Publishing online not just for "refugees" and "rejects"

By Harriet Staff

In an article about "big publishing's rejects and refugees," The New York Observer looks at how two poets from vastly different generations both arrived at the decision to pursue online self-publishing instead of more traditional routes. Bill Knott had already worked with FSG for years before his frustration with the process—its marketing, its finiteness—reached a breaking point. With his work now on Lulu, he can reconfigure as many of his books as many times as he pleases, and doesn't have to accept blurbs from writers he dislikes in the interest of selling them. His desire to reach out to new readers was so strong that he wasn't content to just publish new poetry online; he wanted his rights back from FSG so that he would have the same options with his back catalog.

“It was clear that for Bill,” Mr. Galassi told The Observer, “being published by us wasn’t good for him psychically”; in what Mr. Galassi called “an extraordinary case,” rights reverted to Mr. Knott. Mr. Knott does not stand to benefit financially from his work’s publication online—the cost of a paperback only defrays its production and shipping. “At this point in my life,” he told The Observer, “I simply want to try and find as many readers as I can for the work I’ve created over the past half-century.” In fact, Mr. Knott sometimes spends money on freelance editors, operating at a loss: “You gotta pay for it whichever way you go. If you go with a ‘real’ publisher, you gotta pay in other ways.”

And while finding readers is more difficult without the mechanics of a publishing house, Mr. Knott was frustrated by the lack of control he could exercise during his years under what he called “un-self-publishers.”

Steve Roggenbuck never had the FSG experience to color his impressions of big publishing, and at 23 is probably familiar with the "no more rockstars" notion that as culture continues to fragment, pursuing niche audiences is far easier and more rewarding than holding out for the mythical big advance and international celebrity that never really existed in the first place. In this way, it's not even so much that Knott and Roggenbuck are "refugees" or "rejects" because their work was too difficult or experimental as The Observer suggests below, but that they recognize that audiences and distribution have changed so much that big publishing doesn't offer the same benefits it once did, even if their writing was accessible.

Rather than a conduit for careerism or a depository for moribund work, the Internet is for Messrs. Roggenbuck and Knott a safe place for poetry experimental in form or presentation. Mr. Roggenbuck said that after losing money on printing his first chapbook (also available online, and only partially funded by donations), he plans to start selling merchandise. “Any of the Helvetica poems would make good T-shirts or stickers.” Yet he doesn’t like the concept of charging for access to his work. “There’s a lot of stuff in Marxism that I only have a loose grasp on—‘commodity fetishism’ is a phrase that gets used—and I feel like that’s related.”

The terms "refugees" and "rejects" imply that these poets pursued the shelter and acceptance of big publishing only to be expelled from it, when they consciously chose to forgo it entirely. They turned on big publishing, it didn't turn on them. Big publishing never changed, and that's exactly why the writers featured in the article have gone online.