Poetry Publishing for the 21st Century

An Idea I Will Never Use, So If You Want It It’s Yours

If I was running an online-only poetry journal, I would completely ditch the “issue” model that magazines have been operating under for the last 300 years, and publish continuously, in a blog-style format.* Hopefully with enough publishable content to add a new poem every weekday. The main beef I have with online literary magazines is that they don’t embrace their own technology — they try to make the journal seem as much like a print journal as possible. They even have cover art, and call it cover art, even though they don’t actually have a cover.

I was looking at this list of the Top 50 literary journals online (always sad to see Rattle not listed), and I can’t find one that’s really ditched the old-fashion issue model.  The only exceptions seem to be print magazines that are using their websites as a supplement (like we do).  What do the online-only journals gain by doing things the way publishers have always been forced to do them in print?  The only reason you bundle a magazine into regular issues is because bundling content makes the printing and shipping of those issues cheaper.  Even with fewer pages, every new press run would increase your production costs by at least 50%.  And that’s the only reason things are published the way they’ve always been.  All we had in the past was paper.

In shackling themselves to the limitations of the printing press, all the e-zines accomplish is appeasing consumer expectation.  Poetry readers are used to receiving their verse in monthly or quarterly increments, and the quarterly issues avoid rocking the boat.

But this is the Information Age.  All the knowledge in the world is available at our fingertips, 24-hours a day — who wants to wait three months for the next installment?  What’s more, with our attention spans always shrinking, who wants to sit down and read an entire issue of an online magazine all at once?  Society has changed — it’s become quantized; we want to consume incrementally, at the speed of light.  And poetry fits perfectly into this new world, packed into small but profound doses that often fit on a single computer screen.

Moreover, poetry’s best publicity has always been word-of-mouth.  We don’t have advertising dollars, let alone a valid economic model for distribution.  What Napster did to the music industry could never happen to poetry — that genie has been out of the bottle for 10,000 years.  Bootlegging a poem?  That’s just called recitation.  Now when you read a poem that really moves you, you can forward it to a friend, you can post it to your Facebook, you can StumbleUpon it, you can Twitter it.  It seems natural to share poetry, because that’s what poetry is naturally for — and the social networking world is an ideal fit.

If I were starting a small press, I would publish continuously as well, and treat it like a book-of-the-month club.  Who needs bookstores?  You can buy our books individually online, but you can also subscribe to the press, and recieve a new title every month — no one has time to read books anymore, but isn’t 30 days perfect for digging into a good book of poetry?  Read a poem every night before bed, or keep your monthly poetry book by the toilet in place of Time Magazine.  We don’t have to worry about the marketability of individual authors, or focus so much on arranging readings where 10 people might show up — our audience is already there, book after book, and so we only have to worry about marketing ourselves as a single unit, and publishing the best books.

Anyone who makes a larger, tax-deductable donation to the press receives a subscription to the press, too.  Why subscribe when you can support, and get the tax write-off?

But it doesn’t end there.  All books are published as e-books as well, and anyone who subscribes to the press gets unfettered access to all of the poetry online.  And the website includes a member forum where everyone across the country can log in and discuss the poetry book of the month, including a new poem from the book, posted blog-like every day.  Maybe the author joins in to answer questions, or provides audio or video readings of the work.  Maybe we even find a communal way to select some of the forthcoming titles.  So the press becomes not just a press, but an active literary community.  And the more interactive that community becomes, the more we take advantage of social networking.  Since the site is an integral part of the experience, there will be a good amount of traffic, and we can use Google Ads to help offset some of the costs.

Would you pay, say, $100 per year for 12 books of poetry to arrive in your mailbox, and an online community of friends to discuss them with?  I would, and I’m a cheap bastard.  1,000 subscribers at that rate would pay all of our production costs.  2,000 would pay for a good chunk of staff salary, and we’d probably be less reliant on donations than any other small press in the country.

We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift, and poetry deserves to take advantage of it.  Almost overnight, the world has become globally and continuously interactive.  There’s no reason to perpetuate the distribution systems that evolved in an environment that no longer exists.

I don’t know if there’s a word for it, but when football coaches move their players up from higher levels — high school kids moving to college, college kids turning pro — they often try to convert them toward “bigger” positions:  cornerbacks become free safeties, free safeties become strong safeties, strong safeties become middle linebackers, and so on.  You can add muscle in the weight room, but you can’t add speed, so as the environment becomes more challenging, as the game gets faster and faster, there’s no other choice.

This is what poetry publishing has to do if we want it to stay competitive.  Small presses need to operate more like magazines, magazines more like newspapers, and newspapers going out of print altogether.  That’s the way we have to adapt if we want to thrive.  Because a college free safety with 4.9 speed is going to get burned on the deep ball every time.

NOTE: See some followup points here.

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* See the two magazines I run, Rattle, of course, and the online-only Found Poetry Project.  I could have easily made either using the issue model, but why on earth would I want to?