On How the E-Book Will Change Poetry Publishing & Writing

April 22, 2009

I was reading Steven Johnson’s Wall Street Journal article on “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write,” Monday morning and began to wonder about how the E-Book will change poetry publishing and writing.

I love books, always have, since I was a little kid and my Aunt Liz gave me a copy of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

I collect books.  Not in the way a rare or first edition collector does, although I do have a small group of 1sts, but rather as a collector of, well, books, of literature.

Many of the books have their own stories, especially the books of poetry that line the dozen or more shelves in my living room: where I purchased the book, how I learned about the poet, what I was doing in Berkeley or New York or Paris or India or wherever when I bought it.

Now along comes the Kindle.  How will that change the way I read or write poetry?  How will affect how I buy poetry? How empty my bookshelves would seem if all my books were in electronic form.

Most of the poetry titles I buy fall into three categories: the latest collection of poems by poets whose work I am interested in (or poets I know); new poets I read about in Poets & Writers or find in a journal; and books I stumble upon either in a used bookstore (less frequent these days) or the local bookstore chain.

One thing I find disturbing about Johnson’s review of the Kindle experience was how he (or any Kindle reader) could suddenly stop reading one book and quickly download another.

While I appreciate that hyperlinks may help illuminate a text or help you learn more about what you are reading, it bothers me that books will never be read the same way again.

(And if hyperlinks are de rigueur in E-Books, can ads be far behind?).

Of course, this can lead, to use Johnson’s own words to, “Entirely new forms of discovery.”

I like what Johnson says about imagining “a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.”

This reminds me of my old practice of scanning the Index of biographies of famous poets for the names of writers associated with them.  Eliot–>Pound–>Joyce, is one voyage of discovery I remember well.

But this can be taken to the extreme: I’d hate to see an “intelligent” recommendations search incorporated such as they have on Amazon: “Readers who are reading this book are also reading…” Ugh.

I’m intrigued, but also a little concerned about the notion of “a la carte pricing,” which Johnson says “will emerge, as it has in the marketplace for digital music.

“Readers will have the option to purchase a chapter for 99 cents, the same way they now buy an individual song on iTunes,” suggests Johnson. “The marketplace will start to reward modular books that can be intelligibly split into standalone chapters.”

So, for fiction, we’re looking at the return of the serial.  But what about poetry, which may have to devise another pricing scheme, such as “per line” or a minimum purchase per poem.

(And how will poetry fare when it is “competing with every page of every other book that has ever been written”?)

If the Kindle already includes blog or newspaper subscriptions, can journal or individual poet subscriptions be far behind? How about a “Poem-of-the-Month” Club? Anybody game?

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