Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sometime in the next 24 hours this blog will welcome its 3 millionth visitor.

Each time it reaches another half million visits, I’ve used the occasion to say thank you. Writing the blog has taught me many things, some of which I anticipated, but more which I did not. I was right in my presumption that blogging – and the other forms of social networking that have risen in the eight years since I started down this path – offered poets a means of communicating with one another without the funneling process of the academy. But I had no clue just how much the scale of poetry – the absolute number of practicing poets – had changed since, say, the 1970s. Or how much that in itself was transforming poetry. The fundamental fissures between literary traditions – and the deeper social values they embody – have not gone away, but these have been overwhelmed by the onslaught of new ideas, new aesthetics, new combinations that people are coming up with daily.

This will change what it means to be a poet in every way imaginable. In my book The New Sentence, I contrast the situation of the 1980s with that of the years immediately following World War 2. In the late 1940s, the total number of titles published in the US in any given year was around 8,000. By all authors on all topics. By the early 1980s, that number had exploded to somewhat over 200,000. Today, however, that number stands at one million titles per year. And there are numerous studies showing that we are all reading less. The total US population has doubled since the end of the Second World War. Put another way, in the 1940s there were more than 9,300 adults for each title published. Today there are 150.

Our relationship to audiences, the expectations of readers, the definition of a career, indeed even of a book, these are all up for grabs. So are concepts like bookstore, publisher & copyright. The distribution system is in chaos. Barnes & Noble and Borders seem unlikely to survive long enough to celebrate their monopolization of the brick-&-mortar retail space as they in turn are driven from business by the rise of the internet. Even the great warehouse logistics at the heart of Amazon are themselves threatened by the rise of the e-book. Amazon’s offer to pay authors 70% of e-book royalties is, we should note, a deeply defensive gesture. What they are trying to prevent is watching the authors collect 100%.

But 100% of what exactly? That is the question. Followed quickly by how.

The advent of e-books is not simply an add-on to an already existing phenomenon. E-publishing changes, or will eventually, the entire dynamics of the enterprise of reading & writing. Not the least is the fact that having designed the first copy, all others are “free” without limit to an e-publisher. There are no warehousing costs beyond that of a modest server, no good reason any book should ever go “out of print.” The real questions then will shift to retail pricing and the cost of aggregating readers. When one considers the cost of making a motion picture, and of promoting a motion picture – these can be astronomical, with a film like Avatar costing as much to market as it did to make – the fact that a “standard” e-book still costs around $9.99 while Netflix will give you a month’s access to thousands of films for a dollar less suggests that we are approaching yet another crossroads. The reality is that Amazon is expensive, slow & cumbersome. Shades of Gotham Book Mart!

This will have one set of meanings for the likes of Jonathan Franzen & publishers like FSG, quite another for most poets, & for small press publishers.

The real task facing poets, beyond the blank page or screen we confront every day, will be in defining how best to set up the networks so that our writing is able to reach the people who will be most apt to find it useful, challenging, even thrilling. This would be an excellent moment for poets not to be like so many tic birds atop the rough dry skin of the industrial publishing rhino. Poetry has been ill-served by 99.9% of all brick-&-mortar bookshops, and virtually all trade publishers. With a handful of exceptions, its treatment within the academic publishing universe has not been much better.

The explosion of the scale & scope of English language poetry over the past half century does not mean, however, that its new “vast” scale enables poetry to simply set sail adrift from the remainder of the book community. But it would be good to look with a fresh eye at where poetry might be similar to the rest of the publishing universe as well as to where it might be different, with an eye to taking advantage of those differences as they emerge.

In the meantime, thank you for coming by, for reading, and for your support.


One other thing.

When I turned off the comments stream in July, I was told by a number of people – both pro and con the idea of my shutting it down – that doing so would have a serious impact on my overall readership. I was content to live with that result, if need be. But in numerical terms at least, it is now safe to say that shutting down the comments steam has had no impact whatsoever. Those persons who visited the blog several times each day to catch up on the stream wars have been entirely replaced by readers who presumably are more apt to read this blog if they don’t have to step over the open sewer of the comments in order to do so.

Still, people I respect have asked on several occasions for me to open up the stream again long enough for the authors of various comments to copy down their writing. Starting this weekend, I will do so for the remainder of the month. No new comments will be approved. After Halloween, the stream will again be closed and will remain closed.