Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What does "published" mean?

In the not-too-distant past, being a "published author" had a cachet of importance, because the process of becoming published was lengthy and involved many intermediaries, from editors to press operators. Then came the desktop publishing revolution. Then came the internet revolution. Nowadays, therefore, what it means to be a published author has come under a great deal of scrutiny. When is your poem considered to be "previously published"? Some publishers don't accept any presentation of your work online as being a legitimate publication, while others view any appearance of your work, anywhere, no matter how ephemeral, as a publication.

The problem is not that online publishing, or self-publishing, or "vanity" publishing, is ruining the publishing world. The problem is that we are in a time of transition, when all the old rules and guidelines and standards that have served print-publication for so many years are disintegrating—because the world has moved forward, and technology has put self-determination into the hands of the independent and uninitiated as never before—and traditional publishing doesn't know how to deal with the change(s).

We are in the midst of a paradigm change. None of this is sorted out yet. It might not be in your lifetime, or mine.

Resorting to absolutism, many editors of poetry journals now consider any public appearance in print of your poem to be a publication. If you put it on your blog; if you post in on an online poetry critique or workshop board; if you post it to the comments stream to someone else's blog: all these are considered publications by some poetry editors. If they can do a search for a line from your poem, and find it, they will consider it as being a prior publication, and will reject it. It doesn't matter where, or how, or why: they will reject it.

The problem with the absolutist position lies in its simplistic and reductionist thinking. In fact, most readers of poetry magazines in print don't spend a lot of time reading through online workshops, so they're not likely to have seen the poem before, in any state of completion. Trying to enforce the absolutist position is difficult—although if it can be referenced by powerful Internet search engines such as Google, many editors will say it's already been published. But if an editor wants to put hours and hours into searching for one of my poems online, in order to reject it, I have to question their priorities: that seems like a lot of work for little gain. Some online poetry workshops now prevent Google from searching their fora, in an attempt to evade the prior-publication issue. It is probably safe to say that many readers of poetry simply don't care about any of this: they just want to read good poems. It is similarly safe to say that many readers of poetry don't care if they find it online, in a magazine, a book, or printed on a placard at a subway station. The important thing to most readers is that they encounter the poem: sometimes the novelty of where the poem is encountered can mean a great deal to them, but in my experience your average poetry reader doesn't really care about first publication rights. Most poetry, it is fair to say, is read, and always has been, in reprint: in book compilation or anthology, in classroom textbook, and in similar reprint venues. Few things are more ephemeral, in the publishing world, than poetry journals and magazines.

The aspect of all this that is most absurd is why anyone should care very much. There is a double standard: An editor may reject your poem as already published if they find it on your blog, but when you collate your poems into a book this is a publication you cannot cite as legitimate. No one actually cares, except the editor and the publisher.

People have been handing out copies of their poems to be read in classrooms and critique groups for ever; and that is never considered a publication. How is an online poetry workshop board any different? The intent and the process are identical; the major difference is the mediation of the technology used to convey the poem.

And that's an important point: technology is mediation: it stands between us, even as it enables us to communicate with each other as never before across borderlines and perviously insurmountable obstacles. Marshall McLuhan's ideas about the global village have been brought to fruition by the development of information transmission and mediation technology (the media: the media are those who mediate).

Mostly because Google's cache archive is forever, and even a poem long since removed from your website might still be found in their archive—and therefore some editor might consider it as published, if they find it—mostly because of this, there are editors who will tell you, if you ever put your poem anywhere online, they consider it as already published. It doesn't matter where. The problem here is the editor's lack of common sense and wise discrimination. The problem is absolutism: the "published is published!" attitude. It's remarkable that in such a friable and temporary medium as internet websites, in which entire journals and magazines can disappear in an instant, data itself lingers so very long, and is so very searchable. This says a great deal about Google's power: but it doesn't say anything about what deserves to survive, as good data, and what does not. It is the ultimate packrat paradigm: never throw anything away. In the long run, this may not be all that healthy for either the arts, or for the social fabric in general, of which the arts have often served the function of bellwether.

Fortunately, many editors think this is all as silly as you or I might. Some journals also don't mind prior publications: they want your poem because they want to publish it, not because they require it to be pure, original, something no one has ever seen before.

We got to this point in part because of poetry publishing's over-emphasis on originality; a problem that is shared across many of the arts nowadays, and has been since the rise of the Romantic and Modernist archetype of the individualist genius-hero-artist. Everyone wants first crack at publication—as though publishing one of my poems would make you rich and famous, or somehow give you credit or prestige. The very idea is laughable. But the truth is, publication has been about originality for well over a century now—and it's also been about novelty. But novelty can be taken to extremes, because, frankly, just because a poem (or poetics) is novel doesn't guarantee it's good. It doesn't even guarantee that it's worth publishing. Most new ideas are bad ideas; it has always been so. The ideas that have some merit, and survive to become old ideas, have always been in the minority.

Some editors of small publications insist on unpublished work because they feel the need to compete: after all, why else should anybody else bother to seek them out, unless they have scored a publishing coup and gotten some new good work? They might not state it so baldly, but that's the truth.

One problem with the previously-published attitude is that some editors apply it to drafts: which is one reason they won't accept a poem that has appeared in any version on a workshop or blog. It doesn't matter to them that the revised version you've submitted is substantially different than the version that was workshopped. Other editors do say that they will accept the final version as long as only the drafts appeared on a workshop site. (Again, one solution, which lies well within the power of most online poetry boards' administrators, is make their workshops invisible to the search engines.)

My best advice to you about this controversial prior-publication dilemma is simple: Ignore it.

Don't waste a lot of worry on it. Just do what you do. Ignore every critic who tells you that you are less than literary simply because they don't approve of the venue in which you have been published. At the same time, don't expect fame or plaudits—ever!—and don't expect to be loved simply because you're now published.

The other reason to ignore the situation lies in becoming aware of the difference between a paradigm of competitive scarcity, and a paradigm of abundance. Simply put: If you come up against this issue, write a new poem and submit that. It baffles me that any writer would buy into the idea that creativity is a scarce resource that must be jealously guarded and fiercely defended.

My own position is this:

1. If a poem has been workshopped somewhere, that's like workshopping it in the classroom, or living room, with your regular writer's group. It should not be considered a publication because, frankly, that probably isn't the poem's final version, but rather it's struggling early version(s). I don't always post a revision for further comment, if I happen to have workshopped a poem. I think that workshopped poems should not be considered as already-published, since workshopped poems in writer's groups are not: the paradigm is the same. Just because your editor can find a line from your poem via a search engine is insufficient reason alone for rejection: they must also reasonably consider the context.

2. If one of my poems appears on here on the Dragoncave, or on my website, you can assume it's a final version. Should I gather those poems later into a book collection, they might well be revised again, but such revisions would not be fundamental changes, just little tweaks. So, a poem in that state could be considered previously published by some editor. But this attitude runs directly into collision with the needs of the published book collection: If your chapbook publishers requires you to list prior publications—the places these poems appeared—in an acknowledgments page, then you do need to list the places your poems appeared. My feeling is that one ought to gratefully acknowledge the journals in which one's publications previously appeared; but whether or not you list your own blog as such a publication is up to you. Personally, I don't think it's necessary, and I am not in favor of padding one's resumé, as it were. Nonetheless, this may be something you have to talk about with your chapbook's publisher; you might want to sound them out on their policy, beforehand.

Realistically, the current paradigm shift—possibly the greatest paradigm shift in the world of information supply and demand since the development of printing itself—will take a long time to settle down. We don't know when or how things will eventually resolve. We cannot guess: not because we are not intelligent enough to guess, but because the rate of technological change and paradigmatic evolution has reached a point of such acceleration that no one person or collective can keep track of it anymore. There is literally too much information to process nowadays: including information about information. (Art, after all, is one kind of transmittable data.)

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

What gets me is that I have poems that were published before most of the editors of these magazines were born. Almost appeared in small poetry magazines in the UK that will have been read by a few dozen people but because they're published they're automatically excluded. I personally think this is idiotic. What you have to think about is how many poetry magazines do people read? The odds of someone coming across the same poem in two different magazines is astronomical. I think people need to be realistic, not petty.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I basically agree. I understand the fear of the one reader who is so anal-retentive as to go out and find any duplications. The nit-pickers do exist in significant numbers. But it's fear that also makes editors do other stupid things, all in the name of note damaging the potential circulation of their little magazines. As if the world really noticed or cared.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Dave King said...

A really interesting and useful post - even if it doesn't solve all the problems. How could it? A friend of mine had a poem published which he subsequently rewrote completely. I think only two lines remained unchanged. He submitted the rewrite for a competition and had it ruled out as previously published.
A small point, though: for some of us creativity is a rare commodity!

3:25 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

HI, Dave, thanks for the comments. Your friend's story demonstrates the extremes to which this issue has been taken.

I can't agree that creativity is a rare commodity. I can agree that for some people access to time and energy to create artistic products (poems, pieces of music, visual artworks) can be a rare commodity. I can also agree that some people are just not as productive as others; and there are a whole range of reasons for that. But I can't agree that creativity itself is a rare commodity. It's one of the most plentiful things in the universe. It does not always manifest as an art product, however; plenty of creativity exists outside the arts.

As one forensic once engineer put it: "Nothing can ever be made foolproof, because fools are so inventive." :)

10:20 AM  
Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

Now & then I "version" a poem on my LuvSet blog ... I post the original (usually found in an old notebook), then I post every subsequent revision (& comment on it) until it feels so close to done I don't know what else to do with it.

I have subsequently gotten one of those versioned poems published. Did the magazine editor google any of the lines from the poem? The version the magazine published did differ somewhat from the "final" version on my blog, cuz, naturally, I changed it again before sending it out.

But I have wondered whether editors would get bent about my process. I haven't sent out enough of those versioned poems to hear any negative feedback.

I suspect this will all be sorted out fairly shortly, actually. The poet Paul Guest has a new book -- his first from a New York publisher -- the poems in it were published in magazines but first he posted each to his blog. Guest has started winning awards and praise from famous poets.

11:35 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Glenn—

I think you're right in that, sooner or later, this has to become less of an issue. I think it's still so new to some people, dare one say more stick in the mud types, that they're still flailing about for solutions. Most of the solutions one comes across are regressive rather than helpful. It's good to see someone like Guest going on as if it doesn't matter: that's what it will take, and then it actually won't matter.

12:59 AM  

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