Poetry publishing in the post-publisher world

by Michael Walter

Dead-tree publishing has been in a quiet, lumbering crisis for many years now. Publishers are understandably confused over their role in a world that exchanges information freely and is stocked with e-book readers and high-tech print-on-demand services provided by some of the largest book sellers in the world. Writers are beginning to challenge the notion that a traditional publishing house is some beneficent entity that must be courted and deferred to. Even the idea of the publishing house, a disjointed amalgam of money lender, talent scout, editor, manager, publicist, ad company and printer, seems challengeable now in a way that would have seemed inconceivable twenty years ago.

But nowhere is the entrenched hold the traditional publisher deeper and more enduring than the field of poetry. While ersatz fan-fiction tops the best-seller lists for mass-market paperbacks, poetry, even in a crass or bastardized form, is largely absent from the mass market altogether.

It’s an open secret that people don’t buy poetry. Some small exception is made for those poets humorous, famous, or dead enough, but by and large the rule holds true. There is not a large publisher in America for which contemporary, literary poetry is an important commercial concern.

Those rare few who do buy contemporary poetry are, by and large, the same people who write it–or, at least, move in the same circles. There are few other literary genres that rely so heavily on a core, dedicated community of advocates who purchase texts as an act of conscious conservation rather than simple commercial desire. Young poets aspiring to be published are encouraged to read and purchase contemporary poetry not only to improve their craft but also as a kind of economic intervention, a purposeful attempt to expand the size of the poetry market to accommodate the swelling numbers of new writers.

In such a community, the role of the publisher is as much intellectual gatekeeper as it is logistical production house. As a direct result, and to a greater degree than in other fields, the stigma of self-published poetry is powerful and enduring.

And perhaps with good reason: while a trashy novel can be suffered through by generous souls with a large enough appetite for whatever bawdy or ghoulish thrill the plot serves up, there is no such salvation for bad poetry, no saving grace for mangled, senseless lines which evoke nothing more than an involuntary shudder.

What’s more, while admittedly hundreds of thousands of terrible novels are written every year, a certain filter is provided by the effort of producing the sheer quantity of text required to call something a book, even if it’s little more than gibberish. The same cannot be said for poetry; even a person completely bereft of talent can dash out a dozen sloppy poems in an afternoon. And like modern art, poetry, even at its most base, unrefined and undisciplined, demands more attention to dismiss than bad prose. While the amateurish novel can often be confidently identified and thrown aside within a few paragraphs, even genuinely meaningless poetry can require considerably more careful study to rule out the possibility that the word salad conceals some cunning, obfuscated brilliance.

And so the poetry publisher performs not only a service to the poet by establishing their literary and academic bona fides, but also to the poetry public by protecting them from the looming wave of self-published sludge which threatens to overwhelm the critical reserves of even the most ardent poetry fan.

Which is all rather a shame, as–from an economic perspective–the self-publishing print-on-demand model lends itself more favorably to poetry than perhaps any other field of writing. Print-on-demand is perfect for small runs and slim volumes comprising mainly text. A 40-page paperback from LightningSource, the print-on-demand wing of book industry giant Ingram, will run the self-publisher just $1.48. Up the page count to 100 and the cost is a mere $2.30. Given a $10.00 cover price and a 50% catalog discount, the self-publishing poet could easily clear two bucks for every copy sold–and all with setup fees of, at worst, a few hundred dollars.

Of course, those two-dollar royalties require willing customers to grope through a heap of self-published trash to find a talented poet’s work, and in that regard the vetting and marketing which even a small publishing house provides seems essential still. But for those poets with a unique hook, a means of marketing a book themselves or just a willingness to take a chance of surfacing pristine amid a sea of garbage, self publishing seems an attractive option.

And there will be enough poets who take that chance to change the face of poetry publishing. For decades, the public has been increasingly alienated from published poetry. For better or worse, an open platform will bring news forms and content to the fore. For all its flaws, the open market self-publishing engenders will produce something that people want to buy.

And while it’s likely–even inevitable–that the worst excesses of such commercial fare will draw much gnashing of teeth from those stalwarts of literary appreciation who buy published poetry today, there may be hope that some middle ground can be found between academic work and whatever new forms of poetry prove to be commercially successful. It is at least possible that such an injection of commercial vigor could enliven a new ecosystem of poetry consumption. It’s even possible that such an ecosystem could contain some niche in which serious literary poetry be could be maintained, kept alive by regular transfusions of new consumers enticed by a broader range of diverse, accessible work and then exposed to literary texts they might never otherwise have seen.

For whatever the future of poetry publishing, it’s clear that with ever-swelling numbers of MFA-toting creative writing graduates throughout the country and the dwindling interest in current dead-tree poetry offerings, something must change in order for those with the skill and opportunity to write quality poetry to have any sort of an audience.

Michael Walter is a literature student at University of Toronto. He also keeps a blog at Love Poems For Her.

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