As we close the books on another National Poetry Month, why do so many poetry E-books read as if they’re stuck in 2008?
For years, Bicycle Comics published PDFs with big font sizes and told people these were E-books. And they were, but only kind of. So in August 2013, we got serious about E-books. We Googled far and wide for formatting advice. Most of it was prose-related. Much of it was outdated or wrong. None of it talked about formatting whole books of poetry, just single poems. Figuring out how to code an anthology took hours and hours of paintstaking, frustrating work, and we’re a publishing company! Our staff has something like 13 years of combined production experience at “Big Five” publishers. But it was so hard, that first E-book, that we almost gave up and went back to PDFs.
Fortunately, our hard work paid off.
As soon as the book launched, rabid poetry fans promptly flooded our Website. Our servers crashed as over 400 people queued up to download the book on our first weekend. It was free from our Website, but we still managed to sell nearly 40 copies at 99¢ on Amazon that first week to people who just couldn’t wait for our servers to reboot. Eight months later, it’s still the #1 bestseller in its niche. (We donate all proceeds to the poetry festival that spawned our anthology.)
Many factors, including luck, contributed to the success of Alight. One of those factors, though, was the quality of the formatting. It wasn’t perfect. We’d code it differently now. But we had the basics down correctly. Unlike a lot of poetry E-books, Alight had proper line breaks, cohesive stanzas, hanging indents, metadata, a clickable table of contents… it resembled a professional product. It looked decent on old and new devices, because we’d tested the heck out of it.
There are publishers, indie poets, and brilliant freelancers who have figured out this whole html/css thing for poetry. Some of them are better at it than we are. But none of them will open their books for all to see, because their business depends on selling those books! Same goes for us; for reasons both legal and financial, we can’t just stick Carrie Rudzinski’s new book online as a learning tool for coders and formatters. That’s where The Yellow Buick Review comes in. YB Review is a fake anthology. All the poems are gibberish “Greek text.” But they look real. They respond to style sheet changes just as real poems would. And with fake poems, all the ego and copyright issues fade to the background.
We’ll publish the first volume of the Yellow Buick Review this May. We don’t expect to make a dime off of it. We’re sure some formatters and purists will howl. We hope so; that’s how we’ll get better. And we need to get better—not just Bicycle Comics, but the whole industry. E-books aren’t going away. Neither is poetry. So it’s in everyone’s interest for this ancient art form to be effective on this new(ish) technology. 2015 will mark the eighth National Poetry Month in the era of Amazon Kindle. Let’s all be gloriously ready for it, okay?