March 11, 2013

interview "The Future of Poetry Publishing" by Jeffrey Slide with Douglas Messerli

After an intelligent summary of Astley’s essay on his blog, Argotist editor Jeffrey Slide invited several poetry publishers in the UK and US to respond to questions related to some of the current problems in poetry publishing. A re-edited version of the responses are presented below.

Q: How has publishing changed with the advent of short-run printing and print-on-demand possibilities? Does this negate any need to sell a specific number of a title? Is this a freedom from traditional print expectations/values?

A: For me as the publisher of Green Integer—aiming as we do at the largest general audience possible—on-demand publishing means relatively little. Printing is not the most expensive aspect of publishing, and I can print small runs of 500-1000 for a reasonable amount, quantities that generally sell. The cost per book is around $1.00-$2.00, whereas, it would be much higher on-demand. Although I may save money in warehouse fees, accordingly, it would mean that I wouldn’t be able to promote and sell books in the same quantities. There is a big difference between what in the industry we call a passive issuing of books and active publishing. Even if one does announcements and advertising, by basically waiting for orders to come one’s way, a press is not really actively promoting the book. Sales representatives are far more successful than catalogues in actually placing books in bookstores.

     That is not to say that for out-of-stock books that on-demand printing isn’t useful. On-demand publishing may well serve such titles, but that also seems to put those books in a kind of permanent purgatory, halfway between existence and remaining out of print. Sometimes it’s simply better to give up a title so that someone else may have the opportunity of newly publishing and promoting it. Or perhaps there comes a time when the author and his or her work might be better served by posting it on a PDF file for free, so that any interested parties might be able to enjoy it without additional cost. I now think that since poets seldom find financial success with their work, this might be a better strategy after one has given it a try.

    In the future, if printing can become a desktop activity, then print-on-demand will make all the difference in the world. But it seems to me, at present, to be a way to defer publishing books by simply issuing a few sample copies.

Q: Why does poetry continue to create schools and movements who feud?

A: Of course that question skirts the issue of why it might be beneficial for poets to feud. Because of its essence—language—poetry seems to be concerned with meaning, however one defines that; and meaning, in turn, is truth, is the way we perceive the world, how we make the world and determine it through language. Once truth becomes an element in anything—be it politics, philosophy, religion, or poetry—there are bound to be crucial differences between what I believe and what “you” or any other human being believes. Except when it leads to complete intolerance or a refusal to even listen to other viewpoints I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with arguing for a vision of truth—particularly if one has a good sense of humor and some modesty about it. Such feuds—while one can grant that they are quite ludicrous—speak for the very importance of the art—an art centered in language, the making of meaning. Why shouldn’t that matter to us; be something we are willing to argue about?

    Poetic feuds, like other artistic battles, moreover, help bring some attention to the practitioners of the art in a field where the audience, as we all know, is generally small. But even that sense of a small audience, I feel, is a misconception. Very few people may read poetry, but strangely enough, poetry matters to people more than they’d like to admit. Just talk to a stranger on a train or plane, and tell them you’re a poet; it may confuse them a bit, but I’ve never heard anyone scoff at or dismiss the idea. And the questions that are asked—Why do you write? How do you do it? What does it mean? are important questions which one can’t easily dismiss. It may be something over there, but I think most people recognize it as something vaguely of value. What might it mean, accordingly, if poets went about without any sense of their poetry being different from that of others, that language had no meaning whatsoever, that it was something like decoration, a Hallmark greeting card? If poets didn’t argue with one other, if the truth didn’t truly matter, why should anyone care? But it does matter to me; and I prefer complexity of thought and complexity of language for that very reason.

Q: With POD possibilities, including various organisations that will take on anything without a set-up fee and simply send royalties to the author, do poetry publishers need arts council subsidies anymore?

A: My earlier publishing enterprise, Sun and Moon Press, was a non-profit organization which worked with the American National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and other organizations providing subsidies for years. But, in the end, I felt I was spending more energy on the definition of myself as a leader of a non-profit organization than I was on expressing my passion for literature. And there’s an attitude that goes with that, represented by the open hand held out reaching for help.

     The kind of publishing many small presses are concerned with—in particular the kind of serious literary publishing in which I’m involved—does need help, should be helped but by society is granted help only grudgingly and in small amounts of financial support. Accordingly, one easily finds oneself, as the years pass, experiencing a kind of exhausting bitterness, a sense of endless frustration with the society at large. Can’t they simply see, one wonders, a good job of editing, that I’m doing this great thing over here? Why do they seemingly continue to ignore my selfless act? Over the years this exhausting frustration overwhelms the joy one feels in the act of publishing itself.

    So when I gave up Sun & Moon and founded Green Integer, I determined to abandon the nonprofit aspect of publishing as well. I determined to employ everything I had learned over more than 35 years of publishing and just do books that I felt were important, one by one. If they might support themselves, that was all I could ask. Of course, I still appreciate financial help, gifts and subsidies from various countries for contributions for translations. Such financial aid is necessary just to survive. But now when I ask for help I’m not asking in the name of an organization, but asking for a book, a particular book which might not exist if I were not bringing it into translation or publication. And that changes everything. I love books and I want to bring them to life, not promote an organization that will limp into some future with or without me. I think one has, ultimately, to decide. Are you part of a larger entity or simply trying to publish books? Are you a publisher or an officer of some non-profit organization? I needed to remind myself I was a writer and a publisher in that order. I never was a good businessman, and if I had wanted to be a CEO I would have chosen another field for my accomplishments.

Q: If poetry presses are concerned with cultivating a wider readership, could this not be done more effectively via the internet (where there are millions of potential readers) rather than worrying about sales of printed poetry?

A: I don’t think it’s a choice between the internet and the printed book. Most people still prefer to read a book than look at a text on their laptop. But the internet can be used most effectively as a tool for research, for sales, and, in some cases, for reaching out to younger or exploratory audiences. Why choose? I still love books, and, as a product of my generation, will continue publishing books until I can no longer function; but I also spend a great deal of energy in producing a bi-monthly magazine for my website, posting reviews, developing an educational tool (the Project for Innovative Poetry biographies) and other approaches to help bring poets and readers together. In the near future, I plan to begin posting some out-of-print books as PDF files on my website. These are all part of the same effort, to bring readers to the poetry and to bring poets to the readers. I do not see them as alternatives but as viable forces that work toward the same goal.

Los Angeles, December 2006
Reprinted from The Argotist  [England] (January 2007).



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