I was looking at my shelves full of poetry books and pamphlets. They take up quite a bit of space, but when I went through them, there weren’t that many I thought I could part with. A couple I might give away. A couple I’ve been sent for review and don’t really like, so will never read again so may find their way to recycling. But almost all of them still have something to offer me.
This made me wonder about e-chapbooks. Obviously, they take up only virtual space. Shouldn’t I buy more of these, and avoid the space-consuming real thing?
Perhaps. But it doesn’t feel the same to me. I bought Sinead Morrisey’s Parallax, winner of the T.S. Eliot prize, for e-reader (I’ve an Android machine, a Nexus, which can run both a Kindle app and pdfs). Now, this is a good book, which I’ve been enjoying. But on the machine it somehow doesn’t seem as powerful as when I’ve the physical book in my hand. In fact, I’m even thinking of buying a hard copy for that reason, to get the “full experience” of the book. Is that mad?
For the poet and the press, producing an e-book is easier and cheaper than the physical book. And distribution is cheaper, too. At Antiphon we’re currently contemplating the different ins and outs of chapbook production. In terms of costs, it’s a no-brainer. And, of course, e-books would make sense for us in terms of our international audience – the costs of sending a physical book to the USA will probably be greater than the cost of the book itself. But are e-books what the readers of poetry want?
So perhaps the logical thing is to produce both – perhaps using print on demand, too. Then readers could choose to obtain the e-book, or print it off locally perhaps, or send away for the printed copy. However, does the availability of e-books undercut the sales of physical chapbooks? In other words, if a press makes the same book available in both modes, will the availability of the e-book reduce sales of the traditional book, which effectively increases its cost (assuming the idea is not to lose money on the deal).
In one sense, these questions are nothing to do with poetry. Poems will be around whatever media are available for them to live in. But on the other hand, it might be a crucial question. If e-books stop traditional chapbooks from being created, because of the economies, then the best chapbooks may drown in a sea of lesser publications as everyone who can rhyme moon with June self-publishes their e-book.
And we’d lose that special feeling of the physical object, the scent of paper and ink – for me, at least, the sense of engaging with the words directly within an object which may be intrinsically aesthetic.