Q&A with David Penny

24 September 2002

David Penny is the creator of Portable Poetry, a website where you can virtually assemble a customised book of poetry, which Penny then constructs in the real world, using traditional book-binding methods. David Prater fired off some questions via e-mail.

Whose idea was the site? What's the motivation behind it?

I had the idea for Portable Poetry a few years ago. Like most ideas, it started out as a need for myself: I thought: “Wouldn't it be great if I had a little book of my favourite poetry that I could carry around with me and whip out when in urgent need of poetry!?” I didn't make the booklet there and then, but I kept the idea in my head and, at some point decided that maybe other people would like it too. One day at work, I was telling a friend and colleague (Fred, who's acknowledged on the site) about it and he said he thought it was a great idea and that's what basically decided me to give it a go. I don't remember whose idea it was to put the thing on line. At first the plan was that Fred would help me get things set up (he was going to put up a French version) but somehow he never found the time so I ended up doing it all on my own. Initially, I didn't have any strong desire to put it on the net. I saw myself as setting up a publishing company and that I would use the internet just as a means of distribution (that was short-sighted of me!) In fact, the first portable poetry order form was a paper brochure and the web page was put in place later.

Why did you choose poetry? Why these poems?

I think poetry lends itself perfectly to this type of venture – the works themselves are self-contained and short. Plainly, most other forms of literature were out, at least except in severely abridged form. Keep in mind too that the booklets are small so if some one were to launch a similar venture with a larger format book, this probably would be less of an issue. The choice of poems was governed by: * personal taste, * the poet's being long-since dead to comply with European copyright laws, * brevity, * informed selections when I didn't feel comfortable with choosing a poet's work myself. The other thing to be aware of is that I don't scan in any of the works. This was a very personal choice as doing so I would have saved myself a lot of time but I just don't feel right about that. Also, hand-entering works causes you to reflect more carefully on the works to include and is also a good way of becoming familiar with the poems. My store of mental poetry has grown immeasurably since I started!

Did you have any IT/programming skills before you started?

Yes and no. University courses and such. I was above all else eager to learn about this Internet thing (though that was only part of the battle). Like many things, if you really want to learn, then it's easy. For the website, I was indebted particularly to Jennifer Niederst's “Web Design in a Nutshell” (O'Reilly) which helped me no end. It was only the first of many O'Reilly books that are now vying with the poetry books behind me for shelf space! To get the site working in its present form I also had to learn AppleScript, Javascript and PERL/CGI/SQL. The last trio there were not strictly necessary but they have made the maintaining of the site a lot easier.

Did anyone else help you with the site?

No but I found the newsgroups an invaluable source of information whenever I became stuck. I hardly ever needed to post questions – I would just consult the archives at deja.com (which is now at groups.google.com) – definitely the most valuable thing there is on the net for me. I don't know how people managed before!

How many orders have you received?

Initially I decided to give the booklets away free. My reasoning was that the word of mouth marketing I would thereby obtain would be well worth the outlay in time and resources – especially given that it would help me perfect the methods and also check that there was actually a market. In all I've had about 150 orders and the site has been online for 2 years, give or take a few months. Most of those were free. So if you do the sums, you'll see that I haven't quite given up the day job just yet!

Any difficulties in processing orders? How good is the Internet for this?

It works like a dream. The onsite ordering process is carried out with Javascript. The orders are then emailed to me in text format (for this I just use a simple and freely available CGI script because at the time I didn't know PERL) with a series of references numbers, each representing a poem. I then plug this into a scripting program that I developed using AppleScript which drives Microsoft Word (to manipulate the text) and then Adobe Pagemaker (to layout the print ready booklet). The AppleScript bit was a real pain in the *** to get working right. There are so many little details that have to be taken care of automatically that it took me about six months to make the finalised version.

Have you had any special requests/ orders?

I hoped that I would but haven't had any so far.

Have you found any difficulties reconciling the automated aspects of the site (ie customising the content) with the hand-made production values?

Not really. Initially, I kept stressing to people that it was a publishing house that just happened to have a web site, maybe for that very reason, but now, it doesn't bother me. I like the idea that an object I made in my house in Paris may eventually end up in the hands of some one in India, Brazil, or Kentucky. This wouldn't happen if it wasn't on the Internet.

Do you think there's a big market for customised books?

I'm probably the last person to be asking for market predictions! I've heard that some publishing companies are doing custom travel guides and Microsoft (and possibly other software editors) propose custom manuals. For professional uses, I'd imagine that the electronic book will play a huge role though. The paper custom book may be relegated to the “novelty” section. Print on demand on the other hand is possibly going to be huge though of course it's hard to say.

Can you foresee any other uses for your idea (ie, at present the site emphasises the books' value as gifts, but what about education for example?)

Yes. Initially, I wasn't comfortable with the gift idea and I liked to think of the booklets as a “poetry-lover's survival kit” but I think as gifts they do have a real value. I just hope people read the poetry in there too! You could very easily adapt the idea for all sorts of things – recipes, reference works, maps, etc. What I would really really like to do with the site is offer an on-line publishing capability where you could from the site publish whatever you wanted. This would require considerably more development work – probably Java programming. I have 3 O'Reilly Java books but they're all unread! My idea when I bought them was to have a section for poets to publish their own collections of verse from the site. Setting something like this up would be complicated though (a simplified version might be to let users upload a text file but they wouldn't be able to really see how it would look online and it would also involve a large input on my behalf).

Do you know of any other sites doing similar things?

There may be but I haven't found them.

What has been peoples' reaction to the finished product?

When I get feedback it's always been favourable. The kind of sad reality is that, even when I was giving them away free, almost no one ever got back to me. The feedback I get is from people I know but it's always been positive.

Any plans for different ventures?

A French version of Portable Poetry. I don't know when I'll get around to doing it. I might “farm out” the work. I think, actually, that I need to work with some one with a business sense. This is one of the things I learned with this venture – I really enjoying making things and I have quite a lot of ideas – but my business isn't my strong point. I'm working on another site at the moment which revolves around film and which is great fun setting up but it may have no potential as a viable website.

What's been your experience of JavaScript (eg tell us about debugging)? Are there alternative languages/ codes? What about proprietary software?

My thoughts on JavaScript are that, unless you really need it, don't use it on your site! I needed it on mine – it's absolutely invaluable for the ordering page to work – but I tore out a lot of hair trying to resolve incompatibility issues between the Internet and Netscape implementations. Debugging was no problem – I was amazed to find that I could debug by just typing “JavaScript:” into the URL of my browser. I love Perl on the other hand but because it runs on the server there are times when it's just not possible to use it. On the client side though, I've never experimented with alternative stuff like shockwave. I'm also not a big MS fan so I haven't looked at any Explorer only stuff. Interestingly, 80-90 % of the visitors to my site are using IE.

Why do you use Tibetan paper?

Oh, I just like it! It's quite resilient too.

What was the problem with putting a payment mechanism on the site?

It costs a lot of money to set up. I'm not sure how much but I think you're looking at hundreds of dollars a month just to keep it running. It's a catch twenty-two situation – can't use on line payment because I don't have enough orders on the site – don't have many orders on the site because I don't have online payment! The ideal solution for me would be if there were say an online shopping company (like Amazon) that would let people add money to an account you had on their site but I don't think this exists-

Have people responded to the $5 in an envelope alternative?

Only one person has actually sent me money out of the 5 or 6 paying orders I've had. It's odd and a bit disturbing. I'm not sure if it's laziness or lack of scruples. I naively assumed that some one who liked poetry would be honest! Afterwards, even when I've sent them emails gently enquiring if the person received the booklet hint-hint, I still never hear from them. So the envelope option is probably a bad idea (I'm sure people who used to sell sharewares had exactly the same experience).

Do you think anyone's likely to make any money out of this kind of thing?

With the way my site is at the moment, it might help me recover some of the costs if nothing else. The business angle would need to be developed to make money – which I'm sure is possible, especially if you tried affiliation or something like that.

Have you had any challenges, threats from the writers' estates? Any other criticisms?

No. First, the site is hardly known. Secondly, everything is, to the best of my knowledge, in the public domain. The only complaint I had so far was from a guy who was too lazy to pick the poems himself and asked me to do it for him – so I did and then sent him his *free* booklet. A couple of days later I had a message from him complaining that there wasn't enough Shakespeare in his collection – some people are never happy!

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David Prater

About David Prater

David Prater was Cordite's Managing Editor from 2001 to 2012. His first poetry collection, We Will Disappear, was published by papertiger media in 2007, and Vagabond Press published his chapbook Morgenland in the same year. His poetry has appeared in a wide range of Australian and international journals, and he has performed his work at festivals in Australia, Japan, Bulgaria, Canada, the United States, the Netherlands and Macedonia. He has also undertaken two writers’ residencies in Seoul, Republic of Korea, and has worked extensively as a teacher, editor and researcher. He currently lives in Stockholm, Sweden.


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