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.


* 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?

19 thoughts on “Poetry Publishing for the 21st Century

  1. yeah, I’m adjusting s l o w l y
    to the blogosphere, eternal toilet roll
    of Kerouackian techno blather
    texting and sexting from the road.
    But I’m tellin’ ya’ I think in bookese.
    So this is great, I like how it works.
    Pragmatical and all that. Hypertext drive.
    I’ve finally become my father.
    I am a dinosaur.
    I like Gary Larson’s old cartoon of the standing T.Rex’s having a smoke. The caption “how the dinosaurs became extinct”.
    I think I’ll go have a smoke.

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  3. Timothy — You make some excellent points. I’m especially interested in your comments about the publication schedule of the print model versus the online model’s potential for incremental publication with supplemental multimedia content. This is where my heart lies, and I’d love to be pointed to more journals that are doing it. At Open Loop Press we are exploring that space, though we are focusing on the conversation around the book rather than publishing books ourselves. At six-week intervals we publish podcasts of interviews with rising writers—in-depth conversations about the work itself that explores their influences and inspirations. We offer interactive transcripts of those interviews, feature book excerpts read by the authors, and filter the excellent content already available on the web by passing it through our writers’ sieve of influences. To cultivate community we link up with other readers through sociable media: Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, LibraryThing, and Del.icio.us. In this way we see ourselves as content creators, content filters, and members of an ecosystem that supports the literary arts. In addition to giving new books the opportunity to live the life of a published object in the way you suggest, a very compelling concept, the online environment offers so many opportunities to explore the space around the book itself. HarperStudio (www.harperstudio.com), an imprint of Harper Collins, seems to be doing great things with both. While they, I believe, focus on fiction, they offer an excellent model for poetry publishers to explore. I’m very excited to watch them grow. ~Carlin M. Wragg, Editor, OpenLoopPress.org

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  5. Carol — thanks for the link! I wish I’d seen that Poets & Writers article before I wrote this, I’d have referenced it directly. I guess it’s the old serendipitous Noosphere at work.

    Carin, check out No Tell Motel for a good online journal. And I’ll check out Open Loop Press, sounds like a good idea.

  6. I edit The Externalist, and we use the standard print model for our online journal. The reason isn’t that we don’t recognize the potential of the web, but rather that The Externalist isn’t our “job.” We publish because we love it, but both editors have day jobs, families, and writing of their own to do, so the print format works for us time-wise. I can block out the time to put together a new issue much easier than blocking out daily time to add new content, even though I would much rather take that approach. I think that most online journals are the same way. Some take donations; most don’t. Some sell issues; most don’t. I can think of a million and one ways that The Externalist can make better use of their online presence, but simply don’t have the time to implement it.

    I don’t know if that sheds any light on the question, but I do think the fact that few online journals are “professional” in the sense that they are making money has something to do with the form they take.

  7. Larina — I have a tremendous amount of respect for editors who aren’t working “professionally”…I know as well as anyone how much time goes into it, and the truth is, I would not do it if I had to have a day job. I can’t even imagine how you’d be able to, without a good number of volunteers working well together.

    That said, I do both — Rattle is my full-time job, but I also run foundpoetry.org for the fun of it. This blog is probably a hybrid of the two…it all gets mangled.

    Anyway, I don’t think your problem is time, though — it’s technology. You could install WordPress for free in minutes. It’s open source, fully editable, and there’s a plug-in for anything you could imagine wanting to do.

    With WordPress, you can forward-date posts — you don’t have to be there every morning to add a new poem. Rattle.com adds a poem every day, but I’m in bed sleeping when it happens — it’s all forward-dated months in advance. You’re publishing the Externalist bimonthly — your production schedule wouldn’t have to change at all. Instead of creating a PDF every other month, you could just sit down every other month and lay out the next two months worth of work. You don’t even have to deal with HTML. And then you automatically have a comments section, an RSS feed, and daily content, so people can make reading you a regular part of their lives. Adding mp3s to any post takes an extra 2 minutes and $25. Adding video is easy with YouTube. Anything you want to do is right there, and it’s literally no extra work, beyond learning how to do it. I could show you in a day, if you lived in LA.

  8. Gee, with quarterly and annual literary magazines usually containing so much dreck, America needs an online weekday blog poetry journal? I guess VerseDaily and PoetryDaily already do that. Last time I looked at them, I worked in an office, and ventured there as a quick break between assignments. Even William Carlos Williams’ Patterson would bore someone to tears five days per week in 1 page bits (though maybe less so than the whole book).

    I think–in the opposite direction–an online magazine could really make a name for itself by publishing once per year and being extremely choosy with what (and how) it presents.

  9. I would have said the same thing, G, before I landed on this side of the editor’s desk. As a matter of fact, I did — when I interviewed for this job, one of the questions was, “What’s the key to attracting a larger audience?” and I said, “Publish great poems.” But boy was I wrong.

    There’s no such thing as great poems — there are just good poems and bad poems. You publish as many good poems as you can, and some of them take off inexplicably. Sometimes you find what you think is one of the greatest, and no one notices. I guarantee that if you had a journal, and got to personally pick the best 30 poems written in the U.S. every year, no one would agree with your selections. They’d agree with some, complain about some others. That’s the way poetry works, and to pretend otherwise is to operate under a flawed and rosy assumption.

    And anyway, once a year isn’t how the world works anymore. Once a year and you might as well be dead. Collective memory doesn’t last that long — lament that all you want, but you aren’t going to change it. If you want web traffic, you need a steady flow, which means daily content. I challenge you to find any website, anywhere, the updates once a year, and outperforms a site with daily content. You can’t, because it doesn’t exist.

  10. Tim – Thank you for the insight on that particular technology. I hadn’t even considered post-dating materials and letting the software do it (I’m a bit of a control freak, I admit it). I’ll definitely be doing a bit of investigation.

    The growing trend nationally, and not just in lit zines, is the need to constantly engage the audience. Constantly. If you don’t do that, you lose them. So it becomes a balancing act of publishing because you love it and really, really wanting your contributors to get the exposure they deserve. Finding a readership is easy (much easier than I thought it would be). Keeping those readers is very, very hard.

  11. Tim: “There’s no such thing as great poems . . . ?” Really? The great ones are rare, but they are still out there. I read many journals, both print and online, and every so often I trip across a “great” one. The majority of the poems I read are “OK”, which means they have good imagry, sound, but don’t say anything particularly amazing. Some poems are “Huh?”, way too obscure. “Bad” poems, really bad ones, don’t seem to make it into print or legitimate online sites (those with editorial control). What’s my point? That the great ones are out there; that’s why we read poetry, that’s why we write it.

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  13. Cafais–You’re right, I should have thrown the word “practically” in there at some point. There are indeed great poems, in my opinion, but they’re so rare that you can’t think about them as an editor. If you only published great poems, you’d have one issues every ten years, and there’d only be one poem in it. See my new post for today, I’m going to say more about it and ask — name me some poems you think are great.

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