Blog Post

Where is the Author?


For my first thoughts, posts, on the state and future of publishing in the digital, I had intended on looking at funding. 

It’s usually the first practical question people pose:  So how do we get a project started?  If we were to start a new press dedicated to digitally-born works or a new department or series of digital editions, where do we find the initial funds?  More importantly, how do we help ensure long term sustainability?  Some of these questions will be posed in upcoming posts.

But after a couple of meetings, some talks with friends and writing groups, and my participation in a conference this weekend, a equally pressing matter has raced to the foreground: how is the role of the writer changed in the digital?  Where is the writer?  What is the author?

(Perhaps sometime soon we should also discuss the connotations that the mere mention of digital publishing has for some people.  Why are those looking at the digital considered traitors to books?  I am left confused—and a little hurt—when friends visit me for dinner, and despite being surrounding by a book collection of nearly a thousand titles surrounding the table on three sides, I’m heckled for the Ipad and Kindle that sit above one of rows of books.  Why can’t your favorite edition of Dickens or Frost stay on the shelf, unharmed by your purchase of another title on your mobile?  I have yet to hear anyone suggest that we put an end to the printed book.)          

Again, how is the role of the writer changed in the digital?  Despite what some friends and scholars have argued this week, my response is simple:  I hope for the better.

The writer’s world is not the same as the world of publishers and booksellers.  Perhaps there is some disagreement with me on this, but those whom many writers consider as their friends and colleagues tend to be other writers.  And, despite the fact that publishing is frequently about the authors as much as it is about the books they produce, their knowledge of and involvement in the process once a manuscript is submitted (or resubmitted following reviewers’ comments) is limited.  Contact is often mediated through an agent or representative from the publisher’s acquisitions and/or editorial departments.  Perhaps this is way traditional publishers in print want to keep it. 

But it is a new world: a variety of studies envision up to 25% of book sales shifting to digital format in the next four or five years.  And all parties—authors, publishers, distributors, and sellers—will need to reexamine and renegotiate not only their business models but their very relationships with one another.  

In digitally-born works, authors contemplate design and functionality.  They dive into diverse avenues for distribution.  They have a new direct, role in consumer relations, in talking with reviewers and readers. 

Writing and publishing is truly a collaborative effort.   

Barthes and Foucault have famously written about the “death” or “disappearance” of the author, the liberation of the reader.  The digital age expands this—it liberates the writer. 

It’s been fifteen years since Janet Murray’s vision for a new kind of storyteller, “half hacker, half bard.”  The “glimmers” she saw then are getting brighter.  I envision digital works to become as constant as the stars in the sky—scattered alongside their printed ancestral kin—navigating new voyages through a sea of ideas and knowledge.  I’m ready for a new essay: “The death and rebirth of the author” or “What is the author?: A Remix.”

Reconfiguring the role of a writer is exciting.  But new challenges and obstacles, too, emerge.

Hopefully, this Digital Publishing group can begin to tackle some of these issues and the disputes that are bound follow. 





Hi Kevin!



This is my first post, or should I say comment at HASTAC; I am a bit of a newbie.


Anyway, I find your post very interesting, in many ways, in my disseration (check out my blog-post introduction for more info!) I come across several of your questions/formulations- last may I attended a conference in Norway (called Across media) in which I had a paper-presentation called "What is an author online?" where I adressed some of your aspects here. What then stroke me was the similiarites betweeen the critieras for 'being an author' online (as they appear in a discsussion-thread at the communitiy which I am analyzing) and the offline-criterias. Maybe the distinction between online and offline - wrting is overemphazised?

What interests me is how you write about the possiblities for the author to have a relation with  a reader online. I am really looking forward digging into the different kind of relations possiblie for a poet (in my case, in my ph-d they are all poets) as you put it: "In digitally-born works, authors contemplate design and functionality.  They dive into diverse avenues for distribution.  They have a new direct, role in consumer relations, in talking with reviewers and readers. "

But is this so disctinctive different for offline contexts? Like for example letters from readers etc in a print-context?

" Writing and publishing is truly a collaborative effort. "  - another interesting view, what if these collaborative processes don't start? How can that non-movement, or what we should call it - be understood?!



All the best, looking forward to discuss this more!

// Julia



Hi, Julia.

Thanks for the comment.  I had a few minutes this morning and thought I might touch upon some of your ideas and questions.

By changing “relations”, I was initially thinking about writers’/artists’/designers’ relationships with the publisher and the publishing process.  But relationships to users/readers will certainly continue to evolve as well in the digital.  

I wasn’t specifically thinking of poets, specifically, but this brings up a series of thoughts (and questions).  I’d love to hear more about the poetry scene in Sweden and more about what you’re working on . . . My perspective on the American poetry scene is a bit pessimistic. 

Here are my thoughts on both:

I’m trying to recall some of the ideas Dana Gioia makes in his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” (Maybe we can find a copy later?)  Gioia notes that American poetry is not part of the mainstream (of popular culture, intellectual culture, and perhaps even the literary culture) but rather belongs to a subculture.  It is no longer covered in the media, the general press.  In short, poetry is isolated. 

I agree with all of this and return to my original idea above:  who reads poetry?  Who buys and reviews poetry?  Who goes to readings?  Poets do.  (So do some of their students.)  But community presence as the least to the ten or so I’ve attended in the Mid-Atlantic has been disappointingly low.  At one coffee house last year, patrons were even offended that half of the space was occupied by a dozen or so attendees.   

(This brings up another topic of the role—and maybe serious problems—related of the institutionalization of poetry, that is the rise of the MFA Creative Writing Program/workshops in the U.S.  A side note: my students often remind me that the image of the Beat poet is still the prevailing image we have of the poet—beret, black turtleneck, love beads, the snapping of fingers, a bongo, of course—the last time in American history the image of the poet has been significant enough to remember, to parody…But I digress.)

I know Gioia mentions the idea that today’s poet has the ability to earn a living as a poet—but I might argue that this applies to only handfuls of people, who also work as professors.  But I believe Gioia also see new opportunities to expand the audience and readership of poetry.  Among his points, he mentions radio and performance.  The world of digital publishing has the ability to capture this performance—hip hop, slam, traditional readings—and offers new opportunities for Visual poetry, Performance Art, Intermedia, Video poetry /poetronica (to cover this “beyond the printed word” idea of yours) and new audiences.  I see digital publishing promoting interactivity, offering connectivity, reaching new audiences.

But poetry in all its forms could be rejuvenated…I might argue that the traditional print publishing world marginalizes the poet and their genre—the explanation is simple: it doesn’t sell.

Literary magazines in the U.S. often in a state of flux; I can point to dozens of fledgling magazines just as quickly as I could list the numbers of established magazines now defunct because of funding issues (among other reasons).

These funding issues need to be addressed, but in terms of the poet, new protocols, guidelines and reviewing procedures need to be established by literary magazines—especially those operating under the umbrella of the university; there needs to be a transparent peer-review process.  Give poets the same courtesy as scholars—reviewer comments.   

SASE’s response times range three days (that’s three days to be mailed; to reach the office; to be processed, read, and mailed back to the poet) to eighteen months.  Here, a formal rejection letter is rare; instead unsigned form-letter slips (a third of a page or smaller in size) are returned.  Commentary is rare and usually vague, limited to the “we liked ____ poem and encourage you to resubmit.”  So poets never know what editors didn’t “like” and (more frustrating for me, for those accepted) what they did like.  If you’re going to institutionalize it, do it all the way.  These magazines will have more structure, more clarity, more focus.  While these publications would flourish, be revitalized, other groups might resist these magazines and a wave of new publications might emerge, find new audiences.

This could then open new avenues to poetry itself and cause a shift away from this trend in poetry collections where poets produce these insular works that target the smallest, narrowest audience possible.

In recent years, many American literary magazines have begun to adopt new online submission management systems like Tell It Slant, Submittable (formerly Submishmash), and Green Submissions.  Time-saving for staff, user-friendly for poets and eco-friendly to all, these functions also allow presses an easy way to charge a fee for submissions and a quick way for poets to check the status of their submissions.  These systems have, thus far, missed the point—they need to be developed further. 

1) If they’re going to charge for submissions, charge a few dollars more.  The money will pay for technology upkeep/maintenance and maybe a little towards a staff member or the upcoming issue.  In return, offer some feedback.

2) I know the number of submissions journals and magazines is often overwhelming compared to the small numbers of staff, but this is a point where submission management systems could be expanded.  Like scholarly journals and presses already do, the reviewing process can be out-sourced to both poets and critics, maybe some graduate students, internationally, who can log into the system and send feedback electronically.  Doesn’t this make more sense than bringing in scores of undergrads (who in the cases I’ve seen and others I've heard heard first hand about) are often non-readers, non-poets, themselves.  The process is broken, and to pinch from a friend of mine in the publishing sector, sometimes frightening similar to a “Third-World cobbler factory” system, transforming the Ivory Tower into the Ivory ghetto…

3) New magazines are being established solely online—and established ones are shifting to an electronic only format.  Despite some belly-aching and protesting about the end of print from some circles, there are some really wonderful sites out there.  Some incorporate audio files of the poets reading the publishing work, others incorporate video, and still others create a variety of flipbooks.  But editors need to get together and build relationships with technicians, programmers, and designers, and figure out ways (and systems) to best create these products.  Software compatibility is the issue—it is incredibly frustrating to readers when a particular site doesn’t function the way it is designed to (or open at all) because I’m reading from a MAC or am using a particular browser.  We need to work together on these issues.

The book publishing realm is just as bad, that is limiting.  Larger, more established presses that traditionally publish poetry limit not only the number of books published each year, but also limit the submission period for unsolicited manuscripts (some to one month, many others to the summer months). 

Moreover, presses—including many university presses that publish poetry—often charge a manuscript submission fee and/or create “contests” where the winning or chosen manuscript is published.   Those submitting the manuscript (and fee) typically receive one copy of the winning book and no feedback on their own submission.  These contests are often the targets of criticism in writing magazines and blogs and returns to this question of funding.

Still, new small presses are being created all the time.  Often these are started by poets or artist co-operatives—there are absolutely beautiful works being produced—I love browsing the small press market and order frequently from Small Press Distribution, which is a non-profit that handles the, you guessed it, distribution  end for a large number of independently published literature.  And I argue these organizations need help to continue what is often described as “labors of love” and I think digital publishing can help.    

So far, this mostly addresses the back-end of the publishing world.  How will this affect poet/reader relations?  First, I wonder how many “letters” no matter what their form are being written and sent.  But more, importantly, who are they being sent to and who has access to them.  If there are such letters, I’m hungry to read them: I want them published…What wealth can they offer us all!  How many of us have prospered by Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

With the use of new media (and this term already feels dated), I look at what’s already happening with sites like Duotrope and , databases for writers to search the market and share their comments and results, and sites like goodreads and even Amazon’s own reviewer comments.  This is a rudimentary beginning for how readers can share their ideas about a work, and I envision a much grander system being established—more webcasts of readings; a rise in participation and reemergence of poetry criticism and essays; a new, visible interest from the public, which, in turn, may prompts new schools of poetics and new works themselves and remixes of the old. 

What excites me the most are the things I haven’t come up with.


I think this anecdote might only serve to illuminate one possible explanation for the context in which many people (Authors) have strong feelings about the digital publishing "revolution".  I've been told that some people's books were digitized as part of an archiving initiative but then made publicly available for free by the large company who made the archive.  The publishers were unwilling to legally challenge the company that digitized the collection and the only ones to suffer were the people whose works were digitized shortly after their release.  

It is possible the resentment comes from the fact that the rules changed mid process for some people whereas there are some more clearly established economic models so that an author has a better sense of what they are getting in to.  Now authors have more opportunities available for publishing their work, even self publishing through companies like Lulu, but there's no returning to the older more profitable system, for better or worse.

So its a fair question to wonder what's become of the author.  If their economic status has been devalued, but their desire to create drives them then they are the new entrepreneur, the new starving artist, the new pioneer, the new radical.  Each text perhaps has a different funding model, and form of distribution towards different ends.  There is a more poigniant deliniation between open and closed access that limits how and when even somone who has paid for the work can access it (hence the feelings likely stirred in those who so easily criticize the digital means).

Just a few observations...