The same problem persists—e-books and poetry just don’t get along as well as e-books and prose. It’s those line breaks, poetry’s defining feature. The problem is a simple sounding one, but really tough to solve. Because the same e-book has to work on many different screens and devices on which readers can change the font and size of the text, it’s impossible to guarantee the line will display as the poet intended.

Of course, poetry publishers have the same problem with print books—sometimes poets’ lines are wider than a book’s trim size (take Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg), but there’s a convention to solve this: when a poetic line continues over the edge of a printed page, it’s indented on the next line. It’s been surprisingly hard to reliably recreate this indenting in an e-book, to make sure poems keep the integrity of their lines when they appear on screen.

An Ambitious Plan

Last year we told you about one possible solution: Bookmobile’s Ampersand poetry app and store front, a project that seems, sadly, to have been shelved in the wake of Apple’s changing in-app purchase rules, though Bookmobile's Don Leeper told PW that the development work on Ampersand has been used to create custom book apps and e-book storefronts for publishers. This year, Copper Canyon Press, one of the biggest exclusive poetry publishers, received a $100,000 grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation specifically for the purpose of launching an e-book line and working on some of the difficulties of getting poetry on screen. Copper Canyon has been working with its distributor, Consortium (as well as the rest of Perseus), to create a better poetry e-book.

Copper Canyon’s executive editor, Michael Wiegers, says getting poetry e-books right “becomes a philosophical issue. I would say the best design is hidden. Reflowable text is stripping out the idea of design and the graphic designer’s attention to the page, and in many ways [a poet is] something of a graphic designer, looking to fill the space of the page with words in different forms.”

To realize this vision, Copper Canyon must go beyond mass text conversion programs. The press is bringing a new level of attention to the process, working on poetry e-book templates, helping Consortium’s techs to use them, and doing quality control and proofreading on the converted e-books before releasing them. To oversee all of this, Copper Canyon has hired Amelia Robertson, who had previously worked as the press’s editorial assistant and development assistant, to work as half-time e-book coordinator.

Working with Limitations

While the press is pushing toward a day when there will be a perfect digital home for poetry—“part of the long-term solution will have to be iBooks and Amazon building some more capability into their devices,” says Robertson—some of the work being done now acknowledges the limitation of e-books’ capabilities.

Each Copper Canyon e-book will have a disclaimer at the beginning showing the length of the longest line in the book and encouraging readers to adjust their devices so that line fits on the screen. Then, says Robertson, “all the front matter is collapsed into as small a space as possible, and then things only relevant to print books are taken out.” The front matter is also pushed to the back of the file. With these and a few other adjustments made, a special file is delivered to Consortium for packaging as an e-book. Once the conversion is done, the finished product is sent back to Copper Canyon for proofing, a step few other presses are taking with e-books.

A Problem Mostly Solved

Copper Canyon started with its backlist, 40 years of classic poetry books. Wiegers says, “Through those conversions we’re establishing style sheets and templates and asking, what are the things that we want in a Copper Canyon book that are going to suggest intentionality on the part of book design, e-book design, and on the part of the poets. We’re starting off with the flush left books. Those have been the easiest templates to create. Then we’ll do the moderate difficulty, then on to C.D. Wright,” a poet known to be more adventurous with how she arranges her poems on the page.

The first batch of Copper Canyon e-books is set to launch in early spring, and all the work is paying off: so far, says Robertson, books with “lines that are flush left will reflow with a soft indent.” But, Robertson continued, “the barrier we’re up against is that the lines that are already indented, when they reflow, the devices prevent us from creating an additional soft indent. That’s our hurdle right now.”

Among the 15 launch titles will be backlist books by well-known authors including Jim Harrison, Ted Kooser, and Lucille Clifton, as well as newer books such as Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke, which just won the NBCC Award. “Our goal,” says Wiegers, “is by the end of this year we’ll have 175 of our books in conversion as e-books. By the end of next year, we’ll have the entirety of our backlist, plus we’re working on e-books simultaneously with print editions.”

Other Presses

Other poetry publishers are wading more cautiously into digital waters, watching Copper Canyon closely to see how they might follow. Jeff Shotts of Graywolf says, “I’m eager to hear what Copper Canyon is saying about any progress they are having in exploring e-book options for poetry. Graywolf is still waiting. For now, we continue to make our fiction and nonfiction prose books available on e-book.”

Similarly, Caroline Casey of Sarabande says, “We’re doing it upon request, but otherwise waiting for Copper Canyon to unveil its findings. We don’t want to convert, mess up the line, and then have to reconvert again.”

Copper Canyon does intend to share its successes. “Consortium has been a great advocate and partner,” says Wiegers. “We keep advocating for poetry, pushing [Consortium] forward into thinking how they’re going to solve these problems so that they can provide the same to their other poetry publishers. We see what we’re doing as advocating for the entire field.”

Copper Canyon has lots of other exciting digital plans. Starting in 2013, Copper Canyon will also launch an e-book–only imprint featuring books that are best suited to digital form. “We look forward to working with our poets to create poems for that malleable page,” says Wiegers.

Update: This article was updated to include comments from Bookmobile.