Thursday, July 29, 2010

What’s wrong with modern poetry?

#2: Small Press Suicide

There are at least two good reasons to stay abreast of Ron Silliman’s Blog, the first being to review the list of 30-60 Internet links he posts from time to time on matters relevant to poets, poetry, and the publishing of poems.

The second good reason is to view the intermittently posted lists of  “Books received,” mainly small press poetry publications who are Jonesing I suppose for a review, or at least a mention, on his blog.

Ron’s books received list, paired with the new title listings at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, is I think the best way to stay informed of small press output in the U.S. (Unfortunately publications from the U.K. are unrepresented, against whom you’d think some kind of small press book blockade must exist.)

The discouraging aspect of both lists is that the reader has no clue about the nature or quality of a writer’s work, much of it coming from new or unknown authors, arguably the best reason for the existence of small presses to begin with. The result is that most poetry books will never be sold, since book shops and libraries won’t take them and potential street customers have no idea what’s inside the book.

Last Thursday (July 22nd) Ron posted a books received list that included 25 book titles and seven journals. As it happens, I don’t recognize the authors, (excepting Alexander Pushkin). Being a small press enthusiast, my only recourse would be so spend $500 (32 titles times an estimated $15 for each), to see if there’s anything I’d like.

Some small presses have websites, but most are sketchy, few with samples of a book’s contents and a Paypal donation option. Small Press Distribution runs a recommended list, but again without informative samples or reviews.

Clearly this situation is ridiculous. You don’t need an M.B.A. to realize that this is a failed business model which defeats its own purposes—to disseminate the writing as widely as possible and gain revenue for publishers and authors.

You’d think that small press operators, progressive in most other matters, would stop flogging a dead animal and learn to make use of the astonishing opportunities available on the Internet.

By posting downloadable .pdf files on their websites with a Paypal voluntary donation button, or linking to the same text uploaded to—both options without cost—publishers can make a text available to hundreds of interested readers, rather than sell a couple dozen books of printed matter.

Or you can upload the text and link it to Google Books, checking the option that all of it should be made viewable. If copyright concerns are an issue, the .pdf’s can always be made un-downloadable, as they are automatically on Google Books.

Poets and novelists need to understand that capitalism generally has no use for their texts, and that the only path to salvation rests not in trying to sell stuff, but reaching as many readers as possible. Printing paperback books and sending them in to Ron Silliman is not the way to do this.



  1. This is helpful commentary and information. I've copied it. Will have to check out your What's Wrong with Modern Poetry #1. Thanks.

  2. Just for the record, I usually don't post link lists until I have over 100 links. I've had as many as 300.

  3. I've purchased many books as a result of a mention on Silliman's Blog whether they were listed in books received or via link. I can't recall being introduced to a poet through that site who didn't have some amount of work, however small, for reading/evaluation online. Doesn't mean the available work will be representative, but I don't feel that I've made said purchases "totally" in the blind.

  4. Hmmm: do I read this right -- you foresee a world in which poets give away their work to everyone, or stand to the side and beg for a donation?

    If that's it, I can't agree. Poets should be paid for their work, whether via hardcopy or download. More reasonable -- and some but not nearly all small publishers do this -- would be a small sample (two or three poems), so potential buyers might have a taste for what they'd purchase.

    "I've had it with these cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book."
    — Kenneth Rexroth

  5. Steven, it's really not that complicated. If poets think they can publish for money they can definitely go for it. But given that 1) most poets would make considerably more money working at Walgreen's, and 2) if the number of readers is of any concern, and 3) since printed media are going out the window anyway, well, it's time for a re-think.

  6. Hi James,

    Maybe I'm over-thinking, but the out-the-windowness of printed media is not certain.

    Perhaps related, the LAT Times wrote yesterday about the tiny but apparently growing rejuvenation of the cassette tape medium. And vinyl has been re-purposed for years now, and survives along with iTunes and mp3s. Books will continue, I think, and poetry -- given the horrible limits of page-formatting in Kindle-type readers -- may be particularly attracted to the printed page.

    Either way, may we both be around long enough to see!

  7. Ditto to Steven on several counts. While web-magazines and e-books are really useful technologies, I don't believe printed media is going out the window, but that it will serve an increasingly specific audience: as poetry already does. I think poets should take advantage of the internet and the ability to disseminate text infinitely without significant cost, but that doesn't mean we should abandon print altogether. For example, Chris McCreary makes almost everything he publishes through ixnay available as a free .pdf file, & being able to read poets' helped expose me to people I might not have known about otherwise. But that doesn't mean I'm not willing to buy a book. Hell no! I bought McCreary's book Undone from Furniture press. (And I did so largely because I loved the free excerpt Silliman included in his short review.)

  8. Allen, it's not an either/or situation, one can have it both ways. After formulating the text in MS Word and converting the file to a .pdf, you can either print it at high-res or post it at low-res. You've prepared the text the same way, whichever path you go.
    My point is only that you get far more readers on the Internet, and I do have the stats to show it.
    I've posted three of my own books on, which continue to receive typically and collectively a couple thousand hits each week, whereas even with the best distributor, printed book sales for most writers normally taper off into insignificance six months or so after a title appears.

  9. If it's not either/or, then we are on the same page . . . or screen.

    And thank you James Mitchell, and your publishers, for making your four books available on GoogleBooks. I don't understand how publishers agree to risk not recouping the costs of hardcopy production by putting the whole thing out there, with no limits, but as a reader that's not my business, and I enjoyed reading the first part of the Strabo.

    And ditto your Good Gay Poems. I'm partial to those that are more in the KR mode, although I like many others. Speaking of KR, the poem on page 131, about his home, was great to read. Your book of poems may be perfect for GoogleBooks because while it does not bother me at all its cover would keep it out of many bookstores.

    Speaking of book covers, when you open On the Cultivation of Gardens on GoogleBooks, the book has the wrong cover.

    GoogleBooks, by the by, is a temporary thing: sooner or later there will be a charge to open stuff on that site, or so I believe.

  10. James,

    I definitely agree with most of what you've said. Web magazines are one of the best things to happen to poetry in a long time. And I agree that it's unrealistic of most small presses to behave as though they were in this for profit. And if I were running a press I'd probably put up all my back catalog, stuff that was sold out, as pdfs. I am willing to purchase printed books by the poets I'm interested in, and I'd also be willing to pay a reasonable price for pdfs by poets I'm interested in. But increasingly I rely on the growing network of free resources, especially online magazines, to educate myself, to learn which poets I should be interested in. And I'm glad that even long-standing publications (Poetry Magazine comes to mind) are hopping on the bandwagon of making all or most of what they print available without charge.

    I hope I'm making sense, because like you (if I understand you correctly) I don't want this to be an either/or. I agree that small presses could, on the whole, do a much better job online promoting the books they publish. I also think that necessarily includes making a decent chunk of it available for free. And I LOVE it when a writer makes a book available for free or when I stumble across a resource as handy as Eclipse archive or Ubu Editions. I learn so much by reading the books I find through those sorts of channels, and I'm grateful for them. But I also don't think any of this precludes small presses selling books and poets getting income from the publication of their work (albeit supplementary income: poets like presses are being tremendously unrealistic if they're in it for profit).

    Like I said, I hope I'm adequately articulating what I'm trying to say. (And with the caveat that I have exactly six published poems, none with extra-small presses, so I don't have direct experience from the publishing end of this equation.)