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The future of printed matter is looking more and more like a computer screen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean progress for the literary world

By Liz Worth

Jesse Glass remembers when his mailbox was a destination for poetry, artwork and manifestos, all submissions to the mimeographed magazine he put together at his kitchen table.

As an independent publisher who has always taken advantage of available technology–including a letterpress machine, a Spiritmaster duplicating machine, and a hecto printer (which used carbon paper and a tray full of gel to make copies)–it seemed a natural evolution that Glass would eventually go online.

“When I finally learned to find my way around the Internet, I was just as elated as I had been 20 years earlier when I published my first magazine at my kitchen table. Only this time I knew that literally hundreds and thousands of people would read whatever it was I chose to publish on the World Wide Web,” he says. ” The idea of total freedom and of no cost appealed to my sense of anarchy.”

Today, Glass is co-publisher of Ahadada Books, one of several small presses meeting cultural success through working with online technology.

But e-publishing is not being eagerly embraced by the masses–yet, anyway. And arguments against it often question the quality of content. It’s an attitude that Ahadada has yet to encounter.

Glass began to publish his own poems as the start to Ahadada Books, a venture that put him in touch with Canadian Daniel Sendecki. In 2001 they began work on building Ahadada’s presence. They also started Small Press Exchange, an online social networking site for small press publishers. Although at first Glass was more interested in print on demand than in paperless books, he says that over time he has come to see Ahadada’s e-books as an “equal route of publication.” With a focus on publishing the best in experimental poetry, Ahadada has tapped into a community with a penchant for the avant-garde, and one that often has to look to new or underground media to get at the literature that mainstream culture vultures won’t touch.

“Many of these same poets and writers are usually utilizing e-technologies to create, enhance and publish their own work anyway,” Glass says. “On the other hand, if we were publishers of romance and adventure novels, or other kinds of books that usually make money for big publishers and are available at [bookstore chains], then of course by-passing the usual publication process might be seen as problematic. As proof of this, just take a look at the catalogues of e-publishers like I-Universe and you’ll find lots of badly edited, poorly-written fiction and non-fiction books. Nobody except the authors will buy these books, let alone read them. In addition, many poets are familiar with the concept of the small and alternative press and simply see e-technologies as a viable extension of the small press ethos into the 21st Century.”

The future of printed matter is looking more and more like a computer screen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean progress for the literary world. Publishers are loath to relinquish control. It wasn’t so long ago that getting a book published was a long process, full of scrutiny and rejections and revisions. Self-publishing even called for a significant amount of time and dedication before the Internet eased the process.

Self-publishing, though, regardless of the amount of effort that would go into it at any given time, has often carried a cringe factor in the literary world. Although certain online presses are comparable to established print publishers, e-books haven’t yet escaped this same sense of elitism.

“There are ways around the cringe factor,” says Mark Amerika, founder of Alt-X, an online network where the “digerati meet the literati.” “As I said back in the early `90s, let’s not be fooled into believing that by creating our own alternative networks of feedback and support that we are any more or less legitimate than the multi-national publishers. Their system of agents, editors, marketing people, in-house and sweetheart reviews is just a more traditional, moneyed and mainstream version of building an online and distributed network audience of contributors, readers, critics and sponsors.”

Amerika says he has no problem reading self-published bloggers, as long as their words excite him. He feels they often have more foresight than writers with institutional backing.

When Alt-X began in 1993, Amerika held the belief that online publishing was literature’s future. The focus then, he explains, was on finding “an alternative distribution scheme for underground publishing, one that would challenge print culture and the costs involved in getting paper-based publications to our audience.” At the time, Alt-X was publishing the literary journal Black Ice. As more web interfaces began to emerge, the potential for literary as well as artistic possibilities began to grow. Not only did Alt-X implement this new media as a means of distribution, but also began to experiment with digital narratives and writing that incorporates multi-media elements.

“The biggest obstacle we still face is the ability to sustain the enterprise while growing the audience without diluting the editorial vision you brought to the project in the first place,” Amerika says. The challenge to keep attentive readers means adding new content regularly. This also requires a committed crew of volunteer or low-paid collaborators who want to collectively make their mark on the culture, says Amerika. “For those of us who are interested in creating new online projects that go against the grain of the mainstream economy, the web provides a great alternative to locate the distributed audiences who want access to the underground art and writing scene. So the impetus is there to keep it going as long as possible without losing your way.”

Amerika’s opinion on whether e-publishing sacrifices content is simple: Traditional media outlets have long set a precedent of producing “lowgrade ‘content’.”

Glass, who says Ahadada receives around 200 queries a year but only accepts one or two, feels similarly.

“From the beginning of the history of publishing there have been bad writers and bad books,” Glass says. “Though the new publishing technologies might help bad books to proliferate, intelligent readers have a sense of quality, of what draws them in, of what delights and instructs, and they will make an almost instinctive decision regarding what they will read and what they won’t. This is especially true for poetry. Good work–and interesting work, inevitably–given time–wins out.

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