to your work, so if you put it back online, that’s cool. We thought it was good enough that we wanted people to see it when we printed our issue, and that hasn’t changed because we have a newer issue. We hope you’ll tell people how smart we were to have discovered your work before anyone else, even though all parties know that’s not entirely true.

    By this logic, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to disallow previously published work from books, journals and websites that function as professional or semi-professional “publications.” Reb Livingston of No Tell Motel uses an editorial process to make this distinction, and this seems reasonable to me– they “discovered” your work before we did. However, if your work is available for sale in any arena (editor or no), that also counts as previous publication, and you probably feel the same way we do about it because you’ve put a lot of energy into convincing people your book is worth buying from that POD.

    I have no illusions about how small the literary community really is, and no illusions about how much smaller Inch’s readership is. I would love to see both grow, but if I have to choose just one, I choose the former. Treating personal blogs as personal seems to allow for this growth more comfortably than the alternative. Poetry is going to end up in blogs, period; I feel little incentive to require that only the bad stuff be posted.

  2. Hi Nic –
    I also hope the editor of whatever publication I choose to read has gone to the trouble of selecting poems I’ll want to read. Hell if I have enough time to trawl the billion poems on the internet in search of five I might like. If the poems I read in the journal have appeared somewhere before, it’s very unlikely to matter to me. Certainly it won’t matter to me at all if I walk away impressed, stirred or flabbergasted by a poem. Which I hope was the editor’s intention.

  3. It doesn’t pay to move beyond the basics with this one.

    The web has destoyed the financial reason for the existence of an editor (the arbiter of which streams of words merit the cost of printing). Now all they are (in financial terms) is marketers, hoping their imprimatur is enough to attract an audience.

    That’s a shaky proposition, one that’s getting shakier by the minute, as the new technology has not only inundated the consumer with free, searchable material, but also destroyed the barriers to entry–anyone can start an e-zine or self-publish for next to nothing. It’s a pure marketing war now, and the only sure winner is the consumer.

    Meanwhile, the writer (as always) wants to be read. The old way of going about that has changed irreversibly in the last decade, and the writer seems to be the last to adjust. Editors wrassle with the marketing problem continually, and consumers are enjoying the spoils, but way, way too many writers don’t seem to grasp what Publishing is and what it means today.

    Frankly, I’m amazed that any magazine publishes work that has already been posted on the web. Consumers of printed material don’t split the hairs that a handful of editors and apparently too many writers want to. If they can get it for free, and they can get it with a simple word search, why would they want to see it “premiere” as a rerun in an e-zine or a print magazine?

  4. Hey Sarah: I’m with you!

    Hi Sefton:

    If they can get it for free, and they can get it with a simple word search, why would they want to see it “premiere” as a rerun in an e-zine or a print magazine?

    I see what you’re saying, but how can I get Poet X’s work for free with a simple word search if I don’t know that I want to look for Poet X’s work? As Sarah points out, editors do serve an important role as trawlers/filters of the billion free poems that are out there.

  5. I’m not the first person to point this out, but it bears repeating: poems are not widgets.

    There has *never* been a financial reason to be a poetry editor — before or after the internet. The few poetry journals that have money get their funding from universities, NEA, other grants or individual donations. Not from sales. Sometimes sales and advertising help pay some of the cost, but never a considerable amount. If there are any exceptions to this, I’d love hear about it.

    The fact that one doesn’t need to be connected to an institution or have a wealthy benefactor to become a publisher is great news for literature — both for writers and for readers. Since when does wealth equal taste?

  6. Well, poetry may not pay these days, but I was referring to the market reason for the existence of editors: it used to be a resource-consuming decision to physically print something, and beyond any aesthetic consideration, once upon a time, the editor also functioned as the person who decided what merited that investment of resources.

    That market function is now gone with the web and the ability to self-publish for next to nothing. So what’s left is the editor as the arbiter of what’s good and what isn’t. Which is nice, but it’s no match for the total collapse of barriers to entry. That’s what I meant by a pure marketing problem–having lost control of distribution, publishers are no longer the gateways they once were, so they have to resort to branding and promotion to justify their existence. Which is a tough game, particularly online, because for all the bluster, readers don’t make a huge distinction between an e-zine and blog, knowing what it takes to launch both.

    This isn’t to say that editing doesn’t matter, or that there’s not a lot of junk out there crying out for an editor. It’s just that the marketplace has changed so drastically that a lot of what editors and writers are used to valuing has either been steeply discounted or completely devalued by readers. Newspapers are getting kicked in the teeth by this realization; even the good ones can’t hold onto their print-edition readerships or their advertisers when set against the tidal wave of Instant, Searchable and Free.

    As for discovering a poet, the old model was Editor Gives The Nod, Writer Gets Read. Now it’s Reader Finds One Poem Somewhere, Anywhere, and Googles The Name.

    Which puts poetry editors in precisely the same boat as big newspapers in terms of market relevance. The Googles and Yahoos of the world rely on them for quality content, but don’t pay for it. If they refuse to deliver free content, they disappear, particularly with younger readers, who don’t subscribe to print copies of anything.

    And to be clear, I’m not picking sides on this one, just trying to acknowledge what is happening. There are wonderful opportunities and strange new problems in very low-cost, instant worldwide distribution of text. The world has changed, but the discussion doesn’t seem to have changed yet–we already know what editors and getting published used to mean. What does it mean now?

  7. “it used to be a resource-consuming decision to physically print something”

    While online magazines aren’t killing trees for paper, paying prohibitive sums for distrubtion, etc. — time and work are definitely resources — especially when one isn’t being paid. And in my case, I’m paying for a domain — and many magazines are paying for server space (I’m not — I have my own server at my home (that wasn’t free), and a T1 line — which is a serious cost, one paid for by my husband’s employer, so I luck out there).

    Editing an online magazine takes a lot more than slapping up some poems and clicking a button.

    NTM only publishes 52 poets a years — declines 95% of its submissions. Every week is given to one poet — I consider that a resource the magazine is allocating. There’s typesetting, editing, galleys — all the things involved in being published by a print magazine.

    As for a personal blog, yes, anyone can post whatever they want to on it (and in many cases is absolutely free) — which is why posting a poem on a blog is not the same as publishing it in a magazine. People with means have always self-published in print. If you can pay, a printer will gladly print anything you like. I’ve seen people buy adverstising space to put their poems in magazines and newspapers.

    I think most people can tell the difference between a magazine and a personal blog, at least most people under 50 — and as time goes on that will become a moot point.

    If someone finds one poem of mine she likes and decides to google my name, she will find many more poems — mostly in online magazines, and she will find my blog where she might find some drafts. She will also discover my two chapbooks (one is online and free, the other can be purchased online) and she will learn that I have a full-length book coming out this fall. She will learn all of this about me within minutes. Ten years ago if someone found a poem of mine they liked, she could see if her library or bookstore had my book (if I had a book, they definitely would not have my chapbooks) — or check my bio at the back to see if it listed any other publication credits and maybe/possibly she could find one or two of those — assuming she was in the U.S. — not elsewhere. Even that would be expectng a lot from a reader and her doing anything past that might qualify her in the obsessive category.

    “The Googles and Yahoos of the world rely on them for quality content, but don’t pay for it. If they refuse to deliver free content, they disappear, particularly with younger readers, who don’t subscribe to print copies of anything.”

    Yes, but in return the Googles and Yahoos are offering me a free service. A global search engine where people around the world can quickly and painlessly find my work and I can find other’s. Those search engines bring a lot of traffic to my magazine, blog and personal website. Readers I would otherwise have to spend a lot of money in advertisements trying to reach.

    But you’re right about the consequences of refusing to be the internet. I recently came across this post by Kevin Goldsmith at the Poetry Foundation blog:

    “If It Doesn’t Exist on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist”

  8. I don’t think you’re quite getting what I’m saying.

    The basic function of editing–sorting wheat from chaff–has been undermined by market forces. The current bet is that the expertise of the editor, coupled with the brand appeal of the magazine, will be enough for a given publisher to aggregate higher quality material, and therefore attract readers.

    The trouble is, that’s really still the old model, and a good deal of what supported this model–the fact that it used to cost a lot to print and distribute, and the fact that a writer’s only hope of being read was to go through this system–is gone, gone, gone.

    A writer can set up a web site for very little, using free software, and have worldwide distribution 24/7, free to the consumer. There is no precedent for this in commercial publishing, and it ruins the gateway function commercial publishers once monopolized. This part of the game is over, and all that’s left (as I said before) is the marketing problem of getting noticed. Which brings us back to the aggregator’s bet, i.e., Our Editor Is Better At Sifting Through Material Than You Are A-Googling. And again, not to demean the toil or skill of editors (both of which are considerable) but with machine search getting better and better and the speed of editing constrained by human limits, in the long run, this race doesn’t favor the editor.

    The structure that protected the editor has collapsed, so now the hope is that the sheer value the editorial process adds will be enough to sustain aggregators like magazines in the brave new world. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case; it might work out that way, but on the other hand, in a world of keyword searches, fuzzy logic, embedded links, blogs, mailing lists, viral marketing, word-of-mouth at the speed of the web, there are lots of reasons to speculate that it might go another way entirely.

  9. “The basic function of editing–sorting wheat from chaff–has been undermined by market forces.”

    I disagree. I think the editorial winnowing is more important now than ever. There are so many things tugging at each of us, so many poems, so many poets, so much to see and read, the only times I tend to read poems now is when they’re packaged in some way. I’m not going to go searching for a specific poet very readily, but I might learn that Nic is being published at WooWoo Journal and I go check it out and read all the poems there.

    I’ve got complaints, especially regarding the fleeting lifespan of even the best poems (one shot and you’re out). But editors do something for me through their work. I won’t agree with everything, but they are doing something.

  10. “I don’t think you’re quite getting what I’m saying.”

    I think I do get what you’re saying — I’m rejecting this “market” force theory (at least as it holds to poems). I don’t view it as being applicable.

    I agree that the old system that a writer had to go through to get her work out there is gone. I believe that’s a marvelous thing. It was wretched, limiting system.

    Why do poetry editors needs to be protected? Editors need to adapt just like everyone else (authors and readers).

    I mean, I get that the larger magazines and newspapers are laying off editors and writers left and right, book review editors at the top of the boot list. Those are decisions are based on “market” decisions — the managements believes the space could be be used for more profitable means. This idea that people don’t read anymore, or they only read bestsellers or celebrity memoirs or whatever. Any space ever given to poems or poetry reviews has always been considered charity. It’s rarely taken seriously — because in such market models poetry doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work that way. Markets involve tangible value, money — poetry is a gift economy, the return rarely equals the cost of putting it out there. If there’s any capital, it’s a cultural capital — and I’m not even sold on that to be perfectly honest. It’s really blurry territory.

    People get to NTM by googling poet names or “poem about _______.” Search on “good poems” or “great poetry” — and well, good luck with that. And I agree with Julie — my role as an editor is much more than sorting wheat from chaff — I turn down good poems and good poets all the time. I’m doing a lot more than just finding the “best” — and I fully acknowledge that I sometimes don’t take work that I clearly can see is good because it doesn’t fit with what NTM is doing.

  11. Again, just to be clear, I never meant to denigrate editors; what I’d hoped to was point out that the shifts in how text is distributed have removed the protective shell from their day-to-day activities. The physical and financial barriers to entry are gone, and what’s left is branding, which in this case is based on the reputation and competence of the editor.

    The longstanding (and comforting) belief is that the marketplace will continue to value good editors doing their job well. And perhaps it can be argued that poetry (already balkanized, and already a labor of love) is a niche of enthusiasts, and the basic market forces won’t affect it.

    Maybe so; on the other hand, no other disseminator of printed material has had any such luck. We’re in the midst of an enormous change, and it’s hard to predict exactly how this will all play out; at the moment, however, what we do know is that search is getting better and better, the clear trend is toward ubiquity and access, even hugely dominant brands are unable to charge for web content, we’re still seeing websites come out of nowhere and become media forces overnight a la MySpace, and editors are taking it on the chin just about everywhere.

    You can certainly argue that all of this is a kind of regression, but the trend is toward putting the editing function in the hands of the online reader. Push media failed. The New York Times can’t charge for its online content. People want to decide on their own, and they can click out just as easily as they click in. For God’s sake, Google is bigger than GM, and it’s nothing but a freaking electronic catalogue.

    I like editors, and I think there’s merit in what they do, but markets are cruel, and they get rid of useful things all the time. The fact is, no good or activity has any intrinsic market value; if the market doesn’t want it, its value disappears. The absolute explosion of blogs and e-zines suggest that people are happy to dive right in, and all over the web, people are happily searching and surfing. Will poetry and poetry editors be exempt? I don’t know. Nothing else seems to be.

  12. Well, I don’t feel denigrated, so no offense is being taken.

    And I don’t think it’s the end of the editor, but a major transformation and transformations are often painful — and yes, it’s something we can try to predict, but impossible to be certain. Those websites that “come out of nowhere” have editors (or quickly get them once they get a sizeable audience) — granted they’re not editing the member pages and blogs, they’re doing content programming and packaging. I worked for AOL in 90’s for four years. There were (and still are) editors and people in other positions that handled some editing responsibilities — even in the member-created areas. While I was there we enacted the huge shift of once paying content providers for their content to charging them for the right to be on AOL. Talk about pain and outrage. The whole world flipped upside down. In AOL’s case, they did that and then they dropped their focus on content and placed it on advertising — unwittingly driving away a large portion of their paying members who they started viewing as “eyeballs” and “clicks” and “shoppers.” I think this is what some of the struggling media print giants are doing, but I’m moving off topic.

    The reason I don’t think any of this applies to poetry, because the old market system didn’t much apply to it in the first place. The poetry “market” is one where a Pulitzer or other major award winner sells a few thousand copies in a year, maybe less. A lesser known, but decently published poet will sell somewhere between 100-800 copies in the first year. Most print poetry journals have a circulation of 500 or fewer per issue. This was the case before online magazines and blogs. This is why those market trends don’t apply. The market has always been cruel to poetry and that’s on the rare occasion when the market even notices it.

  13. When I say market, I referring to the basic mechanisms; there may be very little traffic involved, but we’re still talking about distributors and consumers of material. Maybe niche rules apply, maybe they don’t; perhaps it’s too soon to tell.

    Given the reality of the web, to me, all this still comes back to the basic Old Model/New Model conflict that’s turned into a lopsided rout elsewhere in cyberspace. For better or worse, Trust Us, We’re Experts is losing badly to I Can Upload Just Like You, because everyone can broadcast now. So I have my doubts concerning the hows and whys of poetry being exempt from the forces that have hit pretty much every other form of print media.

  14. At the moment this discussion is being framed in terms of editors vs Google, which I think is the wrong opposition. The competition isn’t just Google—or at least it isn’t their basic search function; who knows where their quest for world domination will take them—it’s other kinds of filters. Like, for example, a poetry version of something like digg or Metafilter. Or if you think that a public service would just get swamped by lowest-common-denominator populist poems, sites like The Page, Arts & Letters Daily, things magazine: places that are acting as filters, and from the readers point of view are serving a similar function to a traditional editor, but instead of soliciting and choosing material are just posting links to work elsewhere. Editing the web. Meta-editors.

    I think there will always be sites which act as trusted venues for finding new work, and which trade on their reputation for good taste; I just don’t know how many of them will look like traditional poetry journals.

  15. I personally think, btw, that something like the traditional poetry journal will survive and be influential on the web. That that editorial role will still be valuable. I think too many of the e-zines currently in operation are wedded to a print-based model of periodic ‘issues’ that doesn’t work well online, and that the successful sites in the long run will find other ways of doing it. NTM is a good example of a more web-friendly model, but I’m sure people will come up with other versions in due course as well.

    Did you realise that ‘NTM‘ means something rude in French?

  16. “I think too many of the e-zines currently in operation are wedded to a print-based model of periodic ‘issues’ that doesn’t work well online, and that the successful sites in the long run will find other ways of doing it.”

    I absolutely agree.

    And I had no idea what NTM meant in French! Just being lazy in my typing. But that’s good to know.

  17. Reb, I think what you’re doing on NTM (rude or not, I like abbreviations!) is especially interesting. It’s the way you present work, and the type of work you present. There’s a very strong editorial voice in your publications, which is refreshing even when the poems themselves might not hit the mark for me (and they do much more often than not). (I like parentheses today.)

  18. The readership of my blog read it because they like my poetry, which only happens because I post it. When I appear in a journal I tell all my readers who race over to the ejournal or buy the paper journal precisely because I am in it. From this we can conclude that posting poems in my blog assists the journal. The rise of personal blogs blurs the line between blog and journal so much that editors simply have to accept that in the new environment, they should be asking writers for work, editors should be submitting their journals to writers, not the other way round.

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