Sunday, June 25, 2006

Background Noise #5

Artist/Album: Snow Patrol/Eyes Open
Drink: Riunite Lambrusco Emilia

In the last installment of Background Noise I opined about quantum theory and poetry. I tried to use my considerably mediocre intellect for something it was not wired. This time around I figured I would stick to something a bit more manageable. How about the timeless debate of print vs. online publishing? Let's go at it.

But first, a little history.
Just over fifteen years ago, a new form of communication was unleashed upon the masses: email. True, email had been around for a number of years before, but it was relegated, mainly, to closed networks and governmental control (businesses, military, etc.). It wasn’t until the advent of a world-wide, decentralized internet that email became the communication tool it is today.

With email, communication costs and transit times dropped considerably. Email combined the best of telephone communication with the best of letter correspondence. And for two people on opposite sides of the globe, the cost was cheaper than either form. A new dawn of interconnectedness had begun. The world instantly shrunk. And you thought it was a small world before email.

Shortly after the very first email was sent, a new innovation called the Listserv (or email list) was born. Some ingenious individual realized that email was perfectly suited for disseminating a newsletter/journal/pamphlet sort of thing. The premise was that people signed up for said newsletter, and periodically the publisher sent each person on the list the same newsletter. It’s exactly like a magazine subscription without the high costs of postage, paper, printing and distribution. Another ingenious person, perhaps the very same, quickly realized that the email list was even-more-perfectly suited for literature magazines. And so began online publishing.

Before Listserv poetry journals, there was only one way to have your work published: in print. There are various ways to accomplish that – letterpress, photocopying, mimeograph, desktop publishing – but the end result is the same. Words are printed with ink onto a tangible medium. The resultant piece can be held. It is real.

But suddenly, with the advent of the email list journal, everything changed. The email list isn’t tangible. There is no ink involved. There is no paper. True, one could print the journal/newsletter on their desktop printer, but each version printed by each reader would be different depending upon their printer/email/computer setups. This was something new and customizable. Something exciting. It caught on, big time.

Dozens of email lists popped up, seemingly overnight. Then, a newer interface to the internet was invented and we were suddenly viewing pages of the World Wide Web. What a glorious time. We could get weather, sports, news, porn and poetry quicker, easier and limited only by the speed of our modems. The number of websites grew exponentially. As the technology progressed, new things were tried. Some failed, some didn’t. One thing that didn’t fail was the advent of World Wide Web literary publishing. It turns out the World Wide Web is better suited to literary endeavors than even email was. It is easier (no need to keep track of the emails), it is infinitely more customizable (color, graphics, etc.) and it is accessible by many more people (no need to sign up to be on the email list).

With this new medium for literary expression, online publishing came into its own. As of right now (Monday, June 26, 2006, 4:30AM GMT) there are 53,600,000 hits that come up when a Google search of the words poetry and journal is made. I have no idea how many print poetry journals there are out there, but I would guess there are many less than 53.6 million (I am aware that there are probably not 53.6 million online journals and that a large percentage of the hits are probably online presences of print journals or references to journals of either kind, but my point is still valid).

Now, to the heart of the matter.
The astute reader might be asking themselves if there is any difference in quality between a typical online poetry journal and a print one. This is a good question, and one that can’t be easily answered, if at all. The reason is that quality is a subjective term. One person’s shitty poem is another person lifesaving gem. So, instead of looking at quality, let’s first look at quantity. Is there any difference in quantity between online and print? The answer is a resounding YES!

As stated before, online journals are cheap, and easy to produce. Therefore, there tends to be more poetry by more poets per issue. Unless there is a specific number of writers who are all being published in all the poetry journals on the web (which it sometimes actually seems like), logic dictates that this means there are also more poets now than there were before. Or, at least more poets being published.

Is this bad? Not necessarily. Just because there are more doesn’t mean they are bad. However, just as in any artistic medium, there is a percentage of poets who are, shall we say, less talented. If this percentage remains constant, then with more quantity of published poetry comes more quantity of bad poetry. Of course, this can and should be alleviated with judicious editing. However, there seems to be a psychological difference between the editors of online and print journals. This is not across the board, mind you, but the difference is generally true. Print editors understand the constraints they are placed with in regards to cost and space, therefore they are typically more selective in their choices.

The typical online editors have very few constraints, if any. Therefore, they can select more poems, AND loosen their standards to choose more lesser-quality poems. So, just on the surface, using logic, it would seem that print journals would be better in terms of quality. A typical print journal might not have as many good poems as a typical online journal, but it would seem that they would have a better ratio of good to bad. It's the simple definition of value. A print journal, at the cost of $5 would be a better value than an online journal at the same cost because though there might be fewer poems (and fewer good poems, even) there would be a better ratio for your money.

Of course, most, if not all, online journals are free, and this skews the value to make it totally nonexistent. What is the value of something that is free? Another thing to consider is the number of eyes that will read a poem. Ostensibly, more people will have access to a poem when it's online since they won't have to pay for it. I'm sure the statistics bear this out, but I wonder how many more that actually is. With an oversaturation of the online journal market, my guess is the difference is marginal at best, and negligible at worst.

I suppose what this boils down to is, what are you looking for in a journal, both as a writer and a reader? If you're a writer looking for a place to publish a poem – any place – then an online site would be your best bet as you're more likely to get in since they typically take more poems, and have looser standards. If you're the same writer looking for a place that is more selective, that might challenge you to hone your craft, then a print place would probably be your best bet; or one of the few highly-selective online journals that do exist. Of course, you can always do the opposite. This is not to say you won't get into print even if you are just looking for an easy score; nor that you won't be pushed or stretched as an artist by online journals. This is just my thoughts on it.

If you're a reader, the same applies. There are some very good poems that have been published in online journals. Some amazing pieces that could just have easily been in any of a number of highly-selective print journals. But, if my theory of ratios holds true, you'll probably have to wade through a lot more dross to read those scant few great poems. Conversely, with your typical print journal you're more likely to find a better quality poem to read between the great ones; or even more great ones to begin with. The cost issue mentioned above applies here as well. Are you a reader willing to pay for the better ratio, and are you willing to save your few dollars and filter through the sludge to find those gems?

Of course, the words good, bad and great are purely subjective. Whose terms are we using here? Well, mine. Some people might feel that what I call a good poems is junk and vice versa. So, I recommend each person do their own research into the quality/quantity issue between print and online journals. Decide what kind of journal you're looking for (either as a writer or reader) and head in that direction. Maybe even shake it up. If you're strictly an online kind of guy, try your hand at print submissions or in reading a print journal. Or, if you are adamant about being in print only, maybe search out a few online journals that meet your requirements (other than the print part) and give them a try. You might find a new audience and a new respect for either medium.

For me, I've been published in a plethora of both. I personally find it more rewarding to be in a print journal for two reasons: first, is the quality issue. I feel better about my own work when I know that more selectivity has taken place, and when my own poem is surrounded by a better quality of poem. Second, I like the tangibility of a print journal. I love holding it in my hands and pushing through the pages. There's just something about flipping through a print journal.

Some of the online journals I've been in have met the first criterion of quality. Others – most, actually – have failed miserably. But, they all failed when it came to feeling the heft of the words in your hands. This is why I've been concentrating almost exclusively on printed outlets for my work. I think they meet my expectations better, and more consistently, as a writer. This isn't to say I won't submit to the occasional online journal, but by and large I have been concentrating on print.

But, don't let my words sway you either way. They aren’t intended to do that. I just wanted to open up a little debate about online vs. print publishing and to delve a little deeper into the pros and cons of both mediums. I'm obviously not a print snob (and neither are you, likely) as this piece you are reading is published online, in a blog no less – the most ephemeral, and least selective, of online publishing outlets. I was also the editor of an online poetry journal for seven years, so I think the internet has a place when it comes to literary endeavors. My only concern is furthering the advancement of poetry through quality, one-of-a-kind, artistic publishing; through selectivity with which to hone the poet's craft; and with the intent of hooking and reader and keeping her hooked for life. I honestly feel that print is more adept and more capable of doing the job than the internet.

What are your thoughts on the matter?


Blogger Luis said...


I believe we have talked about this subject in the past. If I had to choose between print or online, I'd definitely go with print. There is a great feeling having a book in your hand, flipping the pages, and opening it wherever one desires. I have respect for many online magazines as well. The quality of each type of medium is subjective. There are some print journals that don't use the care that other print journals take & vice versa when comparing online magazines. I try to send "good" work to each medium. However, I believe most poets do tend to favor print. Online journals have been good to me as well, and taken work that have been passed by print journals. I've also had work rejected by online journals, which print journals have liked and published. The goal is to create good work & to submit to each medium. Another good post here, JB, thanks for opening up the discussion.

1:49 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

good post j.b. I have always had a problem with online publishing, in that the medium is very transitive, very fleeting, very unreal. I have pubbed online as you know j.b, and in fact remark. was one of the only two places online that I've ever sent work. the other being pemmican, a great 'magazine.' and now, somebody is gonna jab me for putting that in quotation marks, but shit, it isn't really a magazine is it? it is something new and different. not bad, just different. and NOT a magazine. I think "online journal" is a better designation.

I hold that the artform is a thing that is created by the hands and the mind, and in the case of a poetry magazine, the WHOLE ITEM is the artform, from poem selection to final production of the mag itself. I think too often ALL of this process is approached lazily and with a lackluster vision of possibility, and the results reflect this, both online and in print. BUT having said this, it would appear that the ease of publishing, the ease of submissions, the ease of 'manufacture' online would necessitate some lessening of energies expended in the making of the ENTIRETY. it simply takes more work to do it in print and struggle usually equals meaning, at least engenders a feeling of growth, of accomplishment, of effort, etc.

plus the lineage of literature won't be extinguished in case of power failure if we keep putting out actual books into the world. I mean, no power, no computer. books will always be dug up in a landfill, in an attic, in a trunk somewhere, in a shoebox, etc. they can be read long after the writer/editor's bandwidth cost requirements become too much of a burden and all files are removed from the server.

now, having said that, I am a HUGE FAN of the 'blog.' I think it is great for communication, it is an amazing combination of printed material, photos, and video, and the possibility of linking to other sites gives the writing of a 'column' a depth not achievable in any other medium. and the transitive nature of the blog is part of the appeal in that it is the ultimate carpe diem information dissemination device. it's email for the world.

it all has its place but nothing beats a letterpressed cover with some handpainted work, the feel of the creator embedded in the object. and it sits on the shelf waiting for the lights to go out, waiting for a candle or a fireplace or the flash of midnight lightning.

good job. it is most important to get the words to whomever needs them, in the end, be it by book by email or by telepathy.

2:53 AM  
Anonymous Glenn said...

I prefer print for the two reasons you mentioned -- quality and tangability, and for one other reason: ego. I like to collect the magazines in which my work has appeared. The bigger the collection, the better I feek about myself. True!

5:55 AM  
Anonymous Glenn said...

Of course, I meant "feel" and not "feek". What the feek was I thinking when I typed that?!

5:56 AM  
Blogger Partisanpoet said...

Both forms have value and the easy access and outreach of the internet cannot be underestimated and it certainly is easier than publishing a mag.

Still, there is nothing like ink on paper. It waits for you where you set it down, it has a life of its own and may out live you going from hand to hand and there are many of them printed and distributed. It has a definite composition and flow which can't be achieved on-line.

6:35 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

good points, all.

i failed to mention the transitive, ephemeral nature of online publishing, though (honestly) it was my intent to. i seem to get off on long-winded tangents and secants when i write prose (which i probably why poetry is best for me).

yes, the ephemeral nature of online journals is key. it is both a pro and a con. like some of you mentioned, the book with always be there, waiting to be read, outliving us all, perhaps. but the online journal is just as easily folded and removed as it is created. a power outage and BAM! it's gone, or unaccessible.
oddly, just when poetry is most needed is most likely when it will be least available when online.

great discussion guys.

9:31 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

online poetry make me feek funny inside.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Luis said...

the feeking ref robbed Australia today against Italy. He should get feeking fired.

4:02 PM  
Blogger j.b said...


look at Glenn "Shakespeare" Cooper coining new words.

online poetry makes me feel like feek.

4:28 PM  
Anonymous Glenn said...

That feeking ref must die! We wuz rubbed!

5:43 PM  
Blogger Kat said...

I'm always late but here's what I think. My first few acceptances were online. ("remark." being one of the first to say yes!) And it was an amazing feeling. Everything had changed so much and I had been away from writing for twenty years. But someone (I can't quite remember who! ;) ) told me, after I got my first print acceptance but had not gotten the issue yet, that the feeling of holding a magazine with my poem in it would totally beat the online feeling and he was right!

I think the online idea is okay and I think you probably get more people reading your work, maybe. But holding something in your hands, as that guy told me, really feels different. It feels, somehow, more real.

Part of the reason that "remark." isn't online anymore is because I am a complete moron when it comes to computers. But the other reason is because I wanted something a person could hold.

One of the things I always think about when stapling, stickering and putting "remark." in the envelope is- "I'm holding this in my hands now and soon someone else will be." I'm not sure if this makes sense to anyone. But it's the coolest feeling. Something that I put together with my own hands goes into someone else's! Does this make sense? Beats me. I'm not sure I'm getting what I want to across. But it's late and
I'm tired. As always, justin, you give me stuff to think about while I sip my Ovaltine. :)

8:54 PM  
Anonymous Glenn said...

I understand, kat.For four years I edited and published a Neil Young newsletter, and it was a great feeling putting it all together, doing the envelopes, doing the mail out, etc.

6:02 AM  
Blogger c. allen rearick said...

i too prefer the tangibiltiy of the print medium. i especially love the smell of old, used books/journals. i also consider myself to be a "collector" of thins "small press". but we definitely can't discount the on-line journal, especially when everything in the world is now so technoligically driven. who knows, perhaps one day we will be able to just name a poem/journal/book etc... and its contents will just materialize outta nowhere.

9:09 AM  
Blogger c. allen rearick said...

oh, one more thing, c.c., i mailed off your copy of "from Cali to Cleve." today.

9:10 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

hey, thanks for chiming in. I mailed yours...a day or so ago? you should have it soon. I look forward to the read.

if you have a moment, shoot me an email of your impressions of the last levyfest. I may be attending, am unsure at present.

9:28 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

thanks guys for your comments.

that guy you speak of sounds really handsome and intelligent. and tall. ;)

as an editor or publisher, that's a good point, Kat and Glenn, about putting your sweat and blood into something that someone else will hold and thumb through, just as you did.

there is definitely a place for online journals. they've certainly helped me in working out ideas that both worked and didn't. and they'll always have a spot in my heart (especially that seminal work of electromagnetic art we call "remark."). and it would be cool if we could one day call to our minds the entire oeuvre of a poet or online journal or whatnot, but for now print is the best.

and you hit on another point that i completely forgot. the collector's dilemma. what if you wanted to collect every published piece by an author? what about e-books? how does that work? or all the various e-zines that have folded. there must've been no less that 10 e-zines i've been in that are no longer and all the poems from them are unavailable...

anyway, good stuff.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Luis said...


I've put remark#25 & raw materials in an envelope & will mail in the next day or so.

Kat, I agree with you about holding the journal in your hands, it feels really good.

As for online mags, when they go under & don't keep an archive up, the words are lost into online's blackhole...

11:12 PM  
Blogger j.b said...

this is true. after most online mags go under there is nothing left. i've kept the past issues of remark. archived on the site, but eventually they will disappear and there will be no record that the poems were ever published, or existed.

though things do go out of print, and though it is possible for no extant copies of something to exist, it is rare and the likelihood that something survives the folding of a publishing company is very high.

as for the tangibility of print, i think this is what draws me most. i can take it with me; i don't have to be stuck in front of my computer. though online are everywhere and can be read anywhere, they actually can only be read on a computer and thus are LESS portable and LESS convenient; and irony that i thoroughly enjoy.

12:54 PM  

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