Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Future of Publishing and Mine in It

Since hearing that Kitsune Books, the publisher of Gods of Water and Air, my third poetry collection, was ending business operations on December 31, I've researched small press publishing to try and understand what had happened and what to do. I had picked Kitsune partly because they were a rare combination, a press publishing both poetry and prose, and I have a novel to publish. What I've found shocked me, even though I had a picture of the tenuous nature of publishing, especially small publishing companies.

Print publishing, as we all know, is becoming an endangered species, as the sale of e-books now is increasing while print sales remain flat. And poetry publishing is very endangered -- yet poetry itself is flourishing in some ways. As an American art form, poetry is abandoning its academic and literary roots  and becoming, by way of slam, rap, rock, and readings, a folk art. Poetry performance is thriving; the printed word is dying. It's becoming a younger art, a pop culture and social phenomenon.

Like Kitsune Books, most poetry presses in America are operations as fragile as the health or will of its often sole operator. That means a press's entire catalog and backlist of books is vulnerable to sudden disappearance.

Do you ever think to ask a press that's offering you a publishing contract about their gross sales or net profit margin? How many full-time staff members? Or average sales are for a poetry book? I sure didn't ask such questions, not with my last three publishers. And because I remained ignorant, I had unpleasant surprises. Not that they were bad experiences, but that I was unprepared to face how frail these companies are, how they may even be hobbyist ventures, and what little resemblance most of them bear to conventional book publishing and the expectations an author might reasonably have in that context. I have lived and am learning. Who knows, I might start a press myself one day.

What I've learned is: poetry is an endangered species; poetry has never been as popular in the last 25 years; contemporary poetry bears little resemblance to anything in print; poetry is an almost all-volunteer effort; poetry has migrated into other cultural forms. All these are true. Yet something else is happening. Poets are starting self-publishing collectives, publishing e-books, publishing spoken-word CDs, reading on the radio, forming Facebook communities, printing broadsides, making book trailer videos, appearing on Youtube, even showering cities with printed poems. Poetry will never die. Print and bookstores may.

5 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Oops! My first attempt deleted. Too many typos!

    I do not agree with your analysis. The whole thing was an accident of history, namely the epoch of the dial-up modem from about 1995-2001, when Jaimes Alsop was the historical figure. The Internet became, suddenly, about 1996, a free and easy forum for the written word, and more particularly if you wanted to be on the Internet at all, you had to do the written word because the technology was simply too crude for anything else. As soon as the cable modem came along, the Web went over to video, ie to Youtube, to Silliman’s Blog, and the written word disappeared.

    Alsop’s Gazebo was not only good in terms of javascript technology which Alsop chose early, it was also good because Alsop happened to be an excellent moderator.

    Prior to the Internet age there was basically no free and easy forum the written word, and now, in the age of cell phone apps, the written word is gone without a trace. How R U?

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  3. Wonderful historical overview of poetry and the Internet! I'd like to hear more. What don't you agree with exactly? I never said it wasn't an accident of history, as most important changes seem to be. Curious what you mean.

    I miss Jaimes Alsop!

    I'm doing well, trying to figure out what to do with this poetry book of mine, in the midst of a rapidly changing landscape. Part of me wants to say, forget a print book, just e-publish. But I don't think we're quite there yet with poetry. With fiction, I think we are. Or almost. Who doesn't have an e-reader these days? Very few.

    How are you?

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  4. You say that poetry will work on kinds of different media – ebooks, Youtube, etc. I do not agree. Poetry is the written word, and the written word works only on a piece of paper.

    Poetry is speech too, but this is very special. I once went to a bar to do some bluegrass with some guys. For some reason the band was short, we couldn’t do music, so one of the guys got up a recited the Log of Gunga Din from memory. The clientele slumping over their beers let nary a pin drop.

    History is very accidental, or should I say unexpected. I got into a conversation somewhat like this on CE Chaffin’s blog. Later, using my blogger ID, I went back and deleted part of it. I was very surprised by what CE had to say about Alsop ( which is still on-line ). Never did I expect CE’s feuilleton such as I saw there, which essentially accused Alsop of being a charlatan.

    But of course when I was on the Gazebo I was a carpetbagger. So it was the charlatan vs the carpetbagger. Even steven, I suppose.

    Yes the landscape is changing rapidly. Blogs and forums are a thing of the past. Email is disappearing. It's all going onto the cell phone screen. Even Facebook is in trouble. All the more reason to put your stuff on a piece of paper. Though it may be merely an unpublished manuscript, it is not going to be wiped out by changing technology.

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  5. The Sacramento Library has begun offering a self-publishing/print-on-demand service. I've just taken a quick look at the description on their website but I'm intrigued by the idea. Not the only POD possibility out there, and maybe not the best, but if I lived in Sacto I'd look into it. I wonder if any Bay Area libraries are considering this ...

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