Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Death of small press publication, or a chance for resurrection?

A fellow poet recently passed along an article about e-publishing, which suggested that the internet is the beginning of the end of small press literary journals. We both attended a recent publishing workshop in which the leaders expressed the exact opposite opinions of this particular article, and now I find myself with mixed feelings.

I like paper. I like books. I'm a tactile person. I like to be able to hold a book, to turn the pages, to underline sentences. You can read a book anywhere, anytime. If the batteries run out, you can still read a book...because it doesn't run on batteries! Maybe I'm clinging to dinosaur sentimentalities, but I like being able to hold something that exists in the "real world", something that we might be losing touch with. So much of life right now takes place on a computer screen. It's where we conduct our relationships (i.e. FaceBook, MySpace, even this blog!), how we work, how we watch movies and television, how we attend classes, how we listen to music, how we receive our news--heck, you can even order dinner from your computer and have it show up at your door! There is very little that a person cannot do with an internet connection. I don't know that I want it to also be the place where I need to go to read my books.

Aside from that, there's the practicality and solidity of a book. You can loan a book to a friend, and unlike with the fiasco earlier this year when e-books bought for Kindles were being subsequently wiped, it's much harder for someone who sold you a book to then creep into your house and steal it back. And of course, with the internet, we've been told over and over again that publishing your work online leaves you infinitely more susceptible to plagiarism and theft of your intellectual property.

That being said, in case you haven't noticed, the internet is growing faster than any technology we've had to date and is solidly rooting itself in human life for the forseeable future. If you don't believe me, check out this video. So what does this mean for the small press industry and poetry publishing?

Poetry is already an artform with several strikes against it in terms of popularity and sustainability. Do we dare add one more by clinging to the small press format and shunning online publishing?

How much entertainment can be found (legally) for free on the internet right now? But small presses are still asking five, ten, twelve dollars, or even more for an issue of a print journal. I know that all writers would love to subscribe to as many journals as possible and support the organizations that support our work, but most can't afford to subscribe to dozens of quarterlies. So then we must ask what is more important? Getting money for our work from the handful who will pay for it? Or getting our work into the hands (or screens, as it may be) of eager readers?

Human beings are the most adaptable creatures on the planet. We have managed to survive in the hottest deserts, the coldest tundras, mountain regions, grassy plains, swamp lands, coastal regions. We can outlast hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, and anything else that Mother Nature throws our way. So why is it that we as writers--not the entire human population, but only a very specialized segment of it--are having such difficulty adapting to this brand new terrain and climate called the internet?

I don't think that this means that all print publications should surrender all to online publication. I'm sure the answer lies somewhere in the middle, somehow creating a mutual relationship between the online world and the print, such that each can feed and nourish the other. The music industry is working hard to adapt to a new environment spawned by the advent of Napster and the like. There is an equally viable solution somewhere out there that the poetry world could employ to its advantage. We just haven't engaged our creative forces in that direction yet.

If smaller, struggling literary journals take notice and act now, this could be the opportunity to resurge and reach widespread audiences that formerly wouldn't take notice of a tiny little poetry mag. Or, this could be the end of the small press. But one thing is for certain: hiding in a fortress of paper and ink, hoping that all the ones and zeros will go away if we wait long enough, is guaranteeing extinction.


Geoffrey A. Landis said...

It seems to me that there are more print publications than ever before-- desktop publishing and internet printing has changed the face of publishing so that seemingly anybody can start a magazine if they want to, and thousands of magazines start-- and vanish-- every year.
A couple of additional links that may be relevant and/or interesting:

32poems asks, How can print publications survive?

Chapbook review surveys a dozen chapbook publishers about what they're doing and why.

Runechris said...

It seems to me there as many small presses as ever. And people are happily churning out chapbooks as well. I can't always have my computer or laptop with me and always carry something with me to read. Almost always that includes poetry in book or chapbook format.

I think the wave of the future is in both formats.. online as well as print.

The had predicted the death of the book many years ago... and they are as popular as ever. I think people will adapt to having multiple options is what will happen.

John B. Burroughs said...

Good article and good points on both sides -- I, too, am torn. In an ideal world, both print and online publishing could thrive. And I'm optimistic that this ideal is well within the range of possibility.

Digital photography may eventually make film a thing of the past. Painting, however, remains alive and well. Key to painting's survival: it's evolved/adapted. Being "photographic" is no longer as primary to the art form as it once was.

I think a similar adaptation is necessary for print to survive. Either that, or the end of the internet, which will likely correspond with the end of the world....

John B. Burroughs said...

That's an imperfect analogy, but...

Shelley Chernin said...

Maybe an imperfect analogy, but a useful one.

My kids, both in their early 20s and both artists, prefer film. They see the difference between film and digital. Sometimes digital is useful to them (for quick study shots, etc.), but they'll never give up film.

They also listen to vinyl, which I understand has made a comeback among young music lovers. It sounds different.

I see new technologies adding possibilities to our lives without killing off older, irreplaceable creative outlets and modes of communication. If print publications continue to provide a unique experience for readers, and I believe they do, they'll survive alongside electronic media -- unless the use of paper becomes problematic for environmental or economic reasons.

sammy greenspan said...

TM, Andrew Whitacre ends that first article you link by saying:

"The small print-only journal now, for its small audience, is inefficient, maybe even a waste of money. The only thing it's really good at? Keeping people from reading good writing."

Ironic statements, in context of his article. If efficiency and money were the primary goals, poetry would not exist.

As for "keeping people from reading good writing," I could argue the opposite. A huge amount of the time I spend reading on the internet involves sifting through crap, to put it bluntly. At least when i turn to my favorite small presses, I can feel confident that someone with literary brains and heart has vetted the material.

John, your analogy to visual art leaves out painting's innate tactile elements, that can't be satisfactorily reproduced in 2D. Seeing a plate never captures the experience of facing the piece itself.

The seductions of the internet are well known. If the future of hard copy literary arts rests with young people (and doesn't it?), maybe we should ask what kind of hard copy draws kids in, what other ways we can entice them (cross-media?), and how to translate this into small press publications.

Food for thought.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

sammy greenspan had written: TM, Andrew Whitacre ends that first article you link by saying: "The small print-only journal now, for its small audience, is inefficient, maybe even a waste of money. The only thing it's really good at? Keeping people from reading good writing."

I'm afraid that I completely agree with him-- he's spot on.

The key element in this sentence is the words small audience. Small print-only journals aren't getting good writing in front of readers because they have so very few readers.

Ironic statements, in context of his article. If efficiency and money were the primary goals, poetry would not exist.

And if getting writing in front of audiences was the primary goal, small presses are an ineffective way to do it.

...Unfortunately, I don't know what the solution is. But I think denying that there's a problem is contraproductive.

Anonymous said...

Small lit mags have the opportunity to grow global microbrands that attract a specific reader. No longer restricted by the postal system or physical-book-shelf real estate, lit mags can distribute in online and offline formats. They can build relationships around their brands based on technological proximity, instead of relying on physical proximity. I talk a little bit more about this over at

There's a dynamic exchange between poetry and technology that's taking place and it's going to be one heck of a ride. The survivors are going to be the cowboys that stay focused on riding the bull. A fair number will be thrown, but were gonna have some strong heroic survivors.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Thanx for the link to I'll keep an eye on it!


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau