Each year just before April, which is, of course, National Poetry Month, PW takes an extended look at a burning issue in the world of poetry publishing, an extremely active sector of the book biz, which, because the sales are small, doesn't get much attention. Except that now, when authors who would have formerly made up trade publishers' midlists are migrating to indie presses, the issues facing poetry publishers—many of which, like Graywolf and Coffee House Press, are also important publishers of small press literary fiction and nonfiction—are becoming indicative of the challenges facing the book business as a whole. This year, however, the most pressing issue facing poetry publishers is the same one that's facing everyone else in the book biz: the digital transition. While digitizing poetry collections wasn't anyone's first priority, the time has come, and, in one way or another, most of the important poetry presses—Graywolf, Copper Canyon, BOA, Coffee House, Wesleyan—will make at least some of their books available as e-books by the fall.
Those Pesky Line Breaks
But poetry publishers do have one issue that most publishers don't in terms of e-books: those pesky line breaks, the things that happen to make poems what they are. It turns out it's pretty hard to preserve line breaks in EPub and other e-book file formats: one of the ways reflowable text adapts to readers' preferences in terms of font size and reading device is to wrap lines on the screen differently depending on those preferences. So, on one reader's Kindle, the first two lines of "The Road Not Taken" might appear correctly ("Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/ And sorry I could not travel both"), whereas on the same reader's Kindle smartphone app, in a larger font, it could, for instance, look like this:
Two roads diverged
in a yellow wood
And sorry I could
not travel both
That's just an example, and it may not seem to matter much—it's the same words, right?—but poetry is about not just content but form. The packet of thought that is "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood" is different from the one that is just "Two roads diverged."
Michael Wiegers, executive editor of Copper Canyon Press, publishers of current poet laureate W.S. Merwin as well as recent NBCC winner C.D. Wright, has a rather poetic way of phrasing this issue: "How can we maintain the intentionality of the poet on devices which by design strip out that intentionality? One of the analogies that I use is that with a lot of the devices, it's like they're taking sheet music and they're getting rid of the staff; they're giving us all the notes but we're not getting the rhythm or how the notes should fall on the staff," he says.
A few months ago, we covered this issue in a series of debated posts on the PWxyz blog and in a follow-up print article. Basically, while it's possible to code EPub so that the lines wrap correctly, doing so requires hand-coding and some work-arounds, and even then it seems like it doesn't always work. So publishers can't just send their poetry collections to mass-conversion houses and hope for the best. A few have tried, and the results are disastrous (take, for example, HarperCollins's e-book edition of the Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg, which makes "Howl" look like a formless blob of text on a screen; it's unreadable).
Aside from economic concerns, the issue of how to preserve line breaks has caused a lot of poetry publishers to hold out on digitizing their books. As Wiegers says, "Poetry is not prose; it requires a different treatment." At last, a couple of solutions are on the horizon, paving the way for a digital rush of poetry.
Is Ampersand the Answer?
One of those solutions, and the biggest development so far on the digital poetry front, is Ampersand, a smartphone and iPad app in the works from Bookmobile, the Minneapolis–based printer and distributor that provides services for many indie presses. Set to launch this coming summer, Ampersand is both a platform and a storefront for iOS devices.
Ampersand had its formal unveiling at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in February, but a few publishers, such as Coffee House and the book review Rain Taxi, had been part of a pilot program in the months before. To create Ampersand e-books, Bookmobile takes the PDFs publishers prepare for the printer, wraps them in DRM, and makes them available for sale. This has the obvious—and huge—advantage of preserving not just poets' line breaks but also publishers' book design work. On an iPad's large screen, Ampersand books look just like their print counterparts.
The obvious disadvantage, though, is that these are PDFs, not EPub e-books, meaning all of those coding problems still aren't solved, the text isn't reflowable, and you need a smartphone or tablet to read Ampersand books. Nonetheless, publishers are thrilled.
Katie Dublinski, associate publisher at Graywolf and the person spearheading the press's e-book program, says, "I'm really excited about it. It seems like the best solution so far. I love that it preserves all the things that we worked really hard to make. It preserves the page, which is important to most of our poets." She's especially happy the platform is coming out of Bookmobile: "They do all of our production work, so it's exciting to work with people we know really well." Graywolf also just got the okay from its usual distributor, Macmmillan, to work with Bookmobile on e-books, so the press is especially galvanized.
Chris Fischbach, associate publisher at Coffee House, says, "We're on board. I told them we'd do 50 books right away." Fischbach also said that not only are his poets excited about the app, they are especially interested in its potential for bringing a multimedia experience to poetry readers.
Peter Conners, publisher of BOA Editions, another poetry-focused indie, which has been releasing select titles for over a year as Kindle books and on other platforms through Constellation, is interested in Ampersand as another option for getting poetry e-books to consumers. "Ampersand [is] certainly a good development," he says. "We all have the same bottom line with poetry e-books: taking care of those line breaks. The Ampersand thing seems to be the best development so far. We're gonna keep pushing forward and releasing our titles as e-books and we'll go with the best tech available to do it."
At the heart of Ampersand is Don Leeper, Bookmobile's president. He's a strong advocate for what publishing in PDF format can do for poetry, and what EPub can't. "There's this odd stigma about PDFs," he says. "There's been the drumbeat from the EPub folks, who I totally respect—they've done yeoman work. So where do we go with EPub? We end up with Apple coming out with a fixed layout EPub. That's equal to or in some ways inferior to a PDF. It's still a bifurcated publication process. You don't have the same typographic control as you'd have with a PDF." He also notes that, in many cases, publishers allow errors in EPub files that they'd never allow in print. "In the PDF," he says, "all the quality control checks that have gone into the print books have gone into the PDFs."
So far, Leeper has unveiled an early version of the app to drum up publisher interest, and now everyone is eagerly awaiting his business terms: he hopes to have terms to offer publishers at the end of March or in early April. Without a doubt, lots of publishers will sign on.
Looking Beyond PDFs
While many publishers are excited about Ampersand, nobody thinks it's the final frontier of digital poetry publishing. Many are still focused on better adapting EPub to poetry and to seeing what other possibilities might lay ahead. In fact, Copper Canyon recently got a $100,000 grant from the Allen Foundation specifically to work on the problem of how to digitize poetry.
According to Wiegers, the purpose of the Allen grant is for Copper Canyon "to take what we hope is a leadership position in figuring some of this out. Our plan is not just to push our poetry into current modes of e-books but to make those modes better. We're already talking with the various players, be they Ampersand or Amazon and Perseus's Constellation trying to figure out what's going to be the most sensitive to the requirements of poetry and what's also going to reach an audience," he says. It's an ambitious plan, but it's also what poetry needs, given that the economic motive for innovation isn't there. "Being a nonprofit, we have this opportunity to look beyond the bottom line and toward the larger social and cultural good. Whatever we develop out of this, we're hoping it will be open source—we'll share it with the field," Wiegers says.
Wiegers's plans include talks with poets as well as with the major digital players. He wonders whether poets might be able to write new kinds of poems designed for digital consumption: "I would like our poets to help us figure out how poetry enters into the digital age, the malleable screen."
The grant covers a three-year period. By the end of the first year, Wiegers plans to have 50 titles digitized, including frontlist. By the end of year three, the goal is 250. Wiegers even hopes to launch a digital only or digital-first imprint "so we may be able to publish more poetry titles, books that will come out as e-books only or e-books and print to order, so we don't have to carry a lot of inventory, but can bring our marketing energy to bear."
Google and Other Challenges
No doubt Copper Canyon's efforts, as well as others', will make the next few years big ones for poetry e-books. Still, publishers face other issues concerning entities such as Google, which, whether publishers and authors like it or not, has probably scanned everyone's books already. Wesleyan University Press, for instance, which has one of the most storied American poetry lists, is working through a number of problems and just putting its first e-books—most notably last year's Pulitzer winner Rae Armantrout—into distribution channels. Wesleyan's editor Suzanna Tamminen jokingly says about Ampersand, "Oh apps! How we long for them. We've had our hands full with plain old e-books, just making sure rights are properly cleared, getting contracts in order, claiming titles in the Google settlement (vastly time-consuming), and getting the regular e-book channels to work for us, which is still very much a work in progress."
Contracts will be a major issue for poetry publishers, just as they are for trade houses. Then, of course, technology is always changing, so what may seem like a solution today may be irrelevant in a year or two, when new devices take hold of readers' imaginations. Far more than two roads are diverging here, and poetry publishers will have to travel them all.