Yesterday we posted the first in a two-part discussion about poetry in the digital age. In that post, I explored some of the technological issues related to poetry. In today’s guest blog, Jonathan Farmer, founder and poetry editor for At Length magazine, discusses the challenging economics of poetry publishing today and puts forward some ideas for helping poetry expand and thrive going forward.
The Cost of Poetry
by Jonathan Farmer
Not so long ago, a minor shitstorm broke out in the literary outposts of the internet. The New England Review had announced that it would start charging for online submissions ($2 for poetry, $3 for fiction), and many rallied to condemn the magazine for making money on the backs of writers, aspiring and otherwise. To a large extent, the criticism seemed uninformed, even bizarre at times; some went so far as to accuse the editors of greed, as though they were getting rich off the magazine (they weren’t) and would be getting richer now (they would not). Most neglected to note that the NER was still accepting submissions free of charge by mail (aside, of course, from the existing costs of printing and shipping, which the costs of online submissions were meant to resemble), that $1 of the fee went to the online submission service NER was using, that subscribers could use the online option at no cost and, most importantly, that the magazine had no money—Middlebury College, its longtime benefactor, was following the lead of other universities and cutting off all funding for its literary magazine.
Throughout the accusations and counter-accusations, something else should have been abundantly clear: literary publishing still requires money and no one is entirely comfortable with that, especially on the poetry side of the ledger. It’s always been an awkward relationship, poetry and money, especially over the past half-century or so. Cheaper to make than almost any art form, increasingly marginal to even the more literary aspects of mainstream culture, and more and more uniformly situated on a political spectrum that starts out liberal and moves left from there, poetry has to a large extent survived on its cache—the strange authority it still wields far beyond its actual audiences.
While the economic crisis facing much of the publishing industry is a result of the internet wiping out its business model, that’s not the case here. We’re probably a full century past the last moment when it made sense to say that there was a business model for poetry. Rather, American poems ride into the world on the back of a capitalist economy whose aims they neither fulfill nor, in all but a few cases, embrace, the beneficiary of a quasi-tithing that our cultural, academic and governmental institutions have continued to send poetry’s way out of an odd mix of reverence and disregard. Now that money is disappearing, and it probably won’t come back.
In the short term, this is a significant problem. Talented editors are being cut off at the knees. Good magazines are disappearing, and taking with them a prestige and history that has very real value when used wisely and well. Publication is being pushed toward technologies that aren’t ready for poetry. And readers of a form that is not only aural but visual are pushing back against the loss of technologies (books, magazines) that are for them an essential part of what a poem is and how it feels (that physical experience, book in hand, a privacy or presence, context or cue). There’s also a great opportunity to begin creating a more honest, open and sustainable way of distributing and encountering poetry, but it will take some care to avoid exacerbating these issues along the way. And so, a few suggestions:
- Continue to support good presses and publications. Or, to put it another way, continue to support good editors. We’re probably moving towards a time where great editors are something like bloggers—independent entities who build their own institutions and, most often, don’t depend on that work for an income— but in the meantime we need to recognize the skill, knowledge and dedication of the people who have helped make poems and publishing better, and we need to understand that they won’t be easy to replace.
- Consider the American Poetry Review. Almost entirely unique among longstanding major journals, it’s cheap by design, and its tabloid format offers a great example of how print can stay viable as funding disappears and new technologies (and existing readers) struggle to adapt.
- Preserve the print option. Thanks to print on demand and the prevalence of cheap desktop printers in most people’s workplaces, it’s not that hard or expensive for online publishers to accommodate readers for whom poetry happens on an actual page. Failing to do so means further subdividing a literary culture that already tends toward pointless balkanization.
- Value what’s free. Poets still need jobs (even in previous decades, when poetry was better funded, no poet made a meaningful income off the sale of poetry), and for many, the most desirable posts are in academia. So it’s important that authors still get credit in job applications and tenure reviews for the work they give away. It’s worth noting here that, since the readers and writers of poetry are basically the same people, poets have as much to gain from reducing and ultimately eliminating the cost of getting poetry as they have to lose from the typically modest payments publishers can offer them for creating it.
- Get designers and programmers interested. The internet and e-readers are terrible for presenting poetry. Reading poetry on a Kindle is downright awful, and anyone who has tried to post a poem via WordPress knows that the many people who created it never gave a thought to line breaks. (Trying to block-format a prose poem is even worse.) If there’s no money in poetry, its prestige is still a draw. We should use that to secure the interest of partners who can create open-source, easy-to-use tools to format poetry for our various screens. The design and programming worlds are full of people who love a challenge and relish the opportunity to make something happen outside the reaches of the profit motive. We need to get them involved.
As with any period of transition, this will be scary for some, exciting for others. It will create new opportunities and destroy valuable resources. Ultimately, it will happen no matter what, but there’s a chance to approach it in a way that accommodates more, both in the short and long term, and ultimately results in a version of publishing that relies less on money and preserves more of what’s been best in our publishing and reading to date.
Jonathan Farmer is the founder and poetry editor of the online magazine At Length, a venue for ambitious, in-depth writing, music, photography, and art that are open to possibilities shorter forms preclude.