Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Questions Around Publishing

Increased controversy about what is and what isn't "publishing" online is a fact of life to any contemporary poet, writer, artist, illustrator whose creative work appears online. But it has become a minefield full of controversy. I don't have any definitive answers, and I am not a legal expert, although I do have some opinions—it's just interesting to think about the questions. The questions circle around several interrelated issues:

Does posting my own poem on my own website, or blog, constitute a publication of the sort one lists in the Acknowledgments page when one puts together a collection or anthology? If being published online carries the same weight as a print publication, why do print publications sneer at web-based poetry journals? Why do somme poetry journals reject any poem that has ever appeared in any forum online, including poetry workshop boards and personal blogs? Does a poem being workshopped on a board constitute actual publication, since the poem may never appear there in its final, finished version? Does a poem appearing in an edited online literary journal carry more weight in terms of publishing than a poem appearing on your own blog or website? Is it a more "real" and solid publication? Is a poem appearing in print, in print journal, more solid and real than a poem appearing in an online journal? Is the poet required to treat their poems the same way when assembling a collection (say, a chapbook) for poems when the editors of the various journals the poems first appeared in treat the poems very differently? Why should the poet regard these different publishing media as identical when clearly the publishing industry does not? Which is more "serious"—online or print? Why should the poet make any distinction between the two, when a journal rejects a poem for being on a blog? Is the only relevant issue the journal's (or editor's) desire to have the right of first publication? Are the editor's rights more important than the poets? Who decides what's real and what's not?

It has become increasingly common, it seems, for some literary journals to regard poems that have appeared anywhere, in any medium, as previously-published. (As if rights of first publication were so much more important than the actual quality of the poem itself.) This includes online poetry workshops, poetry forum boards, and other similar venues that most writers would consider pre-publication, or non-publication. If I make xeroxes of a poem to hand out at my writing group, does that mean I've published the poem, and it should be rejected as already-published? If not, then why is that any different than an online poetry group where poems are posted for critique on a message board? Is it simply a matter of scale? i.e. more people can see it online than would ever see it in my real-space poetry group? Is it simply a matter of control of the material's presentation?

Furthermore, since some search-engines also cache older copies of webpages, even if the webpages and/or websites have been taken down and/or deleted at the source, such poems could still be out there, to be found, if an editor does a search to see if the poem has appeared anywhere else before. (Plagiarism is a common rationale for doing such searches; but in fact that seems in some cases to be more rationale rather than reason.)

is print more existentially solid than the internet?

Many journals fairly demand rights of first publication because they are primarily interested in presenting new work, new original work, new original work that has never been seen or published anywhere else before—after which the rights to the poem revert to the poet. After which, presumably, the poet could post the poem on their webpage or blog with no difficulty. So why do some journals seem to have a problem with later re-postings?

The desire to be first to publish a new poem (or poet) is driven by the gatekeeping instinct, and by the long-standing post-Romantic, Modernist ideal that all art should be original all the time. But it is also driven by the desire to be the person who discovered the next great writer. Fame can make or break your journal, or gallery, or scene. Everyone wants to be famous, it seems—except those few artists who genuinely make art for its own sake, often working most of their careers "off the radar." The gatekeepers need the artists more than the artists need the gatekeepers—especially now, when the New Media technologies allow artists to more and more directly contact their audience without any need to pass their art through the hands of distributors, gatekeepers, and taste-makers. Criticism as an artform may still be relevant for making judgments about the quality of a work of art—but be honest, who really cares? Mostly the critics.

Isn't some of this desire on the parts of the gatekeepers just a scramble to retain control of access? Access to art, to novelty, to the headrush of new experience? Isn't it true that journals are threatened by "direct sales" the same way the recording industry has been feeling threatened by the artists' new-found ability to sell directly to their fans, via direct payment channels online? When you cut out the middlemen, they get desperate about losing their piece of the economic pie.

Part of the answer to all these dilemmas is that mavens of older technology often resist the ideas behind new technologies. The gatekeepers of artistic distribution cannot keep up with the means of distribution, when new technologies are being developed and implemented all the time. It's not that they resist what the new tech is or does, they resist what it means. What does online publication mean? Should it be taken as seriously, when assembling an Acknowledgments page, as a print publication? Does it carry the same weight? And if it does not, why not? And if it does not, then why the concern about "prior publication" online?

Many publishers, editors, reviewers, and even artists seem to view self-publishing as somehow lesser. All chapbooks one assembles and prints oneself are dismissed as vanity publications, and all online publications are indeed seen as lightweight compared to the established print journals. The truth is, this has nothing to do with artistic merit, or quality. Some great artists of the past resorted to self-publishing in order to keep pure the boundaries of their artistic vision—William Blake or Kenneth Patchen, for example—and other poets resorted to self-publishing merely to get the work out to those they wanted to read their poems—Cavafy did this, with his small folios of poems annually printed and given to his small circle of readers. Still others have resorted to self-publishing because all the mainstream venues rejected or ignored them—the list of writers here is a very long one, and includes poets we now consider geniuses but who were ignored in their days. Persistence pays off, and so does self-marketing.

There were echoes of this trend in the early days of the xeroxed 'zines—when lots of samizdat publications were produced and distributed directly, via xerox and mimeo, bypassing the publishing mainstream entirely—that are very similar to what is happening now, especially online. Perhaps the mainstream print journals are feeling bypassed again. They would like to be the gatekeepers again.

What is that but an effort to control the means of delivery? Or, rather, dissemination and distribution? Declaring that when I, who know what I'm doing when it comes to self-publishing because I'm a designer, typographer, and otherwise master of the technical skills of publishing . It is lesser because it didn't pass through the hands of an editor or publisher.

The bottom line to all of this is that it remains unresolved. As happens during the transitional phase of any new technology, the theory and the legal ramifications lag far behind the ingenuity of usage and practice. The artists are pretty much always ahead of the business, it seems.

How do you declare that an ephemeral performance piece, or a sculpture made of icicles that melt once they are struck by sunlight, is a copyrighted work of art? What is actually copyrighted? In most cases, it seems to be the idea, the concept, the intention, rather than the execution. One solution is to rely on the existing copyright law of other media: a recording of a performance can be copyrighted, even though the performance itself is ephemeral. A photograph of the melting icicle sculpture can be copyrighted—it is a known type of art-object after all—even after the sculpture itself is gone. The artist who works in ephemeral media constantly in confronted with this dilemma. How do you copyright an idea or concept, when the laws are designed to protect the copyright of objects? The only sure way is to make an object from the idea. But for some kinds of art, that is anathema to the art itself. So, you can end up in a vicious circle of documentation and rejection.

As we can see, these dilemmas are all interlinked, and occasionally go in circles, or spirals. You pull on one thread here, some phantom limb twitches over there. The arguments get circular and recursive very quickly. In my opinion, they also quickly become tautologies that reduce down to: We want to keep doing it the way we've always done it. Good luck with that. The changing face of contemporary technology is a wave that one needs to learn to surf, in order not to drown.

I think the best thing to do is to keep making art. So what if an editor rejects a poem of mine that I posted on my blog as having been previously published? I'll just write another one. Are there so few poems in each of us, that their numbers are so limited that each becomes a commodity so precious that it must be defended and fenced in and protected from artistic predation? Am I limited to only being able to write a dozen great poems in my entire lifetime? Some artists seem to think that's how it works, but I think that's absurd. Productivity has never been an issue for me; I am disturbingly prolific, in several media. The problem I have is connecting to the audience that wants my work. So, I'll use any venue to connect with them, including online venues such as journals, websites, and my own blog(s). The point is to make that link with the reader (or viewer). If anyone complains about my submitting a poem to them that has previously appeared on my own website, or on a poetry board for critique somewhere, I have two answers for them: I can always write them a new poem; and, there are lots more places to submit. If they don't want it, fine. It's a big ocean, full of fish. Swim on, poet, swim on.

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