Self-publishing poetry on the web: risks, benefits and best practices

Last night on Facebook, Patricia Anderson messaged me on behalf of a friend of hers, a widely published poet “interested in hearing more about best practices, benefits and risks of putting one’s poetry online.” Although as a librarian Patricia knows way more than I do about social media, she thought I might be more familiar with online poetry communities. I’ll share an edited version of my response along with Patricia’s comments, and hope that some of you will add your own thoughts as well.

I began by saying that I don’t see any risk in putting already published poetry online, unless you want to maintain total control over its distribution: once in easily available digital form, it’s much easier for people to reproduce on blogs, message boards, etc. To me, this is a good thing, as long as people aren’t trying to claim your work for their own. It can expose you to a larger and more diverse audience than you can reach through books and journals alone. Having author-sanctioned or otherwise canonical versions of one’s work available at a site with good search-engine optimization is actually insurance against plagiarism, I think: that way, anyone Googling a text they’re suspicious of should discover the true author quickly. Also, posting your work at a site you control allows you to, for example, include a Creative Commons license that will permit its distribution with certain restrictions, depending on the license.

The only real risk of posting poems online is that it can render them ineligible for consideration at many if not most journals. Poets more ambitious about pursuing traditional publication than I am tend to either restrict themselves to posting poems that have already been published elsewhere, post drafts in password-protected blog entries that won’t be indexed by search engines, or post a draft for a day or two and then delete the entry.

The main benefit of posting original work online, I think, is the pleasure of getting to interact with a readership (which includes, but need not be limited to, other writers posting work on their own blogs). This interaction can blossom into a variety of collaborative projects and literary correspondences, too. I used to send stuff out to literary journals, but now the only way I publish elsewhere is if someone asks me for something (or just takes it, in accordance with the terms of my Creative Commons license). Over 500 people a day visit my site, which is kind of small potatoes in the blog world, but exceeds the circulation of many literary journals. So the only reason to send stuff out would be for prestige or promotion and tenure credits (which doesn’t affect me since I’m not in academia).

You mentioned best practices. I don’t know that there is one best way to do most things. For example, I strongly prefer to see texts in HTML on the open web instead of locked away in PDFs or other proprietary electronic formats, but I recognize that there are cases when the latter might be more appropriate.

Patricia responded:

Dave, by “best practices” I meant exactly the sorts of things you touched on here. Choosing a license, specifically one that requires attribution and prohibits modification [or better yet, one that allows it –Dave], finding a balance between protecting your work and broadening your audience, etc. I wasn’t thinking so much of technical matters, but you raise a good point about using blog format with HTML specifically to make them discoverable. If poems or art are online, but not able to be found in search engines, that kind of defeats the purpose.

In the library world, we have discovered to our surprise that making works available and discoverable online tends to DRASTICALLY increase the demand for the published printed works. People discover things online, and then decide they want a physical copy to have and to hold, or that they want to work with the poems in a more intimate way, or to research choices made in publication revealed through the printed page.

Dave, can you think of models of poets who have used the web to good effect for their own work, especially relatively well known poets? In science we are finding that the better known the researcher the less likely they are to make their work available in the Open Science models, but those who are willing to take the risk are achieving incredibly high profiles. Andrew Maynard is one who comes to mind, and Jean-Claude Bradley. I came into the Open Poetry movement through the back door, via Identi.ca and the huge movement for haiku in microblogging platforms, so have missed looking for “named” poets.

Hannah Stephenson, an emerging poet, uses blogging very well,
among many others I could name (check out my interview with her for the Woodrat Podcast). Hannah actively comments on a wide range of blogs — art blogs, psychology blogs, fashion blogs, etc. — and as a result has built up a readership of literate folks who are not necessarily all creative writers and poets. A number of poetry bloggers do fall into the trap of assuming that the only people who want to read and talk about poetry are other poets.

Established poets tend to be conservative and comfortable with what they know (like all of us), so no, I can’t think of any real good examples off-hand. Mark Doty has a really engaging personal blog, but doesn’t share poem drafts. Until recently, Bill Knott had all his work up on the web, but his irascible nature seemed to handicap his ability to get readers, or even very many links. Jerome Rothenberg definitely gets the value of blogs for self-publishing, though it’s not clear how many readers he has yet. In general, it’s the younger or more beginner poets of my acquaintance who are better at the social aspect of the web, and it will be interesting to see how their use of self-publishing tools changes as they become more established.

One practice that might bear more discussion is whether to publish on old-fashioned static websites (or static pages in a blog installation) or in serial form. I lean strongly toward the latter. One can use taxonomic systems to organize works released in blog form, and accumulate issues or anthologies in that manner even when the poems are scattered in among other material. Serializing content on a daily or weekly schedule makes it much more likely that one will get actual readers, and of course any modern content management system has feeds that can be used to create email subscriptions (a very effective way to reach people), auto-post to Facebook and Twitter, etc. It still astonishes me that most online literary magazines favor static content dumps over Poetry Daily-style regular releases, though I think I understand why they do it: desperate for respectability, they feel they must ape print journals as much as possible, and fear being dismissed as blog-zines or worse if they imitate the approach of nearly every other kind of web periodical.

Web publishers must come to terms with the fact that readers online tend to be more distracted than readers of dead-tree media, and have a greater tendency to skim. This, to me, is the big downside of the whole enterprise, and another argument for serialization versus content dumps. It also argues for multimedia, which is another whole discussion. Nothing like an audio player to lure visitors into slowing down and actively concentrating on the content! In fact, the ability to easy pair text with audio is a big advantage of the web over print. To say nothing of videopoetry… I gather from people who have tried them that some of the new e-readers are pretty easy on the eyes — “slow reading” expert John Miedema was very impressed by the Kindle last year. Even still, I don’t see books going away anytime soon, if ever (and neither does John, as a matter of fact). So I don’t see print and online publishing as competitors at all. The web appears to be actually enlarging the readership for poetry books.

Patricia replied:

I agree about “enlarging readership”. I was absolutely astonished to find that my two biggest fans on my poetry blog are a health care professional who writes about religion and an engineer. I also love people who do one-a-day or one-a-week. People actually queue up waiting for the next installment!

Media is also good, BUT it MUST be associated with actual words on a page, because of accessibility. Yes, the voice adds meaning for the blind, but it excludes the deaf.

Posted in ,

Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

16 Comments


  1. What an excellent discussion. Thank you for the shout out, Dave.

    Patricia, I love what you say here: “In the library world, we have discovered to our surprise that making works available and discoverable online tends to DRASTICALLY increase the demand for the published printed works. People discover things online, and then decide they want a physical copy to have and to hold, or that they want to work with the poems in a more intimate way, or to research choices made in publication revealed through the printed page.”

    That is amazing and heartening news to me!

    Reply

  2. Hi Dave–

    That’s interesting and thoughtful–not that there’s anything surprising about that, coming from you. I have posted less frequently as I have become more and more busy with deadlines, and I’m not so sure how to solve that issue, but this is certainly an argument not to slow down. (On the other hand, spontaneous combustion is not a pretty end.)

    Thanks for introducing us to new writers!

    Reply

    1. I posted recently on FB that I was going to start a blog and was hoping that someone, a poet (hope against hope, how many feathers is that?) would respond in a meaningful way. And here it is. Gracias, Merci and thank you. I was in academia but it doesn’t seem to want me anymore. And I was accepted to traditional journals much more before I did my MFA. This has been so useful to me, thank you so much.

      Reply

      1. Hey, glad this was helpful! Stop by when you get your blog going, and feel free to email me if you run into technical or other problems. WordPress.com and Blogger are both good places to start — no point in laying out any money at the beginning, until you see if you like it and can keep it up. If you do get more ambitious later on, WordPress posts and comments are all portable — you can move the blog intact to a self-hosted installation or even to another platform. (But there’s no shame in staying on Blogger or WordPress.com and simply mapping your own domain there, either.) The most important thing is not to be a silo blogger.

        Reply

    2. Don’t spontaneously combust, Marly! (Even though, yes, that is hands-down the coolest way to go out.)

      Reply

  3. dave, you’re a great advocate for sharing poetry online. i predict we’ll all be where you already are within the next few years.

    Reply

  4. I read 2 of Hannah S’s poems aloud last night at a gathering of women. They were well-received and everybody wanted to know how I stumbled upon her work..I plugged your podcasts.

    Reply

  5. all my books of poetry can be downloaded FREE from Lulu.com,

    but giving my work away free

    makes me “irascible” according to you—

    Reply

    1. I once quoted a line of your poetry in a post here, with full credit and a link back to what seemed to be your main website at the time, and you stopped by to demand I not quote you without permission. What do you call that?

      Reply

    2. (Giving away your stuff on Lulu is commendable, but it is not the same as having it available on the open web, which was the subject of this post.)

      Reply

  6. I once quoted a line of your poetry in a post here, with full credit and a link back to what seemed to be your main website at the time, and you stopped by to demand I not quote you without permission. What do you call that

    —I can’t remember the incident, but I apologize for it, can’t imagine what would have upset me, usually when a blog quotes a poem of mine i leave a comment thanking them, so I’m sorry, Mr. Bonta, that was irascible not to mention stupid of me, no doubt, please forgive me—— do you remember the line? maybe it was a line from one of my early poems which I no longer like and hate to see in print——

    in any case, sorry!

    Reply

    1. I’m sorry, I don’t remember the lines. It was a couple of years ago, and I deleted them after you grumbled.

      Keep in mind that “irascible” isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my book, it’s just a bit of a handicap if you’re trying to get incoming links and such. It’s actually taken me quite a while to learn to be gracious. I still don’t take compliments nearly as well as I take criticism — but in this corner of the blogosphere, there’s an overabundance of the former and a scarcity of the latter.

      Reply

Leave a Reply