It’s time for a new publishing model (give it away)
For a while I’ve been thinking about the way books of poetry are published. First, they’re expensive (compared to mass-market novels, for example). Second, they’re almost solely available through places like Amazon.
There's not a lot that can be done directly about either of those problems, granted, but today I was reading the new issue of Scientific American, and came across this partial solution (spoiler: it's not a new idea, I know), by David Pogue:
I make most of my income writing computer books. To my great distress, I discovered that they are widely available online as PDF files. But when I griped on my blog, my readers challenged the assumption that I was losing sales.
“First of all,” they said, “you’re counting a lot of people who never would have bought the book in the first place. Those don’t represent lost sales. And you’re not counting the people who like the PDF so much, they go buy the print edition or discover from the PDF sample that they like your writing.” One reader challenged me to a test: make one book available both on paper and as an unprotected PDF file. Report the effect of sales after one year.
I did that. The results were clear: Piracy was rampant. The book was everywhere online. But weirdly, my readers were also proved right. Sales of the printed edition did not suffer; in fact, they rose slightly year over year.
OK, so one example doesn’t make for a study, but I think there is a basic truth to this. PDFs are like browsing in a bookstore. Amazon is set up for a version of this sort of thing, where one can browse a few pages from many books. It’s probably about as far as Amazon can go. But publishers and authors can go further. In the way that music labels give away free samplers of their current releases, and individual artists usually have a few mp3s up for free on their websites, I think publishers and/or authors should post PDFs of a good chunk (if not all) of books of poetry.
My first book is out of print, and I have a PDF version of it that I was going to add to this post, but I just realized I don’t know how to do that. I need a hosting site, I suppose. Here I thought it was going to be easy . . .
Oh well (I'll keep looking). So I’m not making the grand gesture (for now). But I do think the time has come for authors and poetry publishers to make this sort of gesture. I’m not sure it will help sales much, but I’m quite certain it won’t hurt them.
I heard Donald Revell refer to the publishing of poetry as a “gift economy.” I’ve always liked that phrase. It’s what POETRY magazine does (in a slightly different version), and it seems to be working fine. It’s one of the things I think they do well. I think the rest of us should join in. Even if it does little for sales, it will do a lot for the community, and the discussion of individual books and poets. One of the things I’ve been bothered by when talking to poets is our lack of shared texts. This would up the discussion. And it’s my belief that if the discussion is upped, sales will follow (even if modestly).