The E-Book Ugly Stick

As sales of e-books on various platforms continue to rise --reported a 176% increase over the past year -- poetry appears to be getting lost in the shuffle.
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As sales of e-books on various platforms continue to rise -- Publisher's Weekly reported a 176% increase over the past year -- poetry appears to be getting lost in the shuffle.

Hillel Italie filed a story this week for the AP detailing how contemporary poetry is not only underrepresented in the e-book marketplace, but formatted poorly when it finally makes it in:

Billy Collins, one of the country's most popular poets, had never seen his work in e-book form until he recently downloaded his latest collection on his Kindle.

He was unpleasantly surprised.

"I found that even in a very small font that if the original line is beyond a certain length, they will take the extra word and have it flush left on the screen, so that instead of a three-line stanza you actually have a four-line stanza. And that screws everything up," says Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate whose "Ballistics" came out in February.

This echoes what New York Times book critic Charles McGrath said last year when he reviewed the Kindle, and what Verlyn Klinkenborg seconded months later:

Your poems -- no matter how wretched or wonderful they are -- will never look as good as Robert Hass's poems in the print edition of "The Apple Trees at Olema." But your poems can look almost exactly as ugly -- as e-book-like -- as the Kindle version of that collection.

There was hope that the iPad would dodge the swing of the same ugly stick, with the largest distributors of small press poetry, Perseus Books Group, signing a deal with the Apple iBookstore to sell their content exclusively. But so far the poetry books available on the iPad and the iPhone 4 are few and not exactly illuminated manuscripts. It remains to be seen if Bookmobile, a prominent player in the book publishing and eBook formatting game, will bring their professional handling of text poetry into the electronic realm going forward.

Obviously, the ideal situation would be for the e-book conversions to go smoothly and preserve the layout of the published books, but all reports seem to indicate what we've got now (ugly and sparse) is what we'll have for at least a year or two. No one in the eBook marketplace has yet put poetry front and center on the priorities list, and since the Collected Larry Eigner, lovely as it may be, is not likely to burn up the best seller list, it's hard to imagine anyone with a monied stake in the game re-prioritizing any time soon.

All of which makes me wonder if it's better to have poems in the emerging marketplace now, messy formatting and all, or if poetry should continue to let fiction and non-fiction lead the way until the brave new world is safe for verse.

What do you think? Would you rather have a book of poems available to you now on your iPad or Kindle or Nook, even if it might mean that it's not what the author and publisher intended? Or are you just fine buying slim dazzling volumes from your neighborhood bookstore? Bonus question: as poets would you let your work be put forward in e-book format knowing that some of your line breaks might not be preserved and your careful font selection might be turned into comic sans?

(It should be noted that all of this is happening as Nox, an elaborate art book in a box by the poet Anne Carson that New York Magazine critic Sam Anderson called "the opposite of an e-reader," has been hovering at the top of the contemporary poetry best seller list).

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