poetry – an inherently non-profit activity?

Back in May I wrote a post called want poetry readers? publish in multiple formats, some free. I noted that my small experience of publishing in this way has shown that 90% of the copies of books/chapbooks obtained by potential readers/listeners are the free formats, while the formats for sale only represent 5% to 10% of total copies obtained. I also noted that publications such as Poetry magazine have now adopted the model of providing their complete content free online while still selling print editions.

The fact is that selling poems is just not good business. Packaging poems ‘for sale only’ doesn’t make money and cuts down on potential readership. Do we want to sell poems, or get them read? The two objectives are, in my view, mutually exclusive to a high degree. Sell, ok – but don’t only sell.

Isn’t ‘free’ a dirty word?

I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but wanted to get a post up on this blog up, to include some additional more recent thoughts. Some ask: If you offer something free, doesn’t that mean you are devaluing it? Shouldn’t you charge at least some money to indicate the value you place on your offering?

We tend to be suspicious of free – ‘free’ must have a catch or somehow indicate a lack of quality.

I’ve argued elsewhere that poetry is priceless and therefore inherently fits best into a non-profit – not a commercial – paradigm. Civilizations through the ages have recognized a] that poetry nourishes human spirit and enterprise in a way nothing else does (and certainly nothing that is for sale) and b] that it requires subsidizing. Rulers, cities & villages used to employ/fund bards and poets for this reason. In the US (they do a bit better in Europe) we seem to have largely forgotten this.** As a society, we tend to undervalue the poet’s skills & contributions, and no longer subsidize poets in any broadly meaningful way. But does that mean that the poet should forget too and undervalue too, and try to force poetry into the channels of commerce, where it has never sat comfortably?

One thing that is certain is that – rightly – poets are not put off by “free” poetry, in the way that most of us are instinctively suspicious of anything free. We are used to seeing fine poetry free all over the web. The number of reputable, discerning poetry journals offering free content is huge and growing (as I mentioned above, even Poetry magazine now offers its complete contents free online). Poets look for evidence of quality control (who is the editor?), but they know that the absence of dollar signs is no indicator of poetry quality.

(As I have also said elsewhere, this is not about knocking small hard-working poetry presses attempting to work within the commercial paradigm, or poets currently operating under the commercial paradigm. This is simply about presenting another paradigm for consideration.)

So how are poetry publishers who provide free content supposed to pay their expenses?

Well, a lot of that expense is simply time (a chunk of which is spent acquiring technical expertise of all kinds). If we accept that poetry is an inherently non-profit activity, we necessarily accept that it also requires huge amounts of volunteer (ie unpaid) time and effort.

What about the poetry publishing tools that really have to be bought and paid for with cash?

How about raising funds through mechanisms other than simply selling poems? A donate button on your website? Grant applications? Or use Kickstarter – an amazing fund-raising platform just made for poetry publishers. A search for ‘poetry’ brings up a fascinating list and variety of Kickstarter poetry-related projects currently seeking funding.

Here is an example of a poetry project (seeking funds to support a free digital magazine) that didn’t meet its goal of raising $1,000 in the project’s allotted fundraising time. Here’s an example of another poetry-related publishing project that exceeded its goal of raising $15,000.

Lastly, here’s a link to an article entitled The author as entrepreneur, and the dangers this poses, which in turn discusses the British company Unbound, which “is basically a subscription model for the creation of art – something that was popular in previous centuries. It is somewhat like the U.S.-based site Kickstarter, which supports investment drives for all kinds of art forms, including movies; Unbound is purely for written works.” (Hat tip: Michael Wells.)

The writer makes some excellent points, which are tangentially relevant to what I’ve said here. I don’t agree with all his conclusions (although I do share his reservations about the nature and likely impact of ‘Unbound’) but what he says is worth thinking about.

(** Wait. Is this true? Is the ratio of national wealth devoted to subsidizing poetry to number of poets wanting some of that wealth significantly different now from what it was in the Middle Ages? If in fact, the ratio has not greatly changed, all the more reason to get more creative about how we publish and distribute poetry…)


Related post: Nanopress publishing – avoiding the publisher’s cycle of need

Other Very Like A Whale posts on poetry publishing

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.

20 thoughts on “poetry – an inherently non-profit activity?”

  1. Not to be a wet blanket, but is this really a new paradigm? How many presses actually *do* operate on the commercial model? It seems to me that your new paradigm is actually the default setting for literary activity, and has been for some time now. Small presses and mags have for ages (always?) run on volunteer labour. Donations and grants, too, are a longstanding and significant part of the landscape. As for Kickstarter, the projects that succeed there almost always are actually selling something. It’s more of a pre-order system (plus tip, maybe) than an alternative to the sales/commercial model.

  2. Hey Nicholas – great to hear from you! You are correct in that donations and volunteer time are a key existing element in poetry publication and always have been. The overarching commercial model paradigm that still rules all that volunteer activity, however, dictates that the poems be offered solely in a form that is for sale – usually a print book. Free ‘teasers’ may be offered in online venues, but the idea is always to force the poetry consumer to *buy* the collection locked up in the print edition. Which cuts down drastically, as I discussed, on potential readership. That’s the paradigm I am arguing against in advocating for the ‘publish in multiple formats, some of which are free’ publishing model. Note that I am not resisting selling poems per se (at Whale Sound, print editions are available at cost-price from Lulu – we could never afford to give those away for free), I am resisting the practice of *only* offering poems in purchasable form. Thanks for commenting! Best, Nic

  3. I agree with the points you’ve just made (and thank you, as always, for a thought-provoking post), but I don’t agree that this constitutes a new paradigm, or that it’s even a matter of commercial vs. non-profit. As you acknowledge, one could conceivably make everything freely available in one format and still turn a profit on other formats. (And of course, one could monetise everything and still hemorrhage money.) To me, this is a matter of accessibility. One’s choice regarding accessibility may or may not influence whether one’s activity is “commercial” or “non-profit”, but there is no necessary connection.

    If there is a paradigm shift to be made here, I think it’s from closed access to open access. Either can be for profit or not.

    (Also, a picky point: “inherently” seems an overlarge claim so long as one poet can turn a profit selling poems. “Usually” non-profit, sure, but what’s “inherent” about it? Not many novels make money, either, but it would be odd to call that form inherently non-profit.)

    1. Nicholas – excellent points. I love how the internet enables us to sharpen our thinking from minute to minute. You are right – non-profit vs commercial is too simplistic a view. It’s quite a messy hybrid, in fact, in the poetry publishing world. I’m not wedded to proving or disproving a new-or-not paradigm, so am happy to grant you that point. My focus is the current wide-spread practice of ‘locking up poems in priced books’, as Rik puts it in his comment. The reasoning behind this practice is that it’s the only way to get at least some money out of this money-losing, mostly-volunteer poetry-publishing endeavor. What I want to draw attention to is the fact that this urge to get some money has a negative (and I think inadvertent – at least on the part of the poet) impact on overall readership. Sell poems, or get them read? It really is a dichotomy.

  4. I decided long ago that my poems deserved better than to be locked into priced books. For similar reasons, I stopped submitting to print journals (and when is this nonsense about only accepting previously unpublished poems going to end?)

    … though the idea of the “donate” button doesn’t work – I’ve received the grand total of 2 donations over the past 6 years. This poetry lark really is a labour of love, with no expectation of rewards.

  5. “Is the ratio of national wealth devoted to subsidizing poetry to number of poets wanting some of that wealth significantly different now from what it was in the Middle Ages?” I think that’s a false analogy. I would argue that the vocation of bard or griot is more analogous to the modern vocation of spokesperson or PR flack. Minstrels’ and troubadours’ modern descendents are our pop singers.

      1. Well, I think the modern profession (avocation?) of literary poet is pretty unprecedented, since it couldn’t have evolved until widespread literacy was achieved. But certainly there was an official literate culture in the Middle Ages, subsidized by church and state, which accounts for most of what has come down to us. The relatively rare transcriptions of folk-poetry, such as the Spanish Romanceros, however, do suggest that the unofficial oral culture had its anonymous or forgotten geniuses, too.

  6. Such a great article. I have a chapbook of narrative poetry in the dark fiction genre. You can imagine how difficult it has been to find a home for it. Articles like this make me realize that if I choose to do so, there are several other options out there for me out there. With oddity genre works (especially in poetry) like this, alternate routes are often the best way to go…blogs, e-books, etc.

    I’m linking to this article from my blog today. Thanks!

  7. Nic, thanks for your thoughts on this, here and previously. Dave Bonta, too–you both have done so much to legitimize alternatives to the status quo. I appreciate all the ideas you consider and the way you both experiment actively. But at base it’s the fact that your work in all areas has such quality that I find what you model to be so convincing.

    1. Rosemary – wonderful to hear from you, thanks so much for reading and commenting. One so often feels mad-eyed and mad-haired, raving on in this way and it’s great to hear some affirmation along the way. Nic

  8. I’ve been slowly writing a response to this, in the tongue-in-cheek form of a “History of English Poetry.” I’m not sure many people get just how much Western poetry has been shaped by being a prestige object, something princes cultivate to adorn their reigns and something nations sponsor to bolster their sense of having arrived. We seem to have a settled notion that the brief flash of time when it was possible to make a living by marketing poetry directly to the general public — which roughly coincides with the life of Tennyson — was in any way normal. It was not: it was an odd swirl in the history of poetry, and it’s not coming back.

  9. “.. how much Western poetry has been shaped by being a prestige object, something princes cultivate to adorn their reigns and something nations sponsor to bolster their sense of having arrived.”

    Yes! I *really* want to read your response. De-mystifying that whole historical process is just what is needed. Thanks, Dale and standing by.

  10. Really good article. I agree with you that there is so much good poetry all over the web that although I still subscribe to a few print journals, I do it mostly to keep the presses alive and because there are a few editors that match my taste exactly, and it is worth the money to have them find the gems for me. I still enjoy the feel of paper in my hands, and I often go back and re-read them.

    I have published in both print and web journals and there is no doubt that ones published on the web are viewed more (unless I was publishing in Poetry, which I’m not, yet!). Some of my favorite, even award-winning poets, publish widely on the web (Bob Hicok is one great example).

    Right now I’m only posting previously-published poems on my blog (http://donnalewiscowan.wordpress.com/poems/) – but I see the value of getting the work out there since there’s not much money to be made in any case!

    1. “there is no doubt that ones published on the web are viewed more (unless I was publishing in Poetry, which I’m not, yet!)”

      As I said, Poetry is now online with all its content free and I am quite certain they are getting way way more readership of their material online than they were in print alone!

      Great to hear from you, Donna, and thanks for stopping by. Best, Nic

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