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Poetry’s Slow Digital Revolution

Kobo Glo and Mini
Kobo Glo and Mini

Many publishers have resisted releasing poetry collections as e-books, for a variety of reasons, mostly centered around the difficult task of faithfully reproducing a poet’s line breaks for devices that vary in physical size and that allow readers to shrink or enlarge the font. There’s also the “fetishistic” nature of many readers of poetry, who prefer to have a physical book in their hand. Some argue there’s not as much demand for poetry in e-book form—poetry, after all, makes up only a small percentage of total book sales.

But an article in the New York Times earlier this week discussed how technology is finally allowing poetry to be published electronically, preserving some of our greatest poets in the digital age.

Although it increases their cost, publishers have begun hiring coders and programmers to manually manipulate line breaks and other formatting issues so that poems are reproduced faithfully in e-book form. For example, Copper Canyon Press recently spent $150,000 to digitize their back-list. Most of that money went toward programmers.

“Many of my poems have lines that are very long, and it’s important to me that they be accurately reproduced on the page,” said poet John Ashbery, who recently agreed to have seventeen collections digitized. “The impact of a poem very often comes down to line breaks, which publishers of poetry often don’t seem to find as important as the people who write the poems.”

According to the article, in 2013, “publishers released about 2,050 poetry e-books, up from about 200 in 2007, the year the first Kindle came out, according to Bowker, which tracks releases. Last year, e-books accounted for roughly 20 percent of the nearly 10,000 poetry books published, compared with around 10 percent in 2012.”

Some poets, such as former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins, have begun adding disclaimers to their poetry e-books, warning that digital readers might “change the physical integrity of a poem.”

But publishers are hopeful, and continue working toward a solution.

“We wanted to feel confident that what the poets were doing visually came across in the e-readers before we made this transfer,” said Christopher Richards, an assistant editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “The visual look of a poem is really important and can communicate a kind of meaning, and if it’s not preserved in the e-book, you really lose something.”