Sunday, 7 March 2010

Publish and be Spammed

All of which ruminations on confidence lead me into one of my own tender and vulnerable areas of self-doubt, neatly summed-up in the subtle and nuanced suggestion my inner editor makes to me on a near-daily basis:

'Oi! Bitch Boy! Are you ever going to get around to fucking publishing something already, or are you just gonna sit there sobbing all the time because your fucking hair won't do what you want it to?'

Yes, that's what William Shawn's been doing since going off to the great editorial roundtable in the sky: haunting me with abusive editorial advice. As you can see, he's lost none of that dry New Yorker wit.

He does have kind of a point, though: it has been a long time since I've published something substantial, and the poems are kind of piling up and banging on the door to the outside world. 'Let us out!' they plead. 'We have grown tired of the smell of tears and discarded hair-care products! We wish to live! We wish to be free! We wish to siiiiiing - '

Yes, and that's  quite enough of that, thank you, poems. Actually I have kind of got them into something resembling an order, and have what amounts to a pamphlet-sized collection with which I'm just about happy. And I was about ready to start shopping this around publishers when, at her (fantastic as usual) gig last week, Kate Fox asked me a question which knocked me for six: 'If you did publish a book, who do you think would read it? Who do you publish for?'

I'm sure Kate didn't mean for this to happen, but this struck me as a deeply worrying question. Not because I fear no-one will read a book I publish. It's a bit more complicated than that. I think there are probably a lot of people who would, but I suspect (in some cases I know) that some of them don't really have the disposable income to spend on fripperies like collections of work by minor northern poets. Conversely, I strongly suspect that there will be a large part of the poetry reading audience with disposable income who will actively avoid spending money on a book by someone like me. Because - well, let's be honest, I'm something of a freak. And while I'd like to believe that the poetry-buying public would turn out in droves to read a pamphlet of poems about growing up as an anorexic, self-harming boy with an unhealthy obsession with Tori Amos and entirely too much of an interest in make-up and shiny shiny shiny things...well, I would like to believe that Katee Sackhoff is at this very moment saying 'fuck these Hollywood assholes, what I need in my life is an overweight thirty-two-year-old poet with an unhealthy obsession with Tori Amos and entirely too much interest in make-up and shiny shiny shiny things, and also I'm going to cut my hair short again, and take up Brazillian ju-jitsu, fuck it' but, y'know, I kinda doubt that too.

While I was busy pondering all this, I posted Kate's question on my Facebook profile, which lead to some interesting back-and-forth between writers Kevin Cadwallender and James Whitman, as well as my ex-wife, Michelle, and others, about whether poets should actually bother considering their audience. What emerged from all this discussion, and from my own private thoughts on the matter, is that for the writer of poetry, considering the audience is not that important (in fact in my own experience it's actively harmful, and turns you from a poet into a performing monkey), but for the publisher it's crucial. Publishers may not make much money on a book of poems, but they don't want to lose money, either. And, especially if the publisher is a friend of mine - which, in a close-knit world like that of poetry, is usually going to be the case - I know that I will feel tremendously bad if I cause a friend of mine to lose money.

Of course, as Kate herself pointed out on Twitter, we live in interesting times for publishing, and it might well be possible to find some way of publishing a book that could be sold to those wishing to buy it, while still making it accessible to those who lacked the income as well. Joolz Denby has done an interesting thing recently by giving away her new novel, Wild Thing, for free, to make the point to her reluctant publishers that there is an audience for the book. Others have done similar things with novels, and found that giving away books free online actually doesn't hurt their print sales any. They say that the people who download the most music illegally are also the people who buy the most music by legal means as well: maybe it's the same with books.

What I'm tempted to do with the new pamphlet is this: publish one version of it in downloadable form, as a PDF, which anyone can download for free. That way, people who want to read my stuff but don't have the disposable to drop on it can still read it . It also, and this is a practical consideration, puts the book in easier reach of my US fans. I mean, if you're one of my fans and you live in America you might want to buy a hard copy of my book, but let's face reality: one of us is going to have to pay the postage. You won't want to, and if I do, and turn out to have, say, more than three US fans, I'll wind up financially crippled (I posted two books overseas to a friend in the states recently, and needed to be revived with smelling salts after the guy in the shop told me how much it would cost). So there would be an accessible, free version of the pamphlet; there would also be a print version for people to spend money on if they wanted. There would be different content exclusive to each version too,  so the real Adam Fish completists - yes, both of them - would have to get both books to have everything.

I think this would be a feasible way to serve the people who like my stuff but can't afford to buy the damn book, while also creating an incentive to buy for those who could. Plus, by making the book as available as possible one gains a certain amount of audience leverage. Maybe the people who pay money for poetry books won't buy a hard copy of this pamphlet; but being able to say that the free version was downloaded x amount of times gives me a certain amount of cultural capital, creates the perception of me as being popular to some degree, and makes it more likely that people will buy the next book (which makes the next book more appealing to a publisher).

It seems to make some degree of sense. But I hate thinking this way. It seems mercenary and cold-hearted and not entirely in the spirit of art. As a certain Amherst poet whose name appears in the title of this blog put it, 'Publication - be the auction - of the mind of man/Poverty - be justifying - for so foul a thing'. I'm not poor. But part of me would quite like to auction off a little of my mind. And if I can do that in a way that includes all the people who'd want to read the book, and still works in the long run to my advantage as an artist, that can't be a bad thing. Can it?

I don't know. But I'll have to stop considering it for a moment because, in a surprising development, Katee Sackhoff has just turned up at the door with a case of Anchor Steam, a pair of sap gloves, and a mint-condition vinyl copy of Y Kant Tori Read. Maybe there is a paying audience for my work after all...Yeah, right.

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