Guest Column: The Promise of Poetry in a Digital Age
The problems of poetry are many. It can be difficult to discover. It can be difficult to read and interpret. Are you reading it right? Are you interpreting it right? Are you sure? And for the poet and the publisher, it can be difficult to market and sell.
More than a decade ago, I was working on what would become The New York Times’ best-selling history book, “We Interrupt This Broadcast,” and realized that the mixed-media packaging that we’d created for that title (book plus audio CDs) might be part of the solution to one of the problems of poetry. And so, a few years later, when Sourcebooks published what would be the first of our poetry series, “Poetry Speaks,” it came with three audio CDs, where you could hear great poets (for example, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath) read their own works. And it was remarkably successful.
Fast-forward to today, and there’s a family of “Poetry Speaks” titles, all of which come with audio CDs.
The surprise of these books has been their success. Poetry is not a best-selling category. It often is one of the weaker categories in a bookstore. And the question we had to ask ourselves was, “Why were these books so much more successful than other poetry books?” Was there a way to replicate that experience more broadly and actually grow the business of poets and poetry publishers?
The success of these titles certainly suggested that there were more would-be poetry readers than one might believe based strictly on the numbers of poetry books sold. Certainly part of the success was due to the care taken by incredibly active and thoughtful editors and advisory editors, but it also suggested that would-be poetry readers might respond to something a little different than what they’re usually offered.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time watching people actually use poetry books (both avid poetry readers and neophytes). Several things became clear in just this most unscientific of research. No matter how learned the reader was, people generally were unsure of themselves in tackling poetry. With the “Poetry Speaks” experience, hearing the poets read the poems gave readers more confidence in their own readings. The logic seemed to be, “If I hear Robert Frost reading ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ I now have more confidence that I will be able to read other Frost poems.”
Beyond the challenge of how to read and connect with the poems themselves is the question of discovery. How do I find that one poem that touches me? (And indeed, in poetry, it often is about one poem.) “Poetry Speaks” provided 47 famous poets to choose from, so people could sort of graze their way through the book. People looking for Allen Ginsberg or Sylvia Plath might be surprised and delighted to discover that they also love Louise Bogan or Muriel Rukeyser.
For the past five years, Sourcebooks has been working on PoetrySpeaks.com, which will launch in beta Nov. 4. It’s a site we hope will tackle some of the problems that have stood between poets and their potential audiences.
The Web is ideally suited to problems of discovery. And on PoetrySpeaks.com, you can discover poems in a host of new and old ways by exploring three different sections: Two are curated (PS•Voices and SpokenWord), and one section is open to all (YourMic). Yes, you can search by poet and by topic, but you also can look at top-rated poems or the poems that the poets themselves believe are the best introductions to their work (“a poem you must experience”). Or you can look at the most viewed poets or the most downloaded poems.
So like “Poetry Speaks” (the book), you wind your way through and discover different poems through whatever means you like. It’s not a poetry class, and it’s not static—it’s ever-changing. It’s more like play.
We’ve taken many of the most successful ideas on the Web and applied them uniquely to poetry. So, for example, our YourMic section is a cross between YouTube and MySpace—but for poetry. It’s a space open to all to upload their own video, audio and text, all for free. Burgeoning poets will be able to participate in contests and join online poetry communities to further their craft. For the unpublished and the up-and-comers, we hope it will be a home.
Addressing the Napster Problem
Amidst all the worry about e-book piracy, as an industry we seem to have ignored that poetry also has a Napster problem. Go ahead, drop a line from your favorite poem into a search engine—almost assuredly you’ll find the entire poem on a Web site, in most cases without permission. If you ask a musician how long it takes them to complete and perfect a song, the answer is usually anywhere from days to months. For a poem and a poet, the timing often is about the same. And yet our poets’ work has bled online unfettered. It is infringement run rampant. Is a poem just a little text or is it, in fact, an individual work of art? We’re in the latter camp—and poets should be compensated for their craft.
So the question becomes, “How do you create a revenue stream for poets and poetry publishers?” Again, we’ve looked at successful sites; this time, iTunes was a great inspiration. The idea is to allow people to purchase different forms of the poem—text, audio, video or some combination thereof, depending on what the poet or publisher has available—on a poem-by-poem basis. Not only does this allow poets to be compensated for their work, but we also hope that it will encourage other poets and publishers to create audio and video recordings of poetry, which should help make poetry more accessible.
We believe that PoetrySpeaks.com can solve some of the challenges poets face in getting their works, their messages and themselves in front of readers. Poets will be able to manage their own information, blog, explain and display their body of work to their own choosing, and even post their speaking or performance schedules. In essence, it’s a social network for poets and poetry lovers. Both interactive and educational, visitors will be able to create their own “favorites,” plus connect to the poets via Twitter and other social networking sites.
The site also will be a retail and marketing engine for the poets’ e-books, books, DVDs and CDs. We’ll be selling them all on the site. Finally, each section of PoetrySpeaks.com has a performance space, and we anticipate that we will be hosting or streaming poetry readings and poetry slams, and selling tickets to those performances.
For the past two months, we’ve been demoing PoetrySpeaks.com to poets and poetry publishers. The initial responses have been remarkably encouraging, with feedback suggesting it can be “artistically and financially fruitful” for poets and publishers, and is “a combination of mission and business that’s really wonderful.” And what could be more amazing than that—pioneering a new business model for something we all believe in: writing and writers.
So this, then, is the promise of poetry in the digital age. A new kind of promise. The beginning of one really.
We’re going to start relatively small, with approximately 1,000 poems. We expect to make many changes to the site as we create a space where poets and poetry (of all varieties) can be discovered, where readers will immerse themselves, engage and play. It can be a site for poets to perform, share and sell their poems. In short, it’s a marketing solution for poets and poetry publishers that will help to ease the broad challenge of marketing poetry, and we hope it will reach out to that broad audience that we have seen actually exists for poetry.
Dominique Raccah is publisher and CEO of Naperville, Ill.-based Sourcebooks Inc. (Sourcebooks.com), the largest woman-owned trade book publisher in North America.