The state of digital poetry publishing

By Harriet Staff

In Publishers Weekly, Craig Morgan Teicher reviews the current landscape of e-books for publishers of poetry. There's a heavy emphasis on "current" because the struggle for a standard that will support all of the formatting needs of poetry (and any book with a need to maintain any sort of design elements whatsoever) isn't going to come to a definitive conclusion anytime soon. The number of articles on the subject (including our own, "Breaking the Poetry Code") combined with the amount of publishers who have hesitated to venture into e-publishing would make it appear that poetry publishers have just piled into the back of a car to drone "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" until someone magically arrives at a solution while the rest of the publishing industry leaves them in the dust. After all, it's only line breaks that are causing the issue. What could be so hard about that? Well, a lot, it turns out.

It turns out it's pretty hard to preserve line breaks in EPub and other e-book file formats: one of the ways reflowable text adapts to readers' preferences in terms of font size and reading device is to wrap lines on the screen differently depending on those preferences. So, on one reader's Kindle, the first two lines of "The Road Not Taken" might appear correctly ("Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/ And sorry I could not travel both"), whereas on the same reader's Kindle smartphone app, in a larger font, it could, for instance, look like this:

Two roads diverged
in a yellow wood
And sorry I could
not travel both

So it's not so much that poetry publishers have been unwilling to simply hop into the front seat and drive themselves, as much as that e-publishing simply took off without much of a concern for where it was leaving poetry. Teicher provides a quick and dirty answer for how this happened: there is no "economic motive for innovation" in the demand for poetry titles, especially since they're most likely being produced by small presses. Companies that process books in bulk to convert them to the EPub format don't have the time for workarounds that would enable proper formatting, and poetry publishers don't have the funds to pay for those workarounds.

PDFs are a short term solution, like BookMobile's Ampersand application which works on mobile devices and tablets, but many publishers are still holding out for a better variation of EPub. The nonprofit Copper Canyon Press recently received $100,000 from the Allen Foundation to try to remedy the imbalance between the needs of poetry and the streamlined efficiency of bulk e-book processing. The three-year grant will eventually get Copper Canyon to 250 digitized titles and they promise to produce an open source release of whatever mode they arrive at for accomplishing it. Whether the eventual standard is PDFs wrapped in DRM (Ampersand), a better EPub, or something else entirely via Copper Canyon Press and their partners, publishers will still have to contend with plenty of other forces-- from changing technology to rights issues (and whether Google will eventually render the entire struggle moot by scanning all the books anyway).

Wesleyan's editor Suzanna Tamminen jokingly says about Ampersand, "Oh apps! How we long for them. We've had our hands full with plain old e-books, just making sure rights are properly cleared, getting contracts in order, claiming titles in the Google settlement (vastly time-consuming), and getting the regular e-book channels to work for us, which is still very much a work in progress."