Via Pod Peep comes news of Lulu buying out Poetry.com and replacing it with their own brand and self-publishing service. Here’s a screenshot.
Let me count the ways this is problematic. I can understand if Lulu.com central is more of a generic, corporate brand, as they want to attract more business-minded people who are interested in creating brochures and other promotional materials, or non-fiction manuals. But this is Poetry.com – something that is only an expression of a person’s artistic vision, so having such a cold and sterile environment just seems antithetical to a place where people are going to come and create art.
But that’s not the real problem. The real problem to me is this little button right here:
What this implies is that Lulu’s Poetry.com is not a place to publish poetry, it’s a place to publish bad poetry. Now, I realize that there can be good poetry that rhymes, but any serious poet who comes to that site and sees the rhyming button is going to scoff and flee in the other direction. It seems built for people who know very little about poetry – hobbyists, not people who live and breathe the artform.
Poetry is something that is perfectly suited to self-publishing, as the likelihood that a poet will get picked up by a mainstream press is infinitesimal. There are plenty of small poetry lit presses and chapbook presses, but these presses basically have the same reach as if you put out a book yourself. So poetry and self-publishing could be natural partners. But it seems like Lulu wants to continue the stereotype that print on demand publishing is the place where bad writing comes to die. Again, Lulu wants to reach the widest variety of people – including hobbyists – but they could do so with a more artistically-inclined site than the one they’ve put together.
Punk Rock Publishing
This ties somewhat into something else I’ve wanted to cover here: the fact that most self-publishing output is mainstream-centered, not people writing stuff that’s more innovative. Most of the review submissions that come into this site are people who are writing mainstream, commercial fiction that wasn’t good enough to make the cut.
The way for self-publishing to get taken seriously on a large scale is not if a Dan Brown comes out of Lulu. Frankly, I don’t care if some potboiler hits it big in the mainstream. People here should know that’s where I’m coming from – I’m more “literary fiction” minded, as generic as that term can be. For self-publishing to really be taken seriously, works of “serious” fiction need to come out of Lulu, and Lulu’s poetry site shows that this is not the demographic they’re aiming for. I know terms like “serious” are subjective, but I think you can tell the difference when something is written with more ambition.
There’s a great and thought-provoking post at Paperback Jack called Post Punk Publishing about how self-publishing has the potential to be what punk rock was in the late seventies. The ethic of: anyone can do it. Just learn two chords and you can start a rock band. It was revolutionary. Self-publishing most certainly has the potential to have that same kind of attitude and purpose, and until that happens it’s going to be perceived as a self-released slush pile, rather than a place where innovative writers use the new, innovative technology because traditional publishers are too timid to take a chance.
I have to disagree with MCM’s comment there that it’s difficult to go to war with the mainstream because traditional publishing is still publishing interesting and innovative work. Certainly they are, but they’re not taking as many chances as they could be. And you can’t forget that The Clash and the Sex Pistols were put out by mainstream record labels. But the true power of punk rock came out of places like SST records (Black Flag, Husker Du, Minutemen, et al.) or Alternative Tentacles (Dead Kennedys), which existed apart from the mainstream.
There are plenty of lit houses that use print on demand technology to put out books, but there’s not yet a print on demand movement: a band of writers like the Beats, the Lost Generation, or punk rock, all using the new technology. That’s asking a lot because it requires writers as good as Fitzgerald or Kerouac, but until that time happens, people aren’t going to take self-publishing seriously as the avenue for a serious literary movement. This would make self-publishing a more legitimate avenue, rather than a mainstream writer who’s able to sell a lot of copies. Really, this has already happened and it didn’t immediately vault self-publishing out of the cultural wasteland. Great writing needs to come out of Lulu, not popular writing. That’s when different sorts of articles will start to be written about the potential for self-publishing and people will take the medium more seriously.
To take this post full circle: that movement is much less likely to occur if sites like Lulu’s Poetry.com do not take the craft of writing more seriously and scares away more talented and ambitious writers.