Publishing on the Internet
and other follow-up comments
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Poetry in the 19th century and before played a very different role in people's lives than it does today: It was a form of entertainment. People would buy books of poems, read them aloud, read them to each other, memorize them and perform them, etc. In the 19th century, a popular poet could support himself on book sales. But first movies, and then radio, and then television supplanted poetry as entertainment, most likely because they require no effort, allowing the audience to be completely passive. Poetry today has become primarily a hobbyist's medium. The average poetry lover tends to focus on his own poetry and not on the poetry of others.
There are additional reasons for the decline of poetry. Poetic standards were lowered in the 20th century until the public was alienated, and education in the arts is not what it used to be. In centuries past, the average educated citizen could be expected to have some critical understanding of poetry, but that is no longer the case. Today's poetry hobbyist doesn't know or understand meter, much less alliteration, assonance, consonance and parallelism. For most people, poetry is a form of self-expression, not an art to be appreciated.
But the internet may help to change that, simply because poetry is so easily accessible, and free. A person can "surf" onto a site like this one and read poetry without having to go to the library or book store. The secret of attracting those surfers is in the presentation. A site which is attractive and easy to navigate will draw more readers than one which is poorly designed (and thus I have tried to make this site very appealing). It is a shame, of course, that the public must be "seduced" into reading poetry. We could adopt the stance of the Modernists ("the common reader be damned") and decide to be happy with poetry as a hobbyist's medium, but what good is an art without an audience? And the bigger the audience, the better.
But what do poets have to expect from the internet? Mainly, exposure. Prestige and reputation-building are best done in the literary world of hard copies; but if what you want is an audience, the internet may be the best place to get one. Magazines and books do not reach many readers. Most little magazines have circulations under 1,000 (some as little as 300); and if you have had a book published, the press run was probably in the vicinity of 500 to 1,000. Out of those 1,000 books, some may have been read, but many, especially those sent to reviewers or editors, may have been trashed – and, of course, many of them may still be sitting on your shelf. Of your poems which were printed in magazines, we can only hope that every subscriber reads every poem in every issue, but who knows.
How many readers you get on the internet will, as indicated, depend on many factors. If you put your poems on your own site, then you must find ways to attract readers to your site. It is not my intention to turn this chapter into an advertisement for the Poem Tree, but probably the best way to have your poems read is to place them in an anthology such as this one. Anthologies draw more readers than individual sites, simply because there is more poetry to be found. As of late October, 2001, this site is getting 75-100 "hits" on the home page every day. Assuming that two-thirds of those hits are the same individuals revisiting the home page in a single visit, that still translates to 25 unique visitors a day, or 750 a month. That's 9,000 visitors a year – not a bad number! (And readership will undoubtedly increase as I find more ways to publicize the site.) Over the course of several years, your poems may be read by more people on this site than in any other place.
Judson Jerome's Booklet
The booklet by Judson Jerome which I just reproduced has a pretty bleak outlook on publishing – or, more accurately, on finding an audience. Others, however, may be more optimistic. One poet on this site, in an e-mail, told me that she sold 125 copies of her book, some to people in her locality, some to people on her mailing list, and some through her publisher. 125 copies sounds pretty good, but it should be pointed out that that is only one-quarter of a standard print run of 500 copies, and that by most publishing standards it isn't very good (and the lady in question is a very good poet). From what I have heard, you will do best if you remain active in the poetry world, correspond with other poets, attend poetry conferences, give readings, etc. Poetry readings are a particularly good place to sell your poetry. Another poet I know, who remains active in such ways, has published two books and sold a thousand of each of them.
If you have published a book, I would like to hear your experience.