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Breaking the Poetry Code

The future of poetry e-books, and why it's not what you think.
Poetry e-reader

Long before the advent of e-publishing, poet Reb Livingston was a believer in the do-it-yourself ethos. As editor and publisher of No Tell Books, a micro-press devoted to poetry, she churns out up to five books a year through her one-woman operation. Livingston wants her titles to remain just as accessible in today’s shifting book culture as those produced by publishing powerhouses. So when the e-book frenzy hit, Livingston embraced the change. She didn’t have a fancy Web team or a contract with an electronic distributor, but she did have Internet access, a coupon from an online publishing platform called Lulu, and enough pluck to give it a shot.

Livingston published her first e-book, an anthology of No Tell poets titled The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel—Second Floor, earlier this year. It will be the first and last e-book she publishes through Lulu. 

“I was very disappointed,” said Livingston. In short, she said, the e-book was a mess. The poems on the e-reader screen didn’t match up with their print counterparts, there were mistakes in lineation that changed the flow of entire poems, and the attempt to replicate the curly, intricate font on the cover of the print book resulted in an e-book cover that was blurry and hard to decipher.

This, it turns out, is not an uncommon response to the shotgun marriage between ePub and poetry. 

“Most e-readers use the ePub format, which generally strips text of most of its design and formatting,” explained Rachel Berchten, poetry and poetics editor at the University of California Press, in an e-mail. “For poems that are visual in nature, this is problematic.”

What went wrong? If prose can be transformed into a clean, flawless e-book, then why is converting poetry so thorny?

As Berchten points out, in order to turn a print poetry book into an e-book, the text must be converted into ePub format, which is accessible by most e-readers, including the Nook by Barnes & Noble, the Sony Reader, the iPad, and various e-book applications for smart phones. (Amazon’s Kindle is an exception because it uses a proprietary file format.) At its most basic, converting to ePub means adding markup language around the text, and using a customized style sheet so the device can display the marked up text. In publishing-world shorthand, this is often called “coding.” Yet as with most of the ePub problems, the term and what it’s trying to describe don’t quite match up.

All the aspects of the poem—including irregular line breaks, indentations, and spaces (essentially, all the nuances that make a poem a poem)—must be described in a language the e-reader understands. So the markup language describes what the text is—the title, the epigraph, the text body of the poem, and so on—and the cascading style sheet (otherwise known as the CSS) tells the e-reader how to display what the markup language describes. The problem for ePub, the Kindle, and poetry is that the markup language doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe the minutiae of poetry. Take, for example, the following lines from Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish”:

No more to say, and nothing to weep for but the Beings in the
   Dream, trapped in its disappearance,

sighing, screaming with it, buying and selling pieces of
   phantom, worshipping each other,

worshipping the God included in it all—longing or inevitability?
   —while it lasts, a Vision—anything more?

Depending on your approach, there are different ways of marking up this text. Here’s one example of what the same lines look like surrounded by markup language and preceded by an associated style sheet:

There’s a lot of room for error here because the markup language lacks a precise vocabulary for the building blocks of poetry. The language doesn’t have specific descriptors (or “tags”) for elements of poetry such as line or stanza, so you have to use prose elements as best you can to make sure the device displays the text properly. In markup terms, these makeshift tags with less than accurate descriptors are called “hacks,” and they function the way terms such as “horseless carriage” and “motion picture” once did. Hacks are imprecise labels that can’t fully capture what they’re trying to describe. Thus, instead of some element that could define a poetic aspect of text unique to poetry—say, a line that extends beyond the length of the page, as in “Kaddish”—you have to use the inelegant

In other words, you have to use the language of prose to define poetry.   

Ideally, some future markup language will contain a poetry vocabulary, but until then each line must be hacked—preferably by someone who understands the importance of the visual elements to the meaning of poetry. For small distributors such as Lulu, this handiwork isn’t part of the bargain. Large publishing houses may not take the time—or perhaps have the incentive or know-how—to meticulously tailor each line of poetry when converting e-books for the masses. Expediency, not poetic accuracy, is the priority.

For Livingston, the solution is simple: do it herself. She has vowed to learn how to convert the next No Tell e-book on her own. Print publishing already requires specialized technical skills, and as times change, so do the tricks of the trade. If publishers of the past needed to know how to operate a letterpress, then those of the future just might need to know how to code their style sheets.

“This is new, and there’s a lot of stuff I have to learn and it can be daunting,” she said. “But if you want your books to be in distribution and used in schools and available to a wide audience, then publishers are going to have to make this move.”

Countless websites and YouTube tutorials offer instruction on converting text into ePub format, yet that doesn’t mean the process is simple. Livingston recognizes that the poems she converts might not be perfect, but she thinks they’ll be better than Lulu’s.

“I want to start with books that are going to be easiest—prose poems or ones with short lines,” she said. “I’m not going to require that the book be exactly perfect, but it has to be mostly right.” 

Livingston is not alone in her frustration. Electronically published poems nearly hardly ever correlate with their print counterparts, and there’s resounding agreement among poets and publishers that poetry for e-readers leaves much to be desired.

The major issues with with poetry in the ePub format—botched line breaks and altered indentations—result not just from messy work-arounds but also from the flexibility of e-readers. Because e-reader users can regulate font and point size, line breaks and indentations—described simply as paragraph breaks in the prosey markup language available—can move drastically when a user zooms in or decides to change the font from Times New Roman to Comic Sans. Altering font style and size disrupts the display because it changes the text flow, and without a “tag” to describe a poetic line as a line, the e-reader treats it just like any old paragraph. “We real cool. We / left school. We.” can easily become “We real / cool. We left / school.” Which, as Gwendolyn Brooks herself would tell you, is just not the same thing. On the plus side, the e-reader’s adjustable text allows the elderly and visually challenged to read books previously inaccessible to them. It’s likely the feature won’t change for the benefit of a few persnickety poets. EPub poems are, for now, anywhere from slightly botched to totally butchered versions of their print selves.

For those not versed in poetry, a misplaced word here or an incorrect indentation there might sound inconsequential. Certainly, technology will catch up—or so goes the argument—so why not accept that e-publications are in the the fetal stages of a long evolution. Yet for many poets, a severed line is no less egregious an error than blowing the entire poem to smithereens. A poem is diminished if its digital presentation doesn’t mirror the text on the page. The poem’s integrity and the poet’s intent are diluted, and who wants mangled poetry?

So what’s a poetry publisher to do? Wait until e-readers render flawless verse? Or is a slightly imperfect poem still worth the e-read? BOA Editions publisher Peter Conners seems to think it is.

“It’s hard to deal with from the publishing side; it’s hard for poets, no doubt,” he said. “At the same time, now we have our whole last season available, and every poet has been excited about it.”

Although BOA was one of the first small presses to make its foray into the world of ePub, Conners emphasized that BOA waded in slowly with prose e-books before leaping into poetry.

“I think a lot of people in independent publishing have the same hesitation that we’ve had,” said Conners. “We all love books, we love the paper, we love the process, we fetishize books. I would give BOA credit for having those feelings and jumping in anyway.”

Craig Morgan Teicher, senior web editor of Publishers Weekly, whose latest collection of prose was published by BOA both in print and electronically, notes that the e-book version isn't a perfect reproduction of the print—the iBooks edition, for instance, doesn't have page breaks between stories. Still, he has no regrets about e-booking it: “I think that I ultimately agree with the decision to jump in,” said Teicher. “I think it’s important to get the content out there.”

Teicher noted that in the future, it might even be “dangerous” not to have books digitally archived, considering the rapid rise of e-books and the forthcoming explosion of Google Editions. Poised to launch before the end of the year, Google Editions will be a digital books platform that will function as an e-bookstore. With digitally accessible books becoming the norm, the expectation that all text will soon be just a Google search away is changing ideas of relevance and importance. From January to August of this year, e-books comprised 9 percent of all trade book sales and earned $263 million, according to the Association of American Publishers. Compared to $89.8 million in earnings from the same period last year, that’s a 193 percent increase. For Conners, the surge in e-book popularity is part of why imperfect digital content is better than no content at all.

 “Part of our mission is to spread poetry however we can,” he said. “I think there’s a certain amount of arrogance that goes into not e-publishing. At a certain point you have to say, this is how people are going to be reading more and more . . . we’re not handwriting our manuscripts on papyrus anymore for a reason.”

It’s a convincing argument, but e-books are a hard sell to publishers of poetry, who align themselves more closely with the tactile papyrus than the Etch-A-Sketchy e-reader.  

“[Poets aren’t] chomping at the bit to get their books on e-books,” said Joseph Bednarik, the marketing and sales director at Copper Canyon Press. “The fact is that poetry sales of e-books are limited, and likely will continue to be limited.”

Copper Canyon, a small press that prides itself on its book design and elegance in print, has yet to publish an e-book of poetry. “Copper Canyon is all about the poem on the page, the poem in the book,” said Bednarik. “As a publisher, we’re excited by the possibility that e-books afford, but we need to be careful about the way poems and e-books are presented.”

Bednarik insisted that Copper Canyon creates books, not Web pages, and will remain cautious about converting poetry collections into e-books until the reading experience on the screen parallels that on the page. Yet with prose e-books in the works and a desire to be a leader in e-book publishing, Bednarik understands that functionality might soon trump an elegant display: “Our mission is to get poetry out in the world. Our mission isn’t to have fidelity to one form of distribution.”

At Coffee House Press, associate publisher Chris Fischbach is still waiting to see poetry e-books reach their potential before taking action. The independent publishing house will soon publish a selection of prose e-books, but for now there’s no poetry on the e-book docket. “I’m waiting to see how artists adjust to this, whether they do start composing for various websites or devices. For other people, it could be that it re-emphasizes the book and the page,” said Fischbach. “Poets are essentially light-years ahead of other writers because they’ve always been aware of the page. They’re aware of how what they’re writing on and what they’re writing with affects what they are writing.” Poets are constantly reinventing what it means to be a poet, and Fischbach is waiting to see precisely how e-books will further their evolution.

For other small presses, the e-book question is one of not why but how. “It [e-publishing] doesn’t hold a special place, nor are we loath to move into it,” said Suzanna Tamminen, editor-in-chief of Wesleyan University Press, in an e-mail. “We’re so small that e-books are mainly a problem to be solved right now—how to get our books converted, how to make sure rights are cleared when necessary, who to partner with and how to manage the whole new workflow that the move to e-books entails. It’s a huge undertaking and it is taking up a great deal of our time right now. But we’re happy to be able to make our books available in another medium.”

Even if poetry publishers are fastidious about e-book presentation, they aren’t always in control of the conversion process. Many small publishing houses lack the resources to handle the conversion independently and rely on a sort of middleman—a distributor—to do the markup work for them. Some, like Livingston, use online distributors such as Lulu for à la carte conversions, whereas larger small presses need to contract out the work en masse.

Consortium, one of the largest distributors of independent press publishing, launched a “digital distribution system” called Constellation in 2008. Constellation affords more e-publishing opportunities to the small presses it represents by converting e-books for both Kindle and ePub formats.

Michael Cashin, Consortium’s vice president of publisher services, assured me that the company has a particular affinity for poetry and wants to resolve display issues just as much as publishers and poets do. “The whole digital world right now is obviously changing because of the technology involved, and it’s changing with a velocity that we’ve perhaps not seen before,” he said. “I think in the early stage of the e-book revolution—or evolution—it’s moving so fast that on occasion we’ve seen books or products go to market in less than the best presentation.”

Consortium, which distributes for BOA Editions, Copper Canyon Press, and Coffee House, among others, needs publishers willing to experiment in order to improve their product. “I can appreciate that BOA has put something out there, perhaps to have it reach a wider audience and start the conversation, and start looking at how it is now and what it could evolve into,” said Cashin.

Many poets, including Teicher, suggest that those most invested in the life of a poem will be the ones to initiate improvements. With fewer publications overall, small presses have the luxury of giving each text particular attention. 

“I think that poetry is an esoteric art, and it tends to do better when it’s published by people who understand that,” said Teicher.

This is when discussions about e-poetry quickly transition from the technical to the existential. “Ultimately, you get into those questions of where does the poem live,” said Bednarik. “What’s the endgame? It’s to make poems come alive, and there’s not one place to make poems come alive. If a poem has to be tacked to a page and that’s the only place it can live, that doesn’t fly.”

For Bud Parr, the president of Sonnet Media and a programmer and Web designer, the question is really at what point does the poem becomes something other than the poem? 

“Writers will always find a way to write (Solzhenitsyn used all sorts of devices to write while imprisoned, for example) and writers will always seek a way to be read,” he said in an e-mail. “I believe in the primacy of the text and don’t feel nostalgic for print, but I would hate to think that ‘the line’ in poetry gets lost to technology. That’s just wrong.”

In the meantime, Livingston is happily buying poetry e-books. She has about 20 poetry collections downloaded onto her Nook—albeit not without their issues—but the errors don’t bother her as much as the scant selection does. “I’ve accepted that to some extent the poem might look a little different. A few lines here and there, at the moment, I can accept that. But they should be available,” she said. Six months to a year from now, when Livingston publishes the next No Tell e-book, she hopes someone will have made the process easier and the product better. Until then, publishers such as BOA Editions will continue to provide e-poetry in the best form they can, and Livingston will continue to read it. As for producing poetry e-books on the fly, BOA publisher Peter Conners sees potential, not mistakes, and that’s part of what being an innovative independent publisher is about.

“The cool thing is that we’re small enough that we can make these moves without having huge ramifications,” said Conners. “It doesn’t change anything other than the fact that it opens up a new readership. I’ve always thought in terms of the next generation. More people are going to want to read this way.”

  • Alizah Salario is a former Columbia University journalism fellow at the Poetry Foundation. Her writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Ms. Magazine, TimeOut Istanbul, Booklist, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago. 


Breaking the Poetry Code

The future of poetry e-books, and why it's not what you think.
  • Alizah Salario is a former Columbia University journalism fellow at the Poetry Foundation. Her writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Ms. Magazine, TimeOut Istanbul, Booklist, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago. 

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