Poetry in E-Book Format?

Recently the New York Times featured a front-page article about poetry called “Line by Line, E-Books Turn Poet-Friendly.”  It is unusual enough to worth noting that the NYT considers poetry important enough to be a front-page topic; however, the impetus was the digitization of John Ashbery’s 17 previous books of poetry:

The poetry of Mr. Ashbery, who often writes in long, Walt Whitmanesque lines and uses complex indentations, was difficult to digitize. “Many of my poems have lines that are very long, and it’s important to me that they be accurately reproduced on the page,” he said. “The impact of a poem very often comes down to line breaks, which publishers of poetry often don’t seem to find as important as the people who write the poems.”

After his first misadventure, Mr. Ashbery was reluctant to sell his e-book rights again. But then two years ago, his literary agent met with Jane Friedman, Open Road’s chief executive, who was interested in publishing digital versions of Mr. Ashbery’s work. She assured Mr. Ashbery and his agent that the e-book formatting would preserve his lines.

After a courtship that stretched on for about a year, Mr. Ashbery agreed to sign over digital rights for 17 collections.

Apparently, some poets are still not happy with the results even though many publishers have gone to the extra added expense of having the poems hand-coded.  For instance, Billy Collins has added a disclaimer to his poems published as e-books

after seeing how changing the font size on an e-reader “threw the poem out of kilter,” as he put it. His e-books now carry a warning that certain functions of an e-reader can change the “physical integrity of the poem.”

“The first impression you have of a poem is looking at the shape on a page,” Mr. Collins said. “A poem has a sculptural integrity that is not registered on any e-reader.”

I have had some limited experience with this phenomenon as an author publishing online. Most journals are careful to preserve the original spacing, but others are not as careful (or perhaps knowledgeable), and the visual result has been disappointing and distracting.

In any case, online publishing is becoming a viable alternative to print publishing for poets. Most poets, as the article goes on to say, me included, prefer to hold a slim volume of poetry in the hand, with a pencil to mark passages and pages to be dog-eared. However, as broached in my last entry, publishing poetry, especially in print, is becoming more and more competitive, with all kinds of ramifications and implications. There is still, I think, a belief that being published “in print” somehow reflects the value of the work better than “online.”  Perhaps it comes back to the relative abundance of paper/ink vs. pages of the internet. There are certainly more online journals today than paper ones, with lots more room to publish as much as they wish. But even then they have to think about the limits of their readers and their own standards of what  “good” poetry is.

I have indicated, early on, that I would like to give away my work “for free”—that solution in the recent movie Begin Again resonating with me.  And it is possible to do this. But would it be as valuable a gift as if it were in print form? And if it were in print format, could I afford to do it?  I think we are talking, among other things, about “presentation.” And unless you have access to a good web designer, which does not come cheap, the “presentation” of a digital e-book of poetry is just not as attractive (at least to me) as a print book (aside from the physical limitations mentioned above).

I confess that I have recently simultaneously submitted a long poetry manuscript to two publishers who still publish in paper form without asking the author to bear some of the cost. But such places are increasingly rare. And I am not particularly optimistic.

I would be interested in comments from others about this dilemma and how they are working within it. Is it a generational thing? Or are young people also more impressed with print volumes of poetry? Or having realized how competitive it is to have a book published—even self-published (not as looked-down-upon these days)—are they exploring other ways to share their work online in an aesthetically pleasing form?

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