Sunday, October 12, 2014

Self-Publishing: The Last Great Adventure in Poetry?

What do Walt Whitman, TS Eliot, Shelley, ee cummings, Thomas Kinsella, Rose Kelleher, Alexander Pope and RS Thomas have in common?

Apart from being well-respected poets, they all self-published their poetry at one stage or another.

The practice of self-publishing has never been easier nor more widespread. Yet the stigma of self-publishing, perhaps especially where poetry is concerned, still exists. Why is this?

Many readers of contemporary poetry - almost invariably poets or writers themselves these days - assume that poetry which is self-published was not good enough to stand the rigour of editorial choice. They imagine such books must issue from self-indulgent or desperate souls whose last resort is to self-publish their dubious poems, unable to find a readership elsewhere.

But of course this is no longer the case. And probably never was.

Yet the idea persists that self-published poetry is not worth the same money you might happily fork out for a traditionally published book. After all, how are you supposed to know if it is any good? You may be completely taken in by a nice cover or interesting blurb, or another poet's recommendation, and spend your hard-earned cash on rubbish.

Whereas everyone knows that traditionally published poetry, the sort that is shortlisted for prizes and published by sober and respectable places like Faber or Picador, for example, can only ever be excellent. Perhaps even brilliant. And certainly worth paying for. Otherwise why would those clever editors, with their flair and good taste in poetry, have selected them for publication above all others?

Besides, why would any poet whose work was good enough to be traditionally published actually choose to self-publish?

Well, there are many reasons. One is that it is pointless to send poetry to traditional publishers in the sure knowledge that you do not write work which will fit into their very list. I am bored by the seemingly endless struggle to fit into boxes designed to showcase one type of work and exclude all others, work which is increasingly bloodless, uninteresting and limited. This is not about a lack of talent - though for some, that is indeed the unfortunate reason they have not found favour with mainstream publishers - but a total failure of interest in what is currently considered 'good' poetry. I used to enjoy that struggle to fit in, and engaged with much highly praised contemporary work, hoping to find something there to excite me. But no longer.

Contemporary British poetry feels horribly sterile at the moment, at least in the higher echelons. It's an exercise in stifling personality and freedom, and keeping everything tight and restrained. The adventure of self-publishing, of striking out on your own and making public precisely what you wish to make public, without reference to an editor whose taste almost certainly will not match your own, and whose suggestions you will feel obliged to follow - this is perhaps one of the last great adventures left to us in poetry.

Of course, along with self-publishing comes the necessary abandonment of any hope that you will be noticed by critics or recognised for your work. That is a tricky one, because every poet has an ego. But it's an acknowledgement that some goals are simply unattainable. A wide readership is out of my reach now. But I can still rebel and enjoy kicking over the traces!

So maybe only a small handful of people will buy my self-published book. But they will at least be readers who have gone out of their way to find it and actively wish to read my work. They will not have bought it because of who the publisher is, or because the poet is well-known or just appeared at a big festival, so 'must be good'. These are intelligent, discerning poetry readers who wish to engage with work that isn't any of those worthy things, but which might still prove interesting for any number of reasons.

I am not well-heeled enough to pay for a paperback copy of my self-published poetry. So my self-published work is only on Kindle or PDF files. But since I am a firm believer in ebooks, and in the artistic purity and freedom of self-publishing on the whole, this is not something that bothers me. It also means I can offer most of my publications at lower prices than you would expect from large publishers.

My New & Selected Poems is out this month in a collection available only on Kindle. It's called FLASH BANG.

It contains generous extracts from four of my five traditional poetry publications to date (excluding The Lament of the Wanderer), plus extracts from unpublished long poems and sequences, and a selection of new individual poems.

If nothing else, I hope it will be interesting for readers to contrast self-published work like this with poetry you may also be reading from traditional poetry publishers. Take a chance!

FLASH BANG (New & Selected Poems) is available for ebook pre-order now.


deemikay said...

Thanks for this. I can't agree more. (Also add to this all those poets who never bothered trying to publish at all... but whose books we now mysteriously have.)

deemikay said...

And this is my first blog comment for years... exciting!

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Jane

This post hits the poetry nail smack on the head and we will certainly be buying a copy of your Selected Poems when they appear.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish