The Internet has made self publishing a whole lot easier. In many respects that’s a good thing. Were it not for the ease of use of capable technology, financial accessibility of the platform, and the internal drive to pursue it, I would not be able to write and publish this blog. All poetry bloggers owe a debt to Ron Silliman and a few others who pioneered this trail for us (Silliman is the most successful of the pioneers).
Unfortunately, most of what is published online in the way of poetry, just as in print, is poetry rather than commentary on poetics, or essays. That is one of the reasons why I spend so much time on World Class Poetry Blog discussing poetics. There just isn’t enough of it and that’s a problem.
What there is plenty of instead is the publishing of poetry. It might seem strange for a poet, and someone who enjoys reading poetry, to say that free and accessible poetry is a problem. But it is. The reason I say that is because much of what is published online, just as in print, is rubbish and ought not to be read at all.
Why Single Out Online Publishing?
The first and obvious question I know I’ll get from readers about making this statement is, “If most poetry published in print and online is bad poetry then why single out online poetry as a problem?” That’s a good question and one well worth asking.
The reason I single out online publishing is because there are fewer barriers to entry for the self publisher (and the bulk of the problem is with self publishing).
Print publishing always bears an expense. Even a small chapbook costs the self publisher something. Online, however, self publishers can open up an account at Blogger or WordPress – and many have – which is free, and publish their full portfolio of poetic works for the world to see. No expense. No barrier to entry. The learning curve for using Blogger and WordPress is nil. A basic ability to read and comprehend a keyboard is all that is necessary.
So there are really two basic barriers to entry for self publishers that make it easier to publish online than in print:
Then there are two more barriers to entry that I would call indirect barriers to entry to publication in the broader sense:
- Market Demand
- Built-In Gatekeepers
Poetry is deemed a low-value item by most people in our culture. For a print publisher, even an independent press or self publisher, that is itself an indirect barrier to entry. In many respects, this is a larger barrier to entry for independent presses because there are always more expenses than the mere cost of printing (marketing, delivery, payroll, etc). But the publisher must always recoup expenses in order to continue publishing, and for the self publisher with no name recognition or reputable publishing house behind him, that can be an issue.
Which brings me to my next point. In order to get published by a reputable publisher, a poet must go through at least one gatekeeper. If one seeks publication through a journal, there is an editor (and even small journals have at least one). At larger publications there may be an additional gatekeeper who is a reader and whose job it is to read through a slush pile and recommend the best picks to the editor or publisher, who then selects from the best of those. Other publications use a “checks and balances” system that require multiple decision makers, co-editors usually, to give their input. Even book publishers have a system that requires one or more people to read manuscripts and approve them, so for a poet that has no name recognition and few publication credits this is another barrier to entry to the world of publication itself.
To get over the hurdles of these barriers to entry, many poets have succumbed to the temptation of online self publishing and that’s the reason for this discussion.
Why Online Self Publishing Is A Form Of Vanity
Vanity publishing has traditionally involved an independent publishing house providing a service for authors who pay to be published. In essence, the author pays for the manufacturing costs of getting published then they are faced with the ardent task of recouping their investment through marketing and sales of their product. Most do not recoup their investment. But they feel good about being published and have bragging rights.
Some vanity publishers exist in the form of a contest where the poet sends in a submission along with an entry fee. This is a more subtle form of vanity because it acts under the veneer of respectability. If the poet “wins” the contest, she is “honored” with publication. Most of these vanity schemes, however, publish all contest entrants so there isn’t really much of an honor other than the warm, fuzzy feeling the poet gets in the pit of his stomach for being suckered.
Thanks to Blogger and WordPress, a poet can get that warm and fuzzy without an entry fee or paying for publication costs. The poet may not have any more readers than before, but she gets all of the same benefits, including bragging rights, with none of the expenses or drawbacks to other forms of vanity.
One can refer to online self publishing as “independent publishing” or anything else for that matter, but I consider it vanity publishing because, with a few exceptions, most poets publishing themselves online would probably not be able to get into print through traditional means of publication. Unless they paid the entry fee or the manufacturing costs, many of those poets would simply send in poem after poem after poem and get nothing back but rejection letters, if that. That hardly classifies someone as a member of the esteemed literati.
Now I’m not saying that self publishing is itself a vain pursuit. Many fine poets and writers were self publishers – Dickens, Whitman, Poe, and I could spend days going through the list – but there is something about the nature of vanity publishing in general that tends to take away from the value of and credibility of being a published author or poet. But what is that exactly?
How Vanity Destroys Value
Vanity destroys value in a number of ways. First, by masquerading as something of value it pretends to be the thing that it imitates. That’s always destructive. Just ask any Christian who considers the arch-nemesis of Jesus, Satan, to be a faux “angel of light”.
Secondly, vanity destroys because it really doesn’t bother with the task of self improvement. This is a bigger issue because art always retains its value by being something that is in possession of admirable qualities. Those qualities vary from work to work, but in general they consist of
- Uniqueness – Any work of art, be it poetry, photography, sculpture, dance, et. al. must bear a mark of individual originality. People who see value in any art form see an intrinsic value in the uniqueness of the work itself. No one wants to see a copy of something else. Everyone values originality.
- Connectivity – A work must also connect to some audience. It may not connect with the entire human race. It may hold some value only for a particular subset of humans based on race, religion, nationality, gender, or some other identification class. But a work of value must connect with some audience.
- Experiential Compensation – Finally, a work of art must provide an experience that acts as a form of reward for the audience. This is the subjective element of art. One person’s experience may be entirely different than another person’s experience, but the value in literature comes from this experience. Whether it makes one laugh, instills fear, or creates catharsis in some other way, a positive or negative reaction can be valuable enough in and of itself to prove a work of art as something worthy to be recognized.
So when we apply these three general values to poetry we can easily see the problem with vanity publishing. These three values may exist in great abundance but generally speaking exist only for the author, or primarily for the author and self publisher, but generally not for anyone else. The vanity publication is valuable to the publisher because the publisher believes that these three values exist and that others will recognize them; unfortunately, that rarely happens.
Fixing The Problem Of Vanity
There is only one way that I’m aware of to fix the problem of vanity. The vain must achieve an element of self awareness as it applies to that vanity. Calling oneself an independent publisher when no one else sees you that way does not make you an independent publisher any more than a man walking into a room and announcing himself a bag of raw fish makes him a bag of raw fish. A thing is what it is, not what it claims to be.
The value in a publication comes from what the reader, or the audience, of that publication walks away with. That may never be spoken or shared. But it’s there nonetheless.
Vanity self publishers should seek publication through other means prior to publishing their own works. Validation of one’s ability as a poet is important, not for the sake of ego but for the sake of value in poetry in general. When one poet improves his craft, the entire pantheon of poetic expression improves along with it. The tide rises all ships. This is the mystery of the value of literature. One man’s improved essence is the improved essence of all men.
The problem with vanity is that it seeks value in itself for itself. But poetic expression was not meant for that kind of valueless value. Poetic expression was meant to provide value by connecting with others through a unique mode of expression for the purpose of delivering a personal experience to the reader by way of the writer. When that happens, vanity vanishes and the poet’s audience will grow.
Poets who wish to be recognized as poets should first learn the many tools that poets use in the craft. They should practice them. They should then, after crafting a poem in which they have some pride, share it with others who are in a position to reject them. That does not mean your cat or the mailman. Although you may include the mailman by asking him to deliver your poem to a journal editor. You should put yourself in a position that promises you gain or delivers you pain. Publishing your own poetry on a blog may provide that if you are willing to accept honest feedback and accept when you get it. But the real essence of this type of gamble is in asking a gatekeeper to review your work and provide feedback or to submit it for publication and risk rejection. Then, when rejected, immediately look for ways to improve and go through the process again.