Australian Poetry eBooks – Why Don’t They (really) Exist Yet?

21 March 2012

In mid-Feb, the Copyright Agency Limited held their annual seminar at the State Library of Victoria. This year’s seminar was themed ‘Digital publishing today’, and saw the announcement of two major digital initiatives – CAL’s own new web resource Digital Publishing Australia, and from SPUNC: The Small Press Network a new ebook distribution service. For SPUNC, this is a significant expansion of their publishing services, making great leaps from their partnership with in getting Australian indie titles into the local, and now international, ebook marketplace.

Do you own an ebook of poetry? I own exactly two. Black Inc’s The Best Australian Poems 2011, and Susan Hawthorne’s Valence, published by Spinifex Press. Both books are published by houses with much larger lists (by this I mean predominantly a range of non-poetry genres of writing). I mention this because, and someone please yell out if I’m wrong, currently no specialised Australian poetry publisher is producing digital versions of their titles.

Digital Publishing Australia’s tagline is ‘A community for those wanting to learn or share about digital publishing’. It may be grammatically jarring, but CAL have obviously put a lot of thought and development into the project. Of particular interest to me is the inclusion of a number of case studies with a range of presses – including Spinifex and Overland – about their digital experiences and strategies.

When we take a sideways step and look digital poetry outside of its book ‘container’, we see not only that it is flourishing, but that it has been growing and evolving for long enough to have formed established genealogies of networks and readerships. Cordite’s been going strong online for over ten years. Likewise Jacket, now Jacket2, around since 1997. Add to this John Kinsella’s poetryetc listserv, which also began in 1997, and the swathe of journals come and gone and going – how2, foam:e, Mascara, etc etc. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Australian poetry on the whole is most fresh, exciting and relevant in its online habitat.

So, poetry readerships and writerships are already open to text beyond the page, countering the commonly-heard lament that digital reading offers a less authentic experience. Less authentic, or less codified? I don’t want to come across as a tech evangelist. I’m still as smitten by print books as ever I was; perhaps even more so, since the creep of digital change has made me look much more critically at a medium I once had taken utterly for granted. But ebooks aren’t necessarily an either/or proposition. When I go OS mid-year, it would please me greatly if I could take a giant batch of paid-for poetry ebooks from my favourite publishers along with me.

I’ve not had the chance to speak with any poetry publishers about this yet, but I suspect the main reasons for the lag are time plus money. As we all know, the number of poetry readers is small; the number of poetry sales for a given title smaller still, and given how hard publishers work already to get their print pubs out the door, I can understand their reluctance to add on a digital workload.

While they dally though, many poets quietly engage with digital technology in innovative ways to source their own readers, side-stepping the formal publishing process all together. A couple of weeks ago, Tim Wright made available a PDF ebook of new work free for download on his blog. Former Cordite editor David Prater uses an enewsletter service to email subscribers a poem once a week – a terrific way of ensuring his work circulates among interested readers, while avoiding the strictures of first publication copyright.

For publishers thinking about entering the digital publishing space, both CAL and SPUNC have just made the jump a whole lot easier. I’m looking forward to seeing who’ll be first in.

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