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…)