Alison Croggon writes in many genres, including criticism, theatre and prose. Her poetry has been published widely in anthologies and magazines in Australia and overseas. and is founding editor of the literary arts journal Masthead, which is heading past a hit rate of 450,000 for its most recent issue.
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: The main impact of POD and other technological innovations is to change the means of accessibility. It means that poetry publishers no longer rely on bookshops to publicise and circulate their products. This has happened in part because bookshops have changed radically in the past decade, and have become vastly more corporatised entities. This has major impacts on all independent publishers, and for those who publish poetry in the English-speaking world it has turned into a mini-crisis. I still remember my shock when I first encountered a shop with no poetry section, and the chain stores barely stock contemporary poetry at all. I am not sure what the situation is elsewhere, but it may be a little different - I remember being amazed by seeing a big display of poetry chapbooks by small publishers in the big FNAC (equivalent of Borders) in Paris - impossible to imagine in Borders.
Poetry has been more and more marginalised by distributors and in the mass media. The Internet and alternative means of distribution have sprung up as a way of dealing with that. However, there has always been a cottage-industry feel about poetry publishing, so I don't know how much, in the end, it substantially changes anything. It makes it more economically viable for publishers to contemplate publishing a book that will sell two copies a year, I guess.
One downside is that the copyright questions are yet to be worked out, and that concerns me deeply. I am presently in dispute with an early publisher of mine, who contracted me under a print agreement before this technology was available, and now claims that POD is the same as being in print. I think this is bollocks, and creepy. The effect is that this publisher claims to own my poetry for life. I suspect poets are so happy to be published at all that they don't think about it that much, but it's deeply concerning. The other problem is that in a country like Australia, where subsidies are available for poetry publishing, a lazy publisher can make a fairly comfortable income publishing poetry without having any need to actually make it visible or actually sell it.
Q: Why does poetry continue to create schools and movements who feud?
A: Poets disagree, like all artists. There is nothing wrong with that. There does seem to be an extra edge of bitterness and folly in a lot of poetic disputes, though. I think it's because poets feel unappreciated and unloved and marginalised. Also, poetry can be a very small and sometimes suffocating world.
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 any more?
A: Yes, if you think that poetry publishing should be resourced as well as any other kind of publishing, and unless you think the poetry competition model they have in the US is a desirable one. Subsidised publication isn't a perfect way of going about things - I touched on one problem above - but even with all its flaws, I think it's a good idea: it permits a diversity of titles that are not predicated on wholly commercial assumptions and it's vastly better than preying on the hopes of the unpublished.
Vanity publishing has always existed, and I don't think the relative ease of it with new technologies makes an awful lot of difference.
Q: If poetry presses are concerned with cultivating a wider readership, could this not be done more effectively via the Internet (where there are thousands of potential readers) rather than worrying about sales of printed poetry?
A: I began Masthead as a print magazine. With a lot of bother, I could distribute, in Melbourne and by post, about 300 copies, but it was very difficult for me that most of its interested readers were outside Australia. It managed to break even, just about. After four issues, and having thought long on the question of whether to go subsidised (as was suggested by funding people here) I made it a wholly online, annual zine. No money is involved at all, and it's generated by my labour and the generosity of contributors. The last issue had around 75,000 visitors, more than half a million hits, over the past year. They come, of course, from all over the world. The difference is obvious. Of course web stats are arguable - but nobody knows either how much is read of any book or magazine. But it seems to me that somebody is reading it, and certainly many more than the 300 I could manage by traditional means. I think the Internet works very well for periodicals and magazines, though I doubt it will replace them altogether.
I am not nearly so convinced that it is such a good idea for books. Most people like the sensual, material aspects of reading a book, and are loathe to give it up. Most serious poetry publishers take those aspects as part of the aesthetic experience of reading the poems. So far, it's hard for technology to reproduce the conveniences and pleasures of the technology of the printed book.
copyright © Alison Croggon